November 3, 2008

Visit Athens to see the New Acropolis Museum

Posted at 1:51 pm in Elgin Marbles, New Acropolis Museum

Even before the New Acropolis Museum has properly opened, it has become one of the key reasons given for why people should visit Athens. As such, it provides an amazing public relations tool in Greece’s endeavours to retrieve the Elgin Marbles.

Austin American Statesman

Athens puts on chic face for its traditional sights and sounds
By Shelley Emling
Saturday, November 01, 2008

ATHENS, Greece – Not so long ago, many travelers dismissed Athens, with its scruffy streets, traffic pandemonium, and lackadaisical service, as mostly a jumping-off point for some really gorgeous Greek island.

But since the 2004 Olympics this capital city, bathed in millennia of history, has been rejuvenated for the new millennium.

Not only is there an efficient airport, a sparkling new Metro system, and a plethora of high-end boutique hotels, but the service at the restaurants I visited recently was impeccable, more on par with that found in America than in Europe. (One big plus: Waiters always brought water – without even being asked!)

And for a population of more than 3 million, the squares are remarkably clean, even if graffiti is still ubiquitous.

In general, the Olympics helped modernize the air, sea, and road infrastructure as well as the telecommunications network. It also put Greece on the map, especially for Americans. Before the Olympics, Greece averaged 13 to 14 million tourists a year. Today the number is more than 17 million.

Yet under all the polish, much of Athens that hasn’t changed a bit over the past few decades – and that’s part of its charm.

Take the Central Market, where squeamish tourists were visibly put off by the colorful displays of dismembered animals staring back at them as smoking vendors carelessly flicked their ashes every which way, in clear defiance of European Union regulations.

But I was fascinated. Having haunted food markets in many countries, this city’s meat market is perhaps the most amazing one I’ve ever seen. Stall after stall is packed with carcasses of pig, lamb, and rabbit, with organ meats elaborately arranged as if in some kind of macabre art museum. In one corner were gnarled octopi; in another, a stallholder splattered with blood.

The market is an example of what makes parts of this cradle of Western civilization still so gritty. But it’s just one ingredient in a sophisticated mix of old and new, with possibly the best still to come.

If for no other reason, a trip to Athens is warranted just to see the sparkling New Acropolis Museum, which is offering free tours of the ground floor every day until the official opening in March.

Designed by U.S.-based architect Bernard Tschumi in collaboration with Greece’s Michalis Photiadis, the cavernous glass-and-concrete edifice eventually will display more than 4,000 ancient works.

For the Greeks, it offers them a real weapon in their ongoing battle for the return of the Elgin Marbles, seized from the temples by Scottish diplomat Lord Elgin more than 200 years ago.

Greece would like nothing better than to be able to display the Elgin Marbles at the museum beside its own collection of sculpture from the 2,500-year-old Parthenon temple.

So far, though, the British Museum in London has rejected the Greek attempts to get the works back, arguing that in 1816 the museum legally acquired the sculptures, which can be viewed for free by visitors from across the globe.

But pressure on the British Museum intensified in September when Italy returned a small piece of sculpture from the Parthenon kept in a museum in Palermo, Sicily for the past 200 years.

There’s no question the New Acropolis Museum, 30 years in the making, would offer a suitable home for the marbles. The museum allows the sculptures to be viewed in natural light, with special glass and climate-control measures protecting them from sun damage. The most jaw-dropping part of the museum will be its top floor, where visitors will be able to view the frieze, and then look out the window to see the Parthenon itself.

In addition to the new museum, the city’s main attraction remains the Acropolis, on a hill only a short walk from the museum. It’s still a simply stunning site, with the Parthenon as its crown. Although many of the buildings are under renovation, there’s no question the Parthenon is still the city’s show-stopper, especially when it is lighted up at dusk.

Generally the best time to visit, though, is just after the opening time of 8 a.m., when crowds are sparse and temperatures cooler.

Although there are plenty of ancient treasures in Athens, there also are many modern delights to discover, including hip pedestrianized shopping areas, Michelin-starred restaurants, trendy shops, and bars featuring traditional bouzouki music.

One particularly delightful jumble of streets in the shadow of the Acropolis is the Plaka neighborhood, where people seem to eat and shop all day and into the night. Here, you’d be hard-pressed to find a taverna serving a bad meal. Place after place serves up the most mouth-watering Greek delicacies: fresh salads, fried calamari, tzatziki, meatballs, lamb chops, pork kebabs, feta cheese, and spanakopitas, or spinach pies.

Another neighborhood popular with locals and tourists alike is Psiri, the old leather district of narrow streets that’s now often referred to as Athens’ coolest new area, a Soho-like place where tiny shops that look like they’ve been closed for years give way to a hotbed of nightlife once the sun goes down.

The hotel I stayed in, Ochre & Brown, a lovely 11-room boutique hotel, was perfectly located about a 10-minute walk from the Acropolis, on the edge of Psiri and close to Plaka. The service here was almost too good, if there is such a thing, with desk clerks constantly asking me if there was anything I needed.

Not only do the rooms boast parquet floors, flat-screen TVs and Internet access, but the hotel also has a stylish restaurant and lounge.

On nearby streets are other design-driven hotels, all a testament to developers’ faith in the future of the tourism industry.

As Athens settles into its post-Olympic mode, these sleek new hotels are part of a modern new face on a city with a glorious past.

Let’s just hope it never forgets the gritty part of its character as well.

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