Making Piraeus a destination in itself

For decades, sea travelers coming into the port of Piraeus have had to behold a panorama of seemingly endless ugliness and few if any suggestions for a pleasant one-night stay or tours of historical buildings, archaeological sites, museums and other places of interest.

When its streets are not awash with trash overflowing from garbage bins, what remains of this historical city?s glorious past — reflected in the ancient city gates and Wall of Conon, elegant stately residences and once-bustling small factories and businesses — is largely shielded from view, left to abandonment, tucked away or covered in graffiti.

It is this mess that the Ministry of Culture and Tourism and the Piraeus Port Authority (OLP) have decided to remedy, working hand in hand to give the city a much-needed boost by changing its cultural map and finding new uses for its abandoned industrial buildings, warehouses and concrete water towers. The overall plan is to create a new cultural hub in the area that will attract artists and visitors, along with the income that this in turn will generate. The authorities also hope to provide tourists with more to see and do.

The idea for a cultural zone in Piraeus is by no means new, though this is the first time that it seems feasible, despite the economic crisis. With the number of cruise ship passengers docking at Piraeus expected to reach 4 million per year by 2015, authorities are eager to create the means by which they will be inspired to spend an entire day or even a night or two in Piraeus.

New investment opportunities will be complemented by a series of changes on a cultural level, which the ministry would have been unable to afford without the financial support of the Piraeus Port Authority.

Three new museums, a theme park, the revamping and promotion of archaeological sites and historical landmarks and even a film studio and an exhibition of famous scenes shot in Piraeus are all part of the facelift plan. Future plans include the creation of new parks, public squares and seating areas, bicycle lanes, canals, a large parking lot and a monorail system.

As good as it all sounds, though, this is Greece and one cannot help but ask whether it is all possible.

Progress that has been made so far includes studies by the ministry regarding buildings that will be assigned new uses, while OLP has hired architect George Arahovitis to start drawing up plans for the renovations. The ministry is also preparing a series of invitations to tender for the three museums.

Zea Marina gets its turn

Meanwhile, an announcement made on Wednesday by the Central Archaeological Service (KAS) indicated the Zea Marina, just a few kilometers from Piraeus port, is also being scheduled for a revamp that will focus on the sites of archaeological interest to be found in the area.

The protection of Zea?s antiquities is an issue that dates back to 2004, when a proposal submitted to KAS for a series of works to be launched in order to maximize the area?s potential as a marina (including the placement of two floating docks, a garbage collection unit and a row of chemical toilets) was rejected by the Council of State, the country?s highest administrative court, after an appeal by a local citizens? group. At the time, KAS had said in a statement that the interventions planned for modernizing Zea as a marina would have ?a directly detrimental effect on the antiquities? and would simply add to the damage that they have already suffered.

An amended proposal, meanwhile, was resubmitted for deliberation at KAS?s first meeting of 2011 earlier this week, where it was decided that the archaeological service would from now on have to work in much closer cooperation with the Hellenic Tourism Development Company, which has jurisdiction over the use of Zea.

The plan is for the two agencies to work together so that the marina remains functional and continues to bring in revenues from yachting tourism, but also for the antiquities on the site to get the attention and promotion that they deserve.

As obvious as such an agreement may sound, it is a new development that arises from the fact that the ministries of Tourism and Culture have been merged into one. When seperate, the two ministries were notorious for stepping on one another?s toes. So while the KAS meeting may not have made significant headway in introducing specific proposals for Zea, the fact that it will be working directly with the other authorities involved in the area bodes well for its neglected antiquities.

The museums

Can the cultural map of Piraeus change? When there?s a plan and the money to back it, everything is possible. And how much needs to change in the city is best illustrated by the Archaeological Museum of Piraeus, the city?s first museum, which was built in 1966, opened in 1981, renovated in the late 1990s, was then shut down and has only been in operation again for the past three years. Its tale is a bitter one, and even though it has a wonderful collection, visitors rarely make their way through its hard-to-find doors. According to the Piraeus revamp plan, the museum will be moved into the facilities of the Piraeus Port Authority, which comprise a 5,500-square meter building, while the old premises of the museum will be used for temporary exhibitions.

Another change that will fill a gap in Greece?s museum map is the creation of two nautical museums, one pertaining to modern times and the other to antiquity. Display subjects will include the country?s great shipping families. These museums will be housed in the emblematic grain silo that dominates the port?s landscape. Exhibits on ancient Greek shipping will include remnants of famous wrecks and the other 10,000 artifacts that are currently in storage.

In response to the scandal which arose last year when it emerged that the historical Averoff Warship Museum at the Flisvos Marina in Palaio Faliro had been used to host a lavish wedding reception, the old floating docks in Piraeus will be used to moor state-owned craft that are now out of action and will instead be used to house restaurants and a music hall dedicated to rebetiko music, which flourished in Piraeus in the early and mid-1900s with the arrival of refugees from Asia Minor.

Another plus for Greece as a whole is a plan to build an immigration museum that will chronicle not just the waves of emigres leaving Greece, but also those of refugees and migrants coming to this country.

Appeal to residents

Addressing citizens and the media at the unveiling of the Piraeus revamp plan in early January, Culture and Tourism Minister Pavlos Geroulanos said: ?What we are doing at the Ministry of Culture and Tourism and in collaboration with the Piraeus Port Authority is simple: We are reviving the concept of a port city, which is at the core of Piraeus?s identity; we are promoting the area?s wonderful archaeological relics, which have been neglected and even built over in order to accommodate bars and cafes, and creating new development opportunities… In combination with the lifting of cabotage regulations, the city can become an important destination not just in Greece, but in the Mediterranean.

?For it to work will take more than a plan and its application. It will take the mobilization of citizens. I recently attended the cleanup of the Wall of Conon and saw school groups, local organizations and citizens participating with enthusiasm in a process that was important in many more aspects than their day-to-day business. It was a good example of mobilization that can change the quality of our lives and make programs such as this part of life in the city.?