The debt crisis story has taken me to Athens many times since the Greek economy began to crumble like Thebes under the siege of Alexander the Great. Compared with Rome, where I live, I found the sprawling mess of a city frightfully unlovely.
Barring the Acropolis and a couple of pleasant and vibrant old walking areas such as Plaka, what was there to see? No wonder most tourists gave it a pass as they mobbed the ferries to the Aegean Islands.
Since then, I've changed my mind. Athens has more than a few hidden gems – you just have to dig around for them. I found a beauty on my last trip, when, on a blast-furnace-hot summer day, Robert Peck, Canada's ambassador to Greece, drove me 15 kilometres east to Paiania, the suburban town that is home to the Vorres Museum of Contemporary Greek Art.
Peck had raved forever about the museum and his praise was not exaggerated. As a museum, gallery, garden, piece of history and labour of love, it has few equals in Greece.
It is also a showpiece for Canada-Greece relations. That's because the founder, Ian Vorres, is a Greek-Canadian who has lived in both countries and refers to the museum as a "celebration of the ties" between them. Peck uses it often for receptions and recently hustled former Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff through the place. There have been far more famous visitors. One of the entries in the guest book, from 1972, is "Mr. and Mrs. Lester Pearson."
When Peck and I arrived, Vorres greeted us in the courtyard. Tall, thin, elegantly dressed but stooped from old age and failing health – he is 90 – Vorres worries about the future of the museum as the Greek government guts its budgets, reducing or ending the support for all things cultural. In Greece and elsewhere in Europe's debt-choked Mediterranean frontier, museums are closing or curtailing their hours, and putting curators on the dole.
The Vorres Museum's meagre state subsidies ended two years ago, and he has been sparing every possible expense since then, to the point he can barely keep the museum open two days a week – Saturdays and Sundays. "I will die from hunger and am surrounded by an art collection worth millions," he said, and I am not sure whether he is joking about the hunger part.
The museum, which covers about 130,000 square feet, is a delight. It's an eclectic mix of the contemporary and the ancient, of modern and traditional architecture, of sleek open exhibition space and lush gardens.
It is composed of two sections. In the first are paintings and sculptures created by some of the best-known contemporary Greek artists of the postwar era, among them Yannis Tsarouchis and Yannis Moralis, whose masks are among the museum's most valuable works.
The sleek modern galleries surround a large white courtyard, filled with sculptures that glimmer in the sun. It is often used for concerts, lectures and receptions hosted by diplomats. Liona Boyd performed in the courtyard in 1995.
The second part, next to the museum, is made up four traditional Greek houses, and the remnants of a stable, built in the early 19th century. Vorres lives in a section of one of the houses. The rest of the rooms are full of Greek curiosities, ranging from ancient artifacts to traditional peasant carpets and furniture. In one room, I spotted a 3,000-year-old toy rooster, in another, a medieval sword from the Crusades.
The adjacent gardens are a treat, an oasis of lemon, orange and cypress trees, lavender and bougainvillea surround by a dry-stone wall whose niches and crannies are stuffed with antique marbles, old millstones and other bits of Greek peasant life.
Back in the contemporary gallery, I spotted an enormous oil portrait of Vorres himself, looking strong, determined and proud. Though frail, he still carries that determined look. He is immensely proud of his museum and its collections, though is worried sick that it will not survive after he goes. "I don't have any money to pay the staff," he says. "I have worked day and night to protect the museum."
Vorres was born in Athens in 1924, served with the American special forces behind German lines in the Second World War and fled to Canada at the war's end. He attended Queen's University and the University of Toronto, where he studied philosophy and psychology, taught for a while then swapped his chalk board for a typewriter and became the art critic for the Hamilton Spectator and contributor to The Globe and Mail and Saturday Night, among other publications. In 1962, he wrote a highly successful book, The Last Grand Duchess, the authorized biography of Olga, the youngest child of Czar Nicholas II of Russia. Unlike her brother, she survived the Russian Revolution and ended her days in relative obscurity in Canada.
But art was his love. In the mid-1960s, he returned to Greece to take over the family's import-export business and, a few years later, opened his museum, whose gallery space and collection would expand over the decades. It became famous for its parties, including one in honour of then Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau's official visit to Greece in 1983. The host was Melina Mercouri, one of Greece's most famous actors.
"Ian Vorres is but one example of how Greek-Canadians have enriched their country of origin and Canada," said ambassador Peck.
In his declining years, Vorres is not a happy man, in spite of his ample accomplishments. He is considering selling some of the art to keep the doors open. He has bequeathed the museum to the Greek state but fears the gutted cultural budgets will ensure the museum will close after his death. "My message is, for heaven's sake, save something of Greece,'' he says. "We have money for guns and tanks and warplanes, but not for art."
Vorres Museum of Contemporary Greek Art: open weekends 10 a.m. until 2 p.m.. Tickets from $6 (€5). 1 Parodos Diadochou Constantinou St., Peania, Attica; vorresmuseum.gr
SEE MORE OF ATHENS
The Cycladic Museum Find a high-quality collection of Cycladic art (BC 3200-2200) inside a neo-classical building that was once used as the Canadian Embassy. 4, Neophytou Douka St., Athens; www.cycladic.gr
Cultural Centre Hellenic Cosmos offers a great introduction to Greek history with lots of interactive technology. 254 Pireos St., Tavros, Athens; hellenic-cosmos.gr
The Ilias Lalaounis Jewellery Museum Over 4,000 pieces of jewellery and tiny sculptures designed by museum founder and designer Ilias Lalaounis. Kallisperi 12 & Karyatidon St., Acropolis, Athens; lalaounis-jewelrymuseum.gr/en
The Jewish Museum of Greece is a hidden jewel jewel in the centre of Athens, just east of the Acropolis, depicting rich Jewish history which has all but disappeared. Nikis 39, Athens; jewishmuseum.gr
Hellenic Children's Museum Interactive activities make this a good bet for young kids, Find it in the heart of Plaka housed in an old mansion. 14 Kydathineon St., Plaka, Athens; hcm.gr
Ciné Paris Open air cinemas are one of the many pleasures in Greece. This one is a classic in the shadow of the Acropolis. Open from May to October. 22 Str. Kidathinaion, Plaka; cineparis.gr
Hamman Enjoy a traditional Turkish-style ritual in Greece. Steam bath, exfoliating scrub and massage starts at €45 ($58). 17 Agion Asomaton St. & 1 Melidoni Str. Thissio; hammam.gr