August 29, 2007
The Greek fires which are ravaging the country may be a tragedy, but it’s a tragedy fuelled by greed. Once upon a time, Athens was the most romantic city of Europe. Laid out and built by Bavarians—the first post-independence King was Otto of Bavaria—it was a marvel of wide boulevards, sidewalk cafes, parks and neo-classical public buildings. I remember as a child living in the Kolonaki area, on a hill above the royal palace and embassy row, walking to the tennis club below the Acropolis via the royal gardens, and smelling only jasmine. There were few cars and no tourists except the cognoscenti, and the place was the closest thing to Arcadia.
It all ended very quickly once the countryside was denuded through lack of government interest in maintaining farmland and farmers. After the war the city’s population exploded. It was like the Wild West. Developers built wherever their fancy took them and the delightful small city became the most hellish place in Europe. In the summer the air was unbreathable. So what did the authorities do about it? They imposed severe restrictions on building around the lungs of the city, the foothills of Mount Parnis, Mount Pendeli, and Mount Hymettus, all green and lush forests. (Ancient Athens had the three mountains as defenses against invasion from the north, east and west, and the sea as a bulwark in the south.) And what did the developers do? That’s an easy one. Since the 1960’s they have annually set the forests on fire, and after the land has been denuded of green, have built on it. Successive governments have refused to dismantle illegal built houses, among which are some of the most expensive real estate in the world.
What is there to do? Again, an easy question to answer. Apply the law, jail any official who turns a blind eye to illegal building, classify and designate lands as forest lands which even if burned will never be allowed to be built on, and presto, no more arson, just natural summer fires which ironically is the forest’s way of regenerating itself. It is as simple as all that, but never count developers out. They are worse than a fire, they’re a plague.
In the Peloponnese, the most verdant and wild part of the ancient land, home of the great Spartans, the developers had been kept at bay, until now, that is. The fiercely independent and conservative people of the peninsula have remained close to their lands, farms and traditions. Their virgin lands were, needless to say, a magnet for the greedy ones. The sandy beaches of the southern Peloponnese have yet to be discovered by the package tourist, making it a corner of Europe that is not only Arcadia, but one that needs to be preserved above all others. And that is the spot the developers chose to ruin. This rich scum are not the ones who sneak out at night with a can of petrol and light the matches. They get illiterate drifters to do their dirty work while the swan about in their yachts. If any good can come of this terrible tragedy, it must be the end of arson, and that can come about only by strict government laws forbidding any burned land from ever being built on. It is up to the Greeks, but I will not be holding my breath.