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Greeks split over pathway, elevator construction for disabled Parthenon visitors

The United Nations world heritage body, UNESCO, wants Greece to stop installing concrete paths around the iconic Parthenon atop the Acropolis in Athens. Much of the work has been completed, intended to make it more accessible for tourists, especially the wheelchair bound. But critics call it criminal. Special correspondent Malcolm Brabant reports from Athens about how the debate is playing out.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The United Nations World Heritage body, UNESCO, wants the government of Greece to stop installing concrete paths around the iconic Parthenon atop the Acropolis in Athens.

    Much of the work has been completed, intended to make it easier, more accessible for tourists, especially those who use wheelchairs. But critics call it criminal.

    And special correspondent Malcolm Brabant learned today that UNESCO itself is unhappy that it was not consulted before construction.

    Here's his report from Athens.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Ancient uneven marble paths, slippery when wet, Acropolis then, Acropolis now, super smooth 21st century cement.

    For most international travelers, the Acropolis is an essential part of their bucket list. In Greece, it's revered as their greatest national treasure and a potent symbol of democracy. And this path has divided opinion like never before. Some people see it as a sensible solution to help people with mobility issues, but others regard it as desecration, pandering to mass tourism and an international scandal.

  • Despina Koutsoumba:

    To me, it's horrible. I think that Acropolis is really wounded by the cement corridors.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Despina Koutsoumba is president of the Greek archaeologists union. She's also a specialist in restoration work and one of 3, 500 historians behind demanding a halt to the modifications.

  • Despina Koutsoumba:

    We have an archaeological site of great importance, and we take cement and we transform it into something brand-new. This is totally unacceptable.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    This is a special moment for Kelly Loufaki, a Paralympic fencer. It's the first time she's visited the Parthenon since breaking her spine in a car crash.

  • Kelly Loufaki:

    I'm proud, because I'm Greek, and I'm — I feel that it's very accessible, friendly for me to do all of this with my wheelchair.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    World champion shot putter Che Jon Fernandes is equally impressed.

  • Che Jon Fernandes:

    You can always see the Acropolis wherever you are in Athens from afar, but to come up close, you can feel the energy. You feel this inspiration. It's — you almost can touch it.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    This is the first time Fernandes has been here since breaking his spine playing rugby for Greece.

  • Che Jon Fernandes:

    I'm a little bit lost for words, because it's emotional that, after so many years not being able to come up here, you feel that we're making progress as a nation. We're making progress as a society, that we're becoming more inclusive, which is fantastic.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    The 2, 500-year-old monument is one of the most important World Heritage sites.

    Former U.S. diplomat Brady Kiesling is fascinated by ancient Greece. He's also an archaeologist who helps to map lesser-known ancient sites.

  • Brady Kiesling:

    It's the combination of landscape and history and myth and human presence that makes Greece one of the most interesting places in the world.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    For an archaeologist, his view of the concrete paths is controversial.

  • Brady Kiesling:

    Look, the concrete walkways that the current government put in, they're not beautiful, no. They're not a monstrosity either. They are very practical.

    When you have 10,000 people coming up there every day, many of them with mobility issues, it is a crime not to give them a reasonable amount of safety. Yes, the beautiful pink limestone, we have lost a little bit of it, but you can still see it. The overall picture of the place has not really been affected.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    A new elevator which takes the wheelchair-bound up the northern wall of the rock has also drawn fire. It is close to a temple known as the Erechtheion, and critics say the mechanism ruins a view that has been unchanged for 2.5 millennia.

    Among them is Professor Tasos Tanoulas. Until recently, he was responsible for renovating the grand entrance to the Acropolis, called the Propylaea. Professor Tanoulas sent me a video message by phone urging UNESCO to intervene.

  • Tasos Tanoulas:

    There are things which must be done immediately, and this must be stopped. This is my concern. And I think this is a huge crime, which shouldn't have happened ever.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Manolis Korres is the archaeologist responsible for the concrete path. I asked him whether he had anything to worry about from UNESCO.

  • Manolis Korres:

    No, no, nothing at all, nothing to worry.

    I think the colleagues there are always convinced that things are going well, and that they accept that they are already a little bit misled by some fake news.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    The culture minister, Lina Mendoni, was also dismissive about the concerns.

  • Lina Mendoni (through translator):

    UNESCO has known about these restoration works since 2002. According to the UNESCO World Heritage Convention, each state should give notice before making any major changes to a monument.

    First of all, these changes were known already, as I mentioned earlier. Secondly, they are not major changes. And, in this case, Greece is not required to inform UNESCO.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    But, today, I was told by UNESCO that officials are certainly are not happy about the way in which the Greek authorities have behaved.

    UNESCO wants all work to stop until proper consultations have taken place. UNESCO is also concerned that it had to learn about the modifications from critics, instead of from the Greek state.

    The Greek archaeologists union says it is happy for there to be better accessibility for those with mobility problems, but it wants the impact on the Acropolis to be reduced.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Malcolm Brabant in Athens.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So glad to have that report.

    Thank you, Malcolm.

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