Plato's Academy, Alexander's birthplace among the sites

It was the world's first university, where Plato taught, Aristotle studied and philosophy was born. But today as buses hurtle down the boulevard that bisects the park, past grey high-rises, it is hard to believe this is one of the Greek capital's ancient treasures; Plato's Academy is so overlooked it is not even signposted.

“We haven't managed to save the €7,000 such a sign would require,” says Nikoletta Divari Vilakou, the archaeologist in charge. “And that's because of the economic problems.” The crisis that has gripped Greece, rocked markets and rattled Europe's single currency is now enveloping the country's cultural heritage. The seat of learning, founded on property the philosopher inherited in 387BC, is not alone. This year, antiquities beneath the Acropolis stood under tangled weeds, testimony to the overstretched Culture Ministry's inability to clean and prune. Nationwide, some of Greece's greatest glories — museums, castles and antiquities — have been closed to the public, from Kastellorizo in the east to Pella, Alexander's birthplace, in the north. Like the desolate tourist shops alongside them, the ancient sites are devoid of holidaymakers, symbolic of the recession engulfing the nation.

“Where will the Ministry find the money to complete rescue works on the monuments and sites that are in danger?” asked the authoritative Sunday Vimanewspaper. The scale of the crisis has not been lost on the governing socialists elected to run Europe's weakest economy after five years of scandal-plagued conservative rule. Unlike his predecessors, the new Culture Minister, Pavlos Geroulanos, a friend of Prime Minister George Papandreou, readily acknowledges that though by far the nation's most significant resource, the sector remains painfully under-funded.

“Culture and tourism represent over 20 per cent of GDP, a huge chunk of the economy,” he told the Guardian. “We are the first to admit that for far too long culture has been marginalised, that not enough money has been dedicated to it, that we keep our ancient monuments away from the public and close them down.” Few areas embody the fiscal mismanagement that has blighted Greece in recent years as much as those of culture and tourism. With the exception of the New Acropolis Museum, the capital's biggest cultural success, the domain has all too often been treated as the fiefdom of politicians dispensing favours.

“We have found funds going to the wrong places in terms of financing new creativity, sports teams, promotion and communication projects,” said Mr. Geroulanos. “You hear of a shadow organisation that suddenly got €200,000 and has done nothing to show for it ... or permits given out for bribes.” The Minister, who studied public administration at Harvard and is seen as an architect of the wide-ranging “revolution” the socialists would like to bring to Greece, estimates that at least 60 per cent of his time is now spent “clearing the air of the toxic waste of corruption and bad practice. What we are doing is combating waste and corruption and funnelling saved funds in the direction of necessary healthy projects which are an investment for the future.” Morale is also a problem. In the Plaka district below the Acropolis, custodians of wonders dating back to classical times — including many renowned archaeologists and conservationists — labour in graffiti-covered buildings under conditions that in any other EU capital would be considered intolerable.

“There is simply no money,” said an archaeologist with more than 30 years' experience. “The lamp in my office blew the other day and I know that unless I pay to mend it, it will never be fixed. The decline mirrors the descent into chaos of Athens' historic centre, where roads named after Euripides, Sophocles and other ancients have been turned into no-go areas, casualties of rising crime, prostitution, drug-running that has gradually killed off businesses.

But Mr. Geroulanos vows that economic recovery will begin in the capital, starting with Plato's Academy, which will soon be linked by a pathway, he says, to Athens' great cultural gems: “If we can turn this experience into an opportunity to correct the wrongs of the past and start looking at the things we do in a different fashion, Greece can come out of this crisis much stronger.” — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2010

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