NEWS

Mourning the burnt forest and anger about who is to blame

«The buildings were saved, but Olympia burned,» said Ancient Olympia's former mayor, Nikos Papavassileiou, an observation that is clear to anyone visiting one of the most important and popular archaeological sites in the country. The trail blazed by the fire is evident as one enters the town. Seven days after the fire, Ancient Olympia's main road is almost deserted. Only a few tourist coaches are around, there are only a scattering of customers in the stores and two black flags hang from the street lights. «At first the flags were all along the street but the next day the mayor said to take them down but I and another person down the road have refused,» said one angry shopowner. Things are normal from the old museum to the entrance to the archaeological site. Only the presence of fire trucks around the site is a reminder of the tragedy. At the entrance, archaeologist Georgia Hatzi, of the Fifth Ephorate of Prehistoric and Classical Antiquities, is pleased to see the arrival of a group of tourists, who stare in amazement at the scorched Hill of Cronus. «It's unbelievable, tragic,» they exclaim. One of the guards, Giorgos, is sitting on a chunk of marble under a Judas tree - of which there are many here and which fill the site with pink blossoms in spring. «None of the many fires that have swept through the region have ever come close to Olympia... Measures? There were some, but they weren't enough to stop the fire. We were expecting it to come from one direction but it came from another,» he said. At the new museum, a shock awaits. The fire literally stopped at the front door. The surrounding area is a burnt-out shell. The bed of the Kladeos is blackened, as are its banks, over which the fire passed on its way to the Hill of Cronus and the Olympic Academy site, even melting the light bulbs before sweeping on to the Alpheios River. The leafy trees around the Cafe Kladeos on the banks of that river next to the new footbridge were saved by the owners who kept hosing them down. They form a stark contrast to the surrounding countryside. Hatzi says the priority now is to restore the site and prevent flooding, and warned against reforesting the Hill of Cronus with pine trees. «We should plant vegetation more suited to the area, with plants referred to by Pausanias,» she said. Hatzi remembers the fateful day. «I'll always remember the time: We closed the museum on the Saturday at 4.30 p.m. The people there realized danger was coming, 24 hours before it arrived. Wasn't that enough time to take preventive measures, even at the last minute?» Papavassilieou is angry, however. «The whole of Ileia prefecture burned because they were trying to save Olympia,» he said, blaming «political incompetence and operational inefficiency.» «There was no plan for stopping the fire. The last firefighting front should have been set up at the turnoff to Tripolis,» he said.

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