Acropolis finally accessible to wheelchair-bound visitors

For thousands of years, they were excluded from one of the world’s most famous archaeological sites, forced to gaze at the monuments unless they could find a team of people to carry them up the steep, rocky hill. Now, as part of an effort to make the capital more accessible during the Olympics and Paralympics, disabled people can at last visit the Acropolis, hoisted over the monument’s massive, 25-meter-high (82-foot-high) northern wall in a specially constructed open-air elevator. For 23-year-old student Athina Adamidou, it was the dream of a lifetime. «I’m thrilled. The last time I came to the Acropolis, I was 5 years old, and that was only because I was small enough to be carried,» she said Thursday, beaming after rolling out of the cage-like elevator in her wheelchair and onto a platform overhanging the site’s wall. «It’s the first time I can come up to the Acropolis alone, knowing our history and what the Acropolis symbolizes; because when you’re young, you don’t really understand it,» Adamidou said. «It’s a great feeling. This should have been done many years ago, and not just before the Olympics. But better late than never.» The 2,500-year-old Parthenon, the icon of Athens’s ancient glory atop the Acropolis hill, is one of the world’s most visited sites. But for anyone with mobility problems, the steep climb up the hill in the blazing heat and the dozens of steps leading into the monument made it a no-go area. Branwell Yates, a British tourist, expected his 82-year-old wife, Muriel, would have to wait at the entrance in her motorized wheelchair while the rest of the family toured the area. «At first, we thought she was going to have to stay there, which she does on many occasions, while the youngsters go up and see the place,» he said. «But it’s been a great revelation to be able to come up herself.» Muriel Yates was the first visitor to use the elevator – even before its official inauguration. «She’s used to being close, but not being able to see (monuments), so she was thrilled,» Yates said. «It’s really very, very helpful for disabled people. It’s a big step forward.» Made by a Swedish company, the cage-like structure, similar to elevators used at construction sites, runs on galvanized steel scaffolding attached to a part of the Acropolis’ northern wall. To get there, wheelchair users must be pushed up a path before reaching a flight of steps. A wheelchair lift then carries them up to the elevator for the 50-second vertical ride to the top of the wall. Once there, they roll onto a platform and down a path near the ancient Erechtheion, one of the site’s better-known monuments with a distinctive porch supported by statues of young women known as Caryatids. «It’s been about 23 years since my accident. I didn’t even think of visiting the Acropolis since then – I could only look at it from the bottom,» said Spyros Stavrianopoulos, president of the Hellenic Paralympic Committee and one of the first three wheelchair users to take advantage of the new elevator. «I believe that it’s a work that had to be done in Greece, because it symbolizes the right of access to art and culture, which nobody can forbid,» he said. Greece has been criticized in the past for not providing enough access to public building and ancient sites for the disabled. It has been trying to improve conditions before the Olympics. The elevator runs on electricity, and includes a manual brake that can be used to lower it to ground level in case of a power outage. A temporary structure, the elevator will remain in place after the Olympics, and officials hope to replace it eventually with a permanent one. There was plenty of opposition to it, with some archaeologists complaining its installation might damage the site. «Discussions began many years ago. Some reacted against it, saying we were destroying the wall and the Acropolis,» said Yiannis Polychroniou, who is in charge of the Culture Ministry’s department for accessibility to monuments. But the elevator system was attached to part of the wall that was constructed by a restorer during the decades between the two world wars, and doesn’t touch the ancient wall next to it, Polychroniou said.