A Frenzied facelift

The race is to the swift as the 2004 Games march on ancient, sooty, noisy, wondrous Athens

Email|Print| Text size + By Walter V. Robinson
Globe Staff / March 14, 2004

Athens --In Greek mythology, Chaos is the goddess of confusion. Nowadays, she rules Athens. And Athenians -- all 4 million of them -- seem comfortable in her languorous embrace.

As the 2004 Olympic Games approach, the construction crane has become the Greek national symbol. Metal scaffolding is the preferred outer shell of many structures, both ancient and run-down modern. At the scaffold-clad Parthenon, renovation work began in AD 1983 -- 21 years ago. How, one wonders, could the temple have been built in barely a decade's time in the fifth century BC?

Any street that goes somewhere -- and more than a few do not -- is likely to be clogged with traffic. Cars, many the size of golf carts, are parked everywhere, their owners indifferent to the consequences: a mere $6 for a parking ticket. At midnight, the din of jackhammers competes with honking horns in Constitution Square. A windy day is a delight, even in late January, for its ability to whisk away smog that often hangs like a shroud over temples built of white marble that long ago was nearly as brilliant as the sun.

To be sure, many thousands of laborers are battling an intractable deadline to ready Athens for its Aug. 13 curtsy before the world. There is so much construction going on, we would not have been surprised to see Boston police officers on detail munching spanakopita. Yet the construction workers seem like a fraction of the numbers crowding Athenian cafes during the workday.

A little inconvenience seems trifling in a city where the enthusiasm for life's pleasurable pursuits is so infectious that visitors are easily swept up in it. If Athens itself seems dingy, outdated, provincial, and uninterested in how it will be perceived by a worldwide audience, its people are surely the opposite: For the most part, they are youthful (even those who are not young), fashionable, attuned to the outside world, and surprisingly friendly and outgoing. Many of them speak English.Even on weeknights, streets, cafes and restaurants are jammed with people long after the hour that workaday Americans have gone to bed.

At Cellier, a trendy bistro near Constitution Square, much of the dinner crowd arrives after midnight. In Athens, many theatergoers dine after the play. Post-midnight traffic snarls are commonplace. It's nearly impossible to feel alone here: More than a third of the country's population lives in Athens. It's no wonder that tourists to Greece seek beauty and serenity elsewhere.

Thanks to the Summer Games, Athens is getting a makeover. With the long overdue facelift, however, comes an intriguing question: Aside from the committed hordes who will be here for the Olympics, is Athens worth a second look from vacationers who have long viewed the city as merely a place to change planes, or transfer to a ferry, to reach the country's shimmering islands?

Compared with many European capitals, Athens fares poorly. Antiquity aside, Athens is to Rome what Indianapolis is to Chicago. Twenty five hundred years ago, there could not have been a more interesting city to visit.

Which is to say -- and many visitors would -- that once you have climbed the Acropolis, marveled at the Parthenon, visited the ancient Greek Agora, and wandered the streets of the oldest section, the Plaka, it's time to move on. Elapsed time: One not very long day.

In some areas that count, Athens excels. Its public restrooms are to die for. They are new, plentiful, and spotless, even at tourist sites like the Agora, where restoration work on what tourists want to see after the potty break seems hopelessly behind schedule. Restaurants are happy to have passersby use their facilities, which is how we happened to find what must be one of the best restaurants in Athens: Event, on a small alley in the Plaka district not far from the Acropolis.

Athens of course ought to be a lure for other reasons, and not just its weather. Even in January, when the temperature hovered around 50 degrees, Athenians kept apologizing for their horrible winter. For us, it was springlike, and a light jacket and wool sweater were sufficient for sightseeing, though there was one brisk day when we had to walk fast to stay warm.

This was one vacation that produced two assessments. Barbara Wojtklewicz, my wife, found Athens fascinating and worth a full week of exploration. I confess that every day I did find something to see or do that made the trip worthwhile, even though some must-see sites, like the extraordinary National Archaeological Museum, were closed for pre-Olympic renovations. Yet, I still think we could have seen the best of Athens in a leisurely three days, and spent four nights somewhere else.

That said, a visit to Athens need not be restricted to the central city within view of the Acropolis. Tour operators offer half-day and daylong sightseeing visits to Delphi and the beautiful Temple of Apollo; and to the ancient town of Corinth, where St. Paul preached. For a mini-Greek isles vacation, there is also a daylong boat tour to the nearby islands of Hydra, Poros and Aegina. The island trip is about $100 a person; you can do better by picking one island and buying your own ticket.

On a brooding, overcast afternoon, we took a tour bus to Cape Sounion, the southern tip of the Attica Peninsula that Athens dominates. There, seen from either land or sea, is one of Greece's most spectacular sites. Dominating the point's windswept bluff is the Temple of Poseidon, god of the sea. It is an extraordinary spot to watch a sunset, though dark clouds made that improbable and raindrops began to fall just as our guide completed her presentation. Then, as we contemplated scurrying back to the bus, the rain stopped, the sun reappeared below a cloud to the southwest, and sunlight that was almost pink suddenly illuminated the temple's marble columns.

Surely, I thought, a moment arranged by Poseidon himself. Most often, prices in Athens seemed reasonable, as long as we pretended that the dollar and the euro were interchangeable. They are not. Thanks to the dollar's weakness, it cost us $1.27 to buy one euro; it was just under $1.23 on Friday. That means Athens is far from the bargain it once was - which is not to say you cannot have a reasonably priced vacation in Greece.

There are many decent three-star hotels where a modest-to-spartan room can be had for between $50 and $100 a night, breakfast included. Even in expensive hotels, though, the rooms are small by American standards.

If you're tough enough, -- I'm not -- Athens can still be ultra-cheap. Take, for example, a charming New Zealand couple we kept running into, and finally had dinner with. Noel and Gayle Beattie are taking two years to travel the world, on a budget and a backpack apiece. They stay in hostels ($20 a night for two in Athens) and cook most of their meals. They postponed their visit to the Acropolis until Sunday, when archeological sites don't charge admission.

Still, they missed something of Athens that money can buy. Like the hotel room we had in the Plaka, the city's charming old quarter just below the Acropolis, with its winding streets, charming squares, outdoor cafes, and shopkeepers who often leave their wares unattended as they venture into the narrow lanes to coax tourists inside. We stayed at the newly restored Electra Palace Hotel for about $175 a night. The room included a balcony that looked up at the Parthenon and a lavish breakast buffet, with fresh roses on every table.

After three nights in the Plaka, we opted for a wider-angle view: The St. George Lycabettus Hotel, on the slopes of the city's highest mountain, in the city's fashionable Kolonaki district. From the balcony, we had extraordinary views: The city spread out before us, the Acropolis dominating the near skyline two miles away and the Port of Piraeus, the Aegean Sea, and mountainous Greek islands in the distance.

Perhaps because of its location, the St. George has sidestepped the stampede to renovate that has many Athens hotels encased in scaffolding. Too bad; it needs an upgrade. For the view with the room included, the St. George charged about $275 a night, a high price to pay at a place that outfits its closets with theft-proof hangers. Also, the $275 did not include the mediocre breakfast: $56 for two, served with a view but without fresh orange juice and with cold bacon. After that first breakfast, we found we could get fresh juice, decent pastry, and excellent coffee for two for $12.50 just down the street -- at a Starbucks.

For more money -- $375 a night, with breakfast included, on a weekend special -- we could have stayed at the lavishly restored Hotel Grand Bretagne, a 19th-century relic on Constitution Square.

After touring the hotel and seeing its rooms, I wish we had. Bathrooms with double vanities and steam baths. Antique furnishings. Soundproof windows. A basement pool, spa, and gymnasium on which no expense had been spared.

With those pricey amenities, however, we might never have ventured outdoors -- and outdoors is where to be in Athens, even in winter.

This is a city to be walked, and not just because walking is often quicker than sitting in traffic. Much of what's worth seeing, from the Acropolis to some very good museums (the Benaki Museum and the Jewish Museum are among the best) to the expensive shops in Kolonaki, is within easy walking distance. (In Kolonaki, shop but don't buy. The prices are reasonable only if you arrived on your own jet.)

There are bargains to be had in Athens. Taxis, for instance, are cheap. Alas, some taxi drivers will try to make you think otherwise. One demanded the equivalent of $15 for a fare that should have been no more than $2.50. Such chutzpah deserved its own reward: We gave him $6. He feigned disgust.

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