Road & Travel Magazine - Adventure Travel  Channel

Travel Channel
Adventure Travel
Advice & Tips
Airline Rules
Bed & Breakfasts
Climate Countdown
Cruises & Tours
Destination Reviews
Earth Tones
Family Travel Tips
Health Trip
Hotels & Resorts
Luxury Travel
Pet Travel
RV & Camping
Safety & Security
Spa Reviews
Train Vacations
World Travel Directory

Automotive Channel
Auto Advice & Tips
Auto Buyer's Guides
Car Care Maintenance
Climate News & Views
Auto Awards Archive
Insurance & Accidents
Legends & Leaders
New Car Reviews
Planet Driven
Road Humor
Road Trips
RV & Camping
Safety & Security
Teens & Tots Tips
Tire Buying Tips
Used Car Buying
Vehicle Model Guide


Athens: Europe's Cinderella, Olympics 2004
Olympics Turn Athens, Greece into Vibrant State

by Amanda Castleman

Sunlight saturates the square, turning white wine and whiter faces the golden shades of Greece. Wild gypsy music streams over the crowd's chatter, the clank of plates and shrieks of giddy children.

Waiters bob and weave among the minotaur's maze of tables (indeed, some seem forever lost to hungry customers). Their trays are laden with delicacies: potato-garlic sauce, marinated peppers, pickled octopus, stuffed vine leaves, deep-fried eggplant and plump black Kalamata olives, drenched in olive oil and spangled with oregano.

Fat wedges of feta crumble over scarlet tomatoes and crescents of cucumber. Pastries ooze honey and crushed nuts. Milky ouzo swirls in glass tumblers.

Overhead, flowers bloom on wrought-iron balconies. The buildings are freshly-painted in the charming pastel palette of the Mediterranean, topped with chalky pink terracotta tiles. The diners linger for hours, savoring the array of appetizers.

Ten years ago, this vibrant neighborhood was a slum. Another crumbling ghetto in Athens, where urban planning is sneered. But the Psiri district was swept up in a wave of gentrification, as the capital prepared to host the 2004 Olympics.

Athens - Parthenon
Athens hopes to remove all scaffolding from the Parthenon before the Olympics. However, Britain shows little sign of returning the friezes in time - or at all.

Greece has its work cut out, reversing centuries of neglect. Athens swiftly declined from marble marvel to concrete clutter. The elegant "Cradle of Democracy" fell into squalor after the Roman Empire collapsed. Synesius of Crete, despite being a bishop, cursed his arrival here in AD 395: "May the sailor who brought me here die miserably: Athens contains nothing magnificent but place names ... Where are your glories, wretchedest of cities?"

Four centuries of Ottoman rule further crippled the city's style: Athens has no great Renaissance palaces and cathedrals. The 1821 revolution evicted the Turks, but left the poverty-striken metropolis full of shanties.

Over 1.5 million refugees arrived - Anatolian Greeks, including Aristotle Onassis - and haphazard slums raced up the flanks of the surrounding mountains. Illegal construction was common, even atop ancient ruins.

King Otho tried to revive Greece's classical heritage, importing German and French architects, in the 1830s. They laid out tree-lined boulevards and generous squares, designed splendid buildings like the University, Academy, Observatory and the Royal Palace (now Parliament). Other dramatic designs emerged in the following decades, including the National Technical University of Athens, the Archaeological Museum, Zappeio mansion and the ornate Hotel Grande Bretagne.

Most builders completely ignored the cue and churned out cheap, tatty apartment blocks. Today, the Megalo Chorio - the "Big Village" of more than five million people - has a reputation for cement chaos unrivaled outside the former Soviet Bloc.

But the Summer Games have truly galvanized the Greeks, igniting their legendary resourcefulness. Like Cinderella, Athens is casting off its tatters, revealing a vibrancy and beauty that utterly captivates.

Athens Academy
Athena, the goddess of wisdom, watches over the Athens Academy.

A sleek new airport, Eleftherios Venizelos, perches on the outskirts. The Metro boasts 19 new state-of-the art stations, all clean, bright and efficient. The ruins and relics disturbed by the construction are displayed, so it's possible to catch a refreshing glimpse of ancient perfume vials and olive oil jugs among the ticket machines.

Taxi drivers are undergoing "good manners training" (though geography lessons might prove more useful). Illegally-parked cars are ticketed and towed - a real shocker for Athenians accustomed to wedging vehicles onto sidewalks, into parks and across side streets.

Soon pedestrian routes will connect all the major classical sites. Families already stroll along the immaculate Dionissiou Areopagitou Street from the Temple of Olympian Zeus to the golden outcrop of the Acropolis.

The capital's notorious smog - nefos - has decreased by 35 percent, thanks to traffic-calming measures and better emission controls. The fresher air has lured back the owl, ancient emblem of Athens. Tourists are breathing a sigh of relief too, as non-smoking sections become mandatory (quite often, a two-table island in a sea of frantically-puffing Greeks, but it's the thought that counts. Times are a-changing).

The city has ripped down illegal billboards and rescued Omonia - a key interchange - from its seedy slide towards the underworld. Palms and bitter orange trees now shade squares, where vendors hawk sesame rings and fresh lemonade.

Athens - National Library
In honor of the 2004 Games, Athens restored its neo-classical National Library.

Major museums - including Cycladic Art, Benaki and Byzantine - have been expanded. The flagship National Archaeological Museum will re-open in 2004, after extensive renovations. The new Acropolis Museum will launch too, though galleries may be empty: a reminder that Greece's crowning glory is held captive in London.

English ambassador - and compulsive collector - Lord Elgin carried off the Parthenon friezes in the early 19th century. The British Museum maintains it legally acquired the sculptures from the Ottoman government, which controlled Greece at the time. The directors staunchly refuse to repatriate "The Marbles", shattering hopes of a triumphant return in 2004.

Athen's rags-to-riches revival has suffered other setbacks: Many Olympic venues will launch without test events, just a few days before the Opening Ceremony on August 13th, 2004. Infighting stalled tram and railway construction. The ring road is still a gleam in its planner's eye.

The biggest worry - for the 1.5 million spectators - is being told there's no room at the inn. Already, 80-90 percent of the city's best beds are reserved for the 55,000-strong Olympic Family (referees, sponsors, media etc).

Athens - Hotel Grande Bretagne
The freshly-renovated Hotel Grande Bretagne overlooks the historic Constitution Square (Syntagma).

Visitors shouldn't despair, though. The A-list rooms may be booked, but 10,000 didn't make the grade. Officials also promise 82,000 beds in the Attica region, about 90 minutes away by car. Cunard's new Queen Mary II and other cruise ships offer berths in Piraeus, the capital's undistinguished harbor.

Such hitches are to be expected. Greece may have given birth to the Olympics over 2000 years ago, and Athens may have staged the first modern tournament in 1896 with just 245 athletes. But it's still one of the smallest countries to host the event, let alone the intensive Summer Games.

Make no mistake: the Greeks will pull through in high style. They thrive on challenge and ever-so-casually manage small miracles, among all the endless lunches, fiery debates and utter chaos. No doubt Europe's Cinderella will enjoy her triumph in 2004 - and a new lease on life.

Perhaps P.B. Shelley's prediction is coming true: "Another Athens shall arise and to remoter time bequeath, like sunset to the skies, the splendor of its prime."

Lounging in Psiri, sipping golden wine, it's certainly easy to believe in fairytale endings.

IF YOU GO......

The new international airport, Eleftherios Venizelos, gleams ( Easyjet runs cheap flights from London ( Also try Olympic (, British ( and Virgin (

Bus E95 runs to Syntagma Square, E96 to Piraeus and E94 to the metro at Ethniki Amyna ($5). Eventually, the underground will extend to the airport. In the meantime, a taxi to the city center costs $25-$30 and takes over an hour.

Metro tickets are about $1 ( Buses and trolleys also cover most of Athens. A $4.75 day-pass buys unlimited transport. Hail the yellow taxis by shouting out a destination. Try your luck with occupied cabs too (the fare is not shared, so note the meter). Radio cabs charge a €1.80 booking fee: Athina (210.921.7942), Kosmos (1300) or Parthenon (210.532.3300).

Think long and hard before renting a car. Parking is a headache in the capital and locals are infamous for lawless, high-speed driving. And the danger is growing: Road deaths in Greece jumped 51 percent from 1980-2000, while other European countries reported declines.

On the other hand, public transport is not impressive, especially in rural areas. Should the lure of an idyllic Peloponnesian tour overwhelm safety concerns, there are many rental companies (mostly clustered on Syngrou, near the Acropolis Metro stop). Expect to pay at least $250-$300 per week from a company like Avance (210.920.0100) or Capital (210.921.8830). The rates double at multinational chains.

Where to stay


Athens Camping is 7km west of the city centre on the Corinth road (198 Athinon; 210.581.4114). Camping in Greece, available from the tourist office, lists all 17 sites in the province of Attica. See also

The Student and Traveller's Inn offers dorm beds from $18-$30 and doubles from $65-$80. This former nursing home is a rabbit-warren of rooms, all good value for money. Cheery and simple, with a vine-shadowed courtyard (16 Kydathineon; 210.324.4808; ). The Athens International Youth Hostel is clean and blissfully quiet (thanks to double-glazing). No curfew. Fee $14/person (16 Victor Hugo; 210.523.4170;


The petite Hotel Byron nestles on the edge of the atmospheric Pláka district (19 Vironos; 210.323.0327; doubles $100-$160). For no-nonsense modern style and comfort, try the Omonia Grand Hotel. Urban renewal sent the dealers and prostitutes packing: now you're more likely to see Eurocrats and businesswomen strolling in this central neighbourhood. The hotel overlooks the main square, once a manic rotary, now a bland concrete expanse (2 Pireos Street; 210.528.2100;; doubles $170-$290).


The St George Lycabettus Hotel perches on the city's highest slope, just above the chi-chi boutiques and elegant cafes of Kolonaki. The rooftop pool has incredible views of Athens and the Saronic Gulf (2 Kleomenous; 210.729.0711,; doubles from $400).

The Hotel Grande Bretagne remains the classic choice: the "First Lady of Hospitality" has welcomed royalty, celebrities and spies for 130 years. The ornate edifice overshadows Parliament's peach palace in the heart of Athens. Gleaming from a $70 million restoration, the hotel offers discounts through June, when the final frills - pool, sauna, roof-top Acropolis Gardens - are available (Syntagma a.k.a Constitution Square; 210.333.0000;; doubles from $360-$670).

Where to eat

Ouzeri Kouklis doesn't even have a menu: just take your pick of mezedes - traditional appetisers - from the waiter's tray. Wash down batter-fried eggplant, flaming sausages and marinated peppers with a bottle of Mythos beer or jug of local wine, then stroll around the picturesque Pláka neighbourhood (14 Tripodon Street; 210.324.7605). Eden serves up tasty - but somewhat over-designed - vegetarian haute cuisine nearby (12 Lyssiou; 210.324.8858).

Athenians flock to the authentic, homey Taverna Xynos (4 Ag. Geronda; 210.322.1065) and artsy Kouti (23 Adrianou; 210.321.3229) for lunch. Too busy to stop? Grab a souvlaki at Mr. Costas (116 Adrianou) or Savvas (Mitropoleos, just before Monstiraki Square). Top it off with a pastry from the superb Kotsolis sweet shop (112 Adrianou; 210.322.1164).

Kolonaki, the see-and-be-seen quarter, is filled with trendy eateries, including the frankly-labelled Central Funky Restaurant (14 Kolonaki Square; 210.724.5938) and Mommy (4 Delphon; 210.361.9682). Celebrate special occasions farther up the hill at elegant Orizontes Lykavyttou. Diners overlook the city's sparking lights and Saronic Gulf sunset (reservations essential; on top of Lycabettus hill; accessible by cable car or path from the top of Ploutarchou Street; 210.722.7065).

History buffs shouldn't miss ancient Greek cuisine at the torch-lit Archeon Gefsis. The menu is drawn from the 15-volume Banquet of the Learned, written by 3rd-century gourmand Athineus. Dishes include chickpeas with beet-root, smoked eel and piglet stuffed with game, eggs, cheese, fried liver and chestnuts (22 Kodratou Street, Athens; 210.523.9661; also 10 Epidavrou Street, Piraeus; 210.413.8617;


Learn more about Olympic preparations, volunteer schemes and trip planning from the Athens Olympic Committee (Iolkou & Filikis Etaireias, 142 34 Nea Ionia, Athens; 210.200.4000; Contact the Greek National Tourist Organisation at 2 Amerikis Street, 105 64 Athens (210.331.0565;

The International Herald Tribune includes a section with local news and entertainment listings ( The excellent English paper, the Athens News, is published on Fridays (