The “Industrious Spiders of Modern Greece”

The “Industrious Spiders of Modern Greece” 2560 1728 REVICTO

An article entitled “From Corinth to the Parthenon”, published in The Cornhill Magazine on 7 December 1886, vividly describes a British tourist’s first impressions of Greece.  Upon arriving at Corinth, rather than encountering a romantic scene of welcome to a classical land, the narrator witnesses a comic yet fierce competition for clients among the different Athenian hotel delegates before even tourists set foot in Greece:

One lands at Corinth much as lands at Oban or Yarmouth after a brief steam trip. The packet anchors a hundred yards from the shaky wooden piles which support the humble pier of this once-proud city. And no sooner is the anchor down than a troop of noisy Greeks deputed by the inns of Athens, sixty miles away, come along side in broad-bottomed boats daintily spread with enticing bits of Turley carpet, and in broken English plead and gesticulate on behalf of their respective establishments.

‘Hôtel d’ Angleterre, sir? Fine hotel, where all fine gentlemen go. Four English signores there at the moment. Best hotel in Athens!’

‘Hôtel des Etrangers, monsieur? Every one go Hôtel des Etrangers; it so cheap and clean – warranted not a flea; close to Acropolis and palace. Best view in Athens! Such good to eat, too!’

“Hôtel de la Grande Bretagne?’

The last of these hotels is represented by an individual of superb carriage. He does not demean himself by acting as a mere tout. With one hand he extends the official card of his hotel, and the other hand he stretches before him palm outwards, as a bland, indefinite sort of greeting. The Hôtel de la Grande Bretagne is as superb as its representative it needs no advocate. (493)

This humorous vignette shows the rise of the tourism industry in Greece and the rivalry among the expensive first-class Athenian hotels which mainly hosted a foreign clientele. While still aboard, the narrator is hassled by various hotel agents, who seized travellers’ “baggage and all, [and] stowed them “in their different boats.” Tourists are represented as victims, allowed to have a stroll in Corinth only after “they have set the baggage in a place from which it cannot possibly be abstracted by one of the other hotel delegates, procured their tickets for the ensuing railway journey to Athens, and telegraphed, in their presence, to the home hotel that so many gentlemen of such and such nationality are to be met that evening and driven straightway to the hotel they have promised to patronise” (493). “He is a bold fly that will change his mind and try to escape from the toils of the web woven round him by one of these industrious spiders of modern Greece,” the narrator concludes (493).

In a period in which many Victorian travellers to Greece complain about the backwardness of the country and the indolence of its inhabitants, the metaphor of the “industrious spiders” connects industriousness not only with tourism but also with deception and entrapment. Although the anonymous author of the Cornhill does not reveal his hotel choice, the first-class hotels of Athens were highly recommended by Baedeker’s and Murray’s guidebooks to Greece in the last decades of the century. The hotel rivalry also suggests that by the 1880’s Athens did not depend only on its ancient monuments to attract foreign visitors. The elegant new hotels on Syntagma [Constitution] square were part of the city’s modernization and development foreshadowing the country’s increasing economic dependence on tourism in the following centuries. Considering the high rates they charged, usually paid in gold francs, the aggressive competition among hotels experienced by the author of the Corhill article is not surprising. As Joseph L. Thomas, another traveller to Athens in the winter of 1880-1881, complains, “Everything in Athens [is] on a miniature scale, except the Acropolis and hotel prices” (183).

Anon. “From Corinth to the Parthenon”, The Cornhill Magazine, 7 Dec. 1886, pp. 493-511.

Thomas, Joseph L. An Undergraduate’s Trip to Italy and Attica. Being Notes of a Tour made to Those Countries in the Winter of 1880-1881. Oxford: James Thornton, 1881.

Featured Image: Postcard from Syntagma Sq. Courtesy of the ELIA-MET archive.

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Representations of Modern Greece
in Victorian Popular Culture

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