Originally created 05/11/04

ATHENS: Ancient city gets fresh look for Olympic homecoming



ATHENS, Greece -- Greeks call it the "volta."

The daily stroll is a beloved ritual. It helps reduce the stress and anxiety of life in the city - especially one as congested, noisy and dusty as Athens is now amid the frenzy to complete projects before the Summer Olympics.

But a proper stroll - with the proper effect - must be slow. It can never be rushed.

Visitors to Athens for the Aug. 13-29 Olympics need only to put on their walking shoes to partake in a favorite pastime and discover the other side of one of Europe's most unruly - but lively - capitals.

A new cobblestone promenade around the base of the Acropolis offers history on two levels: the ancient monuments and a taste of turn-of-the century Athens before traffic and runaway development turned the city into an untamed sprawl of nearly 4 million inhabitants.

"The great walk" - as is called by its architects - winds for 2.5 miles along elegant neoclassical buildings, poppy-dotted knolls and the epicenter of antiquity, including an arched 2,000-year open-air Roman theater ringed by olive trees. Above, the ruins on the Acropolis offer a constantly changing visual feast as the walkway winds along.

The project is part of a long-overdue facelift to Athens' center. The Olympics provided the momentum. But the work is expected to continue even after the athletes and spectators go home.

Under the program, called the Athens' Unification of the Archaeological Sites, hundreds of neoclassical buildings have been restored, unsightly billboards have been removed and much-needed green spaces have been planned.

"The Athens downtown will be aesthetically, environmentally and culturally upgraded ... The residents and visitors of the Greek capital city will be able to enjoy a 'vast open museum' that will include all the archaeological sites and monuments of Athens, along with the traditional districts of its historic downtown," according to the plans of the unification program.

Along the majestic Dionissiou Areopagitou Street, lovers nuzzle on a stone wall, alfresco cafes serve iced coffees and an outdoor cinema advertises this summer's movie lineup. The classics are on tap, from the 1935 "Anna Karenina" to 1951's "The African Queen."

All is quiet. Footsteps tap on the cobblestones, tourist click their cameras and the senses are aroused by the aroma of flowers and the grilled oregano-sprinkled kebab, or souvlaki in Greek.

Then a jolt back to the "real" Athens these days: the sound of digging and drilling in the full-steam race to finish Olympic works.

The International Olympic Committee's point man for the Athens games, Denis Oswald, expressed confidence recently that the Greeks are making up for lost time. "I'm really confident if this pace is kept up, everything will be ready," he said.

The IOC wants the steel-and-glass roof over the main stadium ready by the end of June to allow time to place wiring, technical systems and other upgrades for the summer games. Pre-Olympic test events also must be held at the 75,000-seat stadium.

The roof has become the summit atop the mountains of delays.

Its installation could silence some persistent critics and serve as the crowning glory of the games. But - left unfinished - it will be an embarrassing reminder of Athens' failure to properly plan for the games despite a seven-year lead time.

Other projects behind schedule include the soccer stadium, tram and light rail transport works and preparations of the classic marathon route.

Government officials have also scaled back some venues such as a roof on the aquatic center.

For Greece, the Olympics returning to their ancient birthplace have been the catalyst to modernize the country. New highways, a bridge designed to withstand earthquakes, a new airport, urban transportation and an Athens beautification program are upgrades that should improve the quality of life after the games.

The post-Olympics benefits of the works is a mantra often repeated by officials to lift the spirits of frazzled Greeks, who expect the Olympics to cost far more than the $5.6 billion budget - with at least $1.2 billion going for security.

One of the most tangible changes is Athens' revamping project that includes the foot trail around the Acropolis. It makes up, somewhat, for the city's lack of public green spaces and bike trails so common in other European cities.

If You Go...

TICKETS TO OLYMPICS EVENTS: There's still a chance to get tickets - to at least some events. Some tickets will go on sale in June under a program to stagger sales. Organizers say tickets will be available up to the last minute at any venue with empty seats.

But don't count on getting lucky for hot commodities like the opening and closing ceremonies or the finals of many swimming, track and field or gymnastic events. Last-minute ticket-seekers are likely to have more luck with sports that lack the crowd appeal for Greeks - such as hockey or shooting competitions. Baseball lovers may be able to get tickets to watch young American talent - although they'll be wearing the blue-and-white colors of the Greek team. Greek-Americans make up the core of Greece's baseball team. The U.S. squad was upset in Olympic qualifiers and bumped from Athens.

European residents can reserve tickets on the Athens 2004 Web site at www.athens2004.com. Others can purchase tickets from their national Olympics committee or have a travel agency make arrangements.

In the United States, for example, Cartan Tours Inc. is an official U.S. ticket sales agent and requests for tickets can by made on the agency's Web site. Visit www.cartan.com for details.

ACCOMMODATIONS: Visitors who want to stay in the city have to find accommodations outside of the center or away from the Olympics venues since most hotel rooms have been reserved for the Olympics "family" - officials, sponsors and other VIPS.

Alternatives include private home rentals, a cabin on one of eight private cruise ships at the port of Piraeus or one of the smaller hotels with fewer amenities that can be located through the Greek tourism organization. Visit www.eot.gr for details. The Greek tourist office in New York can be reached at (212) 421-5777.

The official Filoxenia Homes Rental Program offers thousands of private houses for rent; prices depend on the home's location and amenities. Applications for a home can be made online. Filoxenia can also arrange for tickets. Visit www.filoxenia2004.com or call (011) (30) 210-3277 408 for details.

Among the cruise ships is the mammoth Queen Mary 2, which completed its inaugural Atlantic crossing April 22. The 1,132-foot, 21-story Cunard liner will accommodate some of the 13,000 visitors and Olympics officials who will be staying on cruise ships.