Austere Athens

National Gallery, National Library, Museum of Theatrics, University of Athens, National History Museum, the National Gardens, Lycabettus Hill, Pyssiri 

After extensively scanning the free tourist map given to us by the hotel, we realized yesterday that the National Gallery was literally across the street from us. I thought that if it was anything like the National Gallery in London we would be in for a treat. After a thirty second walk we arrived to a dimly lit foyer with an empty art museum behind it, where the seemingly sole staff member told us that only part of the museum we could visit was part of the ground floor exhibit. Mind you, this is a three story building with space probably on par with any of the Tates, Momas, or Crockers. But the entrance price was reduced and the place at 9am was literally empty, so we headed in to make the best of it.

Gysis painting

Gysis painting

The beginning of the exhibit was some typical Gothic work, studies in the style of whatever classical artist was popular at the time, and lots of Greek portraits. But as we ventured further we found some late 1700s/turn of the the 18th century works by Greek artist that blew us away. They were so modern in thought, almost like a dark graphic novel on oil. We were so happily surprised and impressed. Later an employee told us that some of the gallery would be reopening in September, so we wondered if maybe this was due to furloughs of state employees or in correspondence with the school year’s start.

Then we moved on to a series of disappointments:
I, of course, being a theater dork, insisted we check out the National Theater, which was under renovation and not open to the public so we moved on. This also happened to be situated in a favorite homeless hangout neighborhood called Omonia so we had coffee and skedaddled. Next on my list was the National Library, which again I was thinking could be as awesome as the one in London or DC. Alas, not open until September and from what we could see not very well taken care of.

Next was a Theatrical Museum next to the library, which seemed to have rooms open for theater students, but the museum was also closed. The library is adjacent to the University of Athens, which is a beautifully constructed building, but is defaced in all sorts of misappropriate places by graffiti (as if there is ever an appropriate place for graffiti…) The thing that seemed to make this especially saddening was that the graffiti was in various English and French phrases related to anarchy, revolution and general “Big Brother” disapproval. We were standing outside the Academy of Sciences where a large sculpture of Socrates sits, overlooking all those who enter. I am wondering what Socrates, the father of reason, critical thinking and self-examination would think of this thoughtless defilement of historic monuments and Grecian architecture. Clearly he was all for questioning the purpose and truth of things, but was anarchy and destruction of art ever part of his philosophy?



With this current picture of Athens on our minds, we headed in to the National Historical Museum, which was open! Also virtually empty, we toured through every available artifact and item of clothing. Following this we made our way through the National Gardens, which were underwhelming to say the least. It seemed like the gardens would be a sanctuary for all the displaced Athenians and beggars we had come across that day, but the whole thing was surrounded by police vans, so apparently they knew to keep their distance.

It seemed that everywhere we went, we were the only tourists. Every guide book and website I had read in advance told me that the week I would be in Athens would be the busiest peak tourist time of the year, and yet almost every museum, monument and gallery was deserted. As I had not been to Athens before and Andrew had, I asked him what it was like the first time he visited. He said it was crawling with tourists, but at every coffee shop and restaurant we stopped in I was clearly aware that we were the only non-Greeks in the vicinity. I’m not sure whether to relish in the open space or to feel that something is seriously wrong here.

We had drinks atop Lycabettus Hill during sunset so that we could watch the Acropolis transition from white stone columns to golden ambers, ruby reds and dark purples before it was lit from below with electric lights that give an almost green hue to the majestic ruin. Then we headed to the young and trendy neighborhood of Pyssiri, also covered with graffiti but boasting a more robust restaurant scene than that of Lycabettus.

Sunset from Lycabettus

Sunset from Lycabettus

After dinner, as we made our way back to our now gaudy-feeling luxury resort, I tried to put myself in the place of a young, idealistic Athenian fed up with government failures and bailouts, who turns to graffiti as a way of expressing their distaste and distrust in authority. And then I look at the amazingly stunning architecture and art on which the graffiti is placed and I fail to understand how any patriotic citizen could destroy their own city; the birthplace city of art, theater, democracy and basically all good things of civilization, and I am at a loss…

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