As the games prepare for their return to Athens, the city's spirited race to get ready is proving to be a cliff-hanger.
Aren't you scorched there by the fierce heat? Aren't you crushed in the crowd? Isn't it difficult to freshen yourself up? Doesn't the rain soak you to the skin? Aren't you bothered by the noise, the din, and other nuisances?"
Though that sounds like an old girlfriend's take on Woodstock, it was written nearly 2,000 years ago by Epictetus to describe the Olympic Games, then over 800 years old. Going to the Olympics has never been a picnic.
Even so, if ever a nation needed to have an Olympics succeed, it's Greece. Every country has its peaks and valleys, but Greece has been in a bit of a valley for a couple of centuries now. Take away a Telly Savalas, a Melina Mercouri, and maybe an Aristotle Onassis, and what do you know of these Hellenes? What you know is Plato, Euclid, Pythagoras, Socrates, Pericles, Homer, Euripides, et al., et al. All those glorious Greeks lived a long time ago.
So with the Olympic Games returning to the country of their origin in August, Greece has an opportunity to soar like Apollo and drive that Olympic chariot over centuries of low profile. It has the chance to demonstrate that it's much more than the crux of an elementary Western history curriculum and the birthplace of a really nice salad.
Can they pull it off? Well . . .
A March trip to Athens confirms what news reports and the International Olympic Committee have been telling us. The word that describes the task facing the Greek organizers is—I hate to be obvious—herculean. There will be no roof on the swimming venue because work started too late, which prompted Australia's swim team to say that it would bring ice vests for its practice sessions. Housing is unfinished, the tram system and light-rail lines are behind schedule, and much of the route of the marathon—the Games' climactic event—is yet unpaved. Even Karaiskaki Stadium, the principal soccer venue, which is being built for the Olympiakos professional team, is running a race against time. This is in addition to countless construction and restoration projects going on all around the city, since Athens decided to use the Games as a springboard to urban renewal; alas, the city fathers started renewing too late.
Terrorism is a big fear, Greece being relatively accessible to virtually every known terrorist organization in the world. A group that took credit for firebombing two trucks as an anti-Olympic statement several months ago calls itself "Phevos and Athena," after the Olympic mascots, thereby becoming the first band of anarchists to take its name from androgynous dolls. But terrorists aren't much more doll-like in Greece than they are anywhere else. Officials appear to be taking the issue seriously. About $1.2 billion has been budgeted for security (approximately four times what was spent for security at the Sydney Olympics in 2000), and at Athens International Airport, I was detained for 15 minutes before authorities finally decided I could take a bottle of olive oil on the plane.
But the question you should ask yourself, as Socrates would've demanded of you in one of his symposia, is: Do I want to witness this grand Grecian endeavor—either before, during, or after the Olympics—by making a trip to legendary Athens? My own opinion is . . . well, let's hold off on that for a while.
A Few Basics
Where Should You Go?
DAY 1 There's an excellent way to get your bearings in Athens: Take the funicular (a slow and scary cable car) to the top of Likavittos Hill, a conical rise just northeast of the city center. You can see everything from there, but badger one of the waiters in the restaurant to point out various landmarks so you get a sense of the city. Then pay him back by going inside, sitting by a window, and enjoying a delicious Greek salad.
From Likavittos, you can easily make your way to the Acropolis. You have to go. The climb is steep and the footing uneven, but the marble used to build the temples on the Acropolis was lugged from 10 miles away, so your effort will be, by comparison, small. The surprising thing about the Acropolis is its depth. Several other structures besides the Parthenon rest placidly on this tablelike hilltop some 500 feet above the city and they are majestic wonders. You can see the Temple of Athena Nike, for example, without laying eyes on a swoosh. Don't miss the Acropolis Museum; it is almost hidden behind the Parthenon, which is itself partially hidden by scaffolding. "This'll all be down by the Olympics," a worker said confidently. He was on break at the time, smoking. I can't tell you what to see and feel as you make your way across a patch of earth that was inhabited in neolithic times and represents the apex of ancient Western civilization. But you will feel something.
In all likelihood, you'll pass the marble marvel known as the 1896 Stadium (its official name is the Panathenaic Stadium) more than once in your journey around Athens, for it sits along Vassileos Konstantinou, a principal avenue. But stop for a few minutes and take it in. It was in this stadium that the modern Olympic movement, the brainchild of French nobleman Baron Pierre de Coubertin, was born, and where a Greek shepherd named Spiros Loues became the hero of those first Games by winning the marathon. Besides the marathon finish, only the archery event in this year's Games is scheduled for the stadium, which in 1896 hosted 311 athletes from 13 nations.
There's one other thing I would do on this first day—check out the changing of the evzones, the guards at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Syntagma Square. It's a much less formal ceremony than the one at Buckingham Palace, bordering, in fact, on a Monty Python skit.
DAY 2 It's time to spend some serious euros. Begin at Kolonaki. It's the toniest shopping area in Athens and the best place for people-watching. Then hike down the main thoroughfare, Vassilissis Sofias, and stop in at the Grande Bretagne, one of the world's great hotels. Have a drink, use the restroom, or just look as if you belong. It's worth an hour's hang.
Just south and west of the hotel is the Plaka, the old center of the city, a wonderful warren of alleys. There's no political correctness in the Plaka, where fur and leather stores abound. There's no thematic organization either. On nearby Pandrossou Street, a store called the Greek Fashion Factory displays a T-shirt showing the Mona Lisa smoking, while next door stands Orpheus, a shop selling religious art.
The wonderful thing about the district is that there are no Mc . . . wait a minute, there is one, right there on Monastiraki Square. Resist the urge to buy a Greek Mac (two patties on pita) and instead go around the corner to Mitropoleos Street for a repast at one of the tavernas specializing in souvlaki. If you just want a snack, visit one of the dozens of vendors selling roasted chestnuts or kuluri, a doughy concoction studded with sesame seeds, or hit Goody's, a decent fast-food chain more ubiquitous in Athens than McDonald's. If you're feeling guilty about staring too long at that Mona Lisa T-shirt, pay a redemptive visit to beautiful Athens Cathedral on Mitropoleos Street.
Stroll over to the flea market, then turn up the extraordinary Athinas Street. Along this delightfully downscale thoroughfare is the gigantic Central Market with separate areas devoted to meat, fish, and vegetables. Greeks aren't meat eaters by and large, but this is where they come when their inner carnivores take hold. If you like to see stall after stall of hanging carcasses—and who among us does not?—it's the place for you.
Here's my suggestion for dinner: Around 8 or 9 o'clock, the traditional Greek dinner hour, ask a cabdriver to take you to his favorite restaurant. Greeks eat out a lot, and they demand good food. He will know a spot.
DAY 3 Hook up with someone who really knows his way around. You might want to find this expert on your first day, but I like to do it on the last. I can tell the guide where I've been and let him fill in some of the blanks. Most of the better hotels can recommend such a driver. Bargain him down to 20 euros an hour, figure on four hours, and you'll spend maybe $100. It will be worth it.
Perhaps he'll drive you to Piraeus, the port city about five miles from the city center, where the restaurants along the waterfront offer you fish direct from the sea. Maybe he'll take you to the suburb of Glyfada, where there's great shopping and no parking. Or to the War Museum, built during the military dictatorship that ran Greece for seven years beginning in 1967, proving that a military dictatorship can build a terrific war museum. He may think a trip to Pedion tou Areos, one of the bigger parks in Athens, is in order. End the day by sipping a cocktail at the hip Placebo Café. The café's name inspired a rumor that the drinks are watered down, but you come away feeling good anyhow.
Actually, you'd come away feeling good even without stopping at the Placebo. Despite all its inconveniences, Athens is magical. It's a place where the volleyball competition will be held in something optimistically named the Peace and Friendship Stadium; where strollers can look up and see the Temple of Olympian Zeus; where Olympic bicyclists will tool around the Acropolis. It's also the place where—more than 2,000 years before a tall redhead named Thomas Jefferson wrote the words "We hold these truths to be self-evident"—a band of foresighted men had already come up with something called democracy. For that alone we owe Athens a visit, and our enduring hope that they can pull this off.
Photography by AP/Wide World Photos
This article was first published in July 2004. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.