Golf buggies, wheelchair lifts, paved walkways and braille signage − these are elements of the controversial renovations at Greece's most-visited tourist site, the historic Acropolis. The more than 2,400 years old hilltop citadel has been undergoing renovations for years. The project accelerated during the coronavirus pandemic, with a host of changes intended to make it more easily accessible for tourists, particularly visitors with disabilities.
Now the Acropolis has reopened to visitors, in time for the return of UAE tourists, and a number of Greek and international academics are furious, saying some of the renovations have damaged the fragile site. The work, which began last year, includes a larger elevator to transport people with disabilities to the crest of the Acropolis, and wider paths so golf buggies can transport those same visitors through this area.
Critics have taken aim at these larger walkways, which they say are as much about allowing able-bodied tourists to flood the site as they are about creating equitable access for all visitors. This was one of the key complaints in a recent open letter to the Greece government signed by eminent Greek archaeologists and historians.
As well being a tourist magnet, the Acropolis is one of the world’s most valuable archaeological sites. This citadel boasts a cluster of monuments more than 2,000 years old, including the magnificent Athenian temples of the Parthenon and the Erechtheum, the Theatre of Dionysus, and the city gate named the Propylaea.
Because of its hilltop location, and shortage of modern staircases and paths, the Acropolis has been difficult to access for the elderly and the physically disabled. The steep walk up to the top takes 15 to 20 minutes for most people.
When I visited this ancient wonder with my 67-year-old father, before the pandemic, he was bitterly disappointed to have to abandon this hike about three-quarters of the way up the hill. Not only was it too tiring for him, but the uneven surfaces of the paths and stairways placed great stress on his joints. Yet my father blamed his age and lack of fitness, rather than bemoaning the unrefined nature of this site, which he viewed as wonderfully original.
It is this authenticity that many Greek architects and historians are desperate to protect. The renovations at the Acropolis are diminishing the site, says Despina Koutsoumba, president of the Association of Greek Archaeologists (AGA). She says the AGA was particularly concerned about the installation of large new concrete walkways surrounding the Parthenon, in the heart of the Acropolis.
Koutsoumba tells The National these new paths were unnecessarily wide, at up to 12 metres across, and unlike the smaller path they had replaced, the new walkways didn’t trace the Panathenaic Way, a historic route which was used as a venue for ancient parades.
“They do not recall the ancient road of Panathenaia,” she says of the new paths. “Due to the sharp edges and the whole material, they look like a modern road. It also covers the rock, which is part of the monument and setting of the Unesco monuments.”
In a scathing personal blog post, Koutsoumba also wrote that the new paths were more elevated above their surrounds. This created “the feeling that a catwalk was laid between the monuments”.
“The new layout is much more aggressive in relation to its texture, its corners and its surface,” she wrote. “It is also obvious that it is much higher, since it has covered parts of the rock that in the previous laying was obvious. It does cover the natural rock of the Acropolis, [which] in some places disappears.”
In response to criticisms of the project, the director of the Acropolis Restoration Service, Vasiliki Eleftheriou, tells The National the renovations were being executed with great care. “We have worked in accordance with the archaeological law and have the approval of the competent councils and Services of the Hellenic Ministry of Culture and Sports,” Eleftheriou said.
Greece’s Ministry of Culture, which is responsible for the renovations, has released a statement saying the project didn’t involve irreversible changes to the Acropolis. It said the alterations were only approved following meticulous research of their potential impacts on the site. The ministry stressed that the new infrastructure at the Acropolis did not conceal any of its key ruins. No heritage rules or regulations were broken by the renovations, it said.
Part of this project was also about creating a friendlier environment for visually impaired visitors. Braille signs were being erected throughout the Acropolis to let these visitors follow a “tactile route”. “With the help of their companions, they will be able to touch representative exhibits like mobile models of monuments or architectural members of different scales,” the ministry said. “In addition, a model of the archaeological site of the Acropolis is placed for the palpation of the blind.”
A detailed statement released by AGA conceded it was acceptable to make some alterations to the Acropolis to improve visitor accessibility, but it claimed some of these renovations were too swift and haphazard.
The routes of the new walkways, for example, were chosen without proper care and should have been subject to greater public consultation. The AGA said despite the Ministry’s claims that the wide paths were introduced to help the disabled, these surfaces still did not facilitate independent movement by people in wheelchairs.
Controversy aside, the upshot of these renovations is that all visitors will now find the Acropolis easier to navigate than before the pandemic. Greece is currently accepting vaccinated tourists from most countries, including the UAE. Heavily dependent on income from foreign visitors, Greece has been economically devastated by the pandemic.
After earning €38.1 billion ($45bn) in tourism revenue in 2019, that figure shrank to €14.8bn last year, as reported by data compiler Statista. But with what is currently one of the world’s most open borders, Greece is banking on a flood of tourists this summer. The renovated Acropolis is destined to become crowded once again.