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Athens, ready or not

Two weeks after returning from Athens, host city for the Summer Olympics, my head is swimming not with visions of Greek temples but with images of scaffolding, cranes and miles of orange plastic webbing wrapped around construction sites.

Whether Athens will be ready for the late summer sports spectacle is still a question. But for those planning to attend the Games -- tickets still are available -- the bigger questions are how to make the most of your time, what to see and what to expect, so I came here last month to find out, making the 7,000-mile journey to a city that many consider exotic.

Athens sits near the tip of the Greek peninsula, which juts into the Aegean Sea about midway between Italy and Turkey. Its seaport, Piraeus, is about six miles southwest. The Athens metropolitan area sprawls over 167 square miles -- about a third the size of Los Angeles -- and is home to 4 million people, 40% of the country’s population. It is congested, polluted and not particularly pretty.

Yet its importance as the birthplace of European civilization -- and the monuments and artifacts that remain as legacies from Greece’s golden age -- make it compelling. Its crowning glory is, of course, the Acropolis, and the majestic ruin of the 5th century BC Parthenon, reason enough to make the journey.

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Today, it is a metropolitan capital, with deluxe hotels and expensive restaurants serving Continental cuisine competing with traditional tavernas for tourists’ euros.

What doesn’t seem to have changed is the Greek mind-set. “Now” means sooner or later, which tends to explain why, only four months before the Olympics, piles of rubble sat on partly laid tram tracks, the heart of Syntagma (Constitution) Square was hidden behind a corrugated metal fence and the main Olympic stadium was roofless. Overpasses stood unfinished; road widening was a work in progress.

Will Athens pull itself together for the Games -- competitions that, one can’t help but observe, are to begin on Friday the 13th of August?

The International Olympic Committee officials have expressed concern, but Athenians tend to shrug and insist that the Greeks are simply being Greek. “Like all Mediterranean people, we do everything at the last minute,” said Haris Gargalidis of the Ministry of Press. But will Athens be ready? “We hope so.”

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Visitors planning to combine the Olympics with sightseeing may find the Parthenon still being shored up under scaffolding and part of the National Archaeological Museum -- a real city treasure -- closed for renovation.

There still are hotel rooms, from modest to deluxe, as well as apartments, but be prepared for high prices unless you’re willing to stay some distance from the venues. Athens is expensive and will be even more so during the Games. Hotels have increased their prices, some reportedly 40% or more. So have operators of day trips. “There will be new prices for the same tours,” said Yiannis Pigadas, concierge at the Athenaeum Intercontinental Hotel, where I stayed. He then produced a sheet showing that a morning tour offered by the Chat agency -- about $54 when I took it -- will increase to about $70.

The good news for those who may decide to go to Athens at the last minute is that tickets are available for most events. The only exceptions: swimming finals, some diving events and lower-priced tickets for opening and closing ceremonies (Aug. 29).

Hotel prices may cause sticker shock, but tickets are priced lower than they were in Sydney -- from $14 for one of the less popular events to $1,170 for a premium seat at the opening ceremony.

The main Olympic complex in northern Athens, which will host opening and closing ceremonies and events including the basketball final, gymnastics, swimming and diving, is a 15- to 20-minute Metro ride from the city center. Other venues are scattered about the city. The Athens 2004 committee advises visitors to be prepared for hot, dry weather (average temperature in August is close to 90 degrees) and to be ready to do some walking.

Public transport a plus

You have your tickets and you’ve booked a hotel. Your first glimpse of Athens likely will be the big, sleek international airport, which opened in 2001 about 17 miles from downtown Athens. I arrived close to midnight on a Sunday, and it took me less than half an hour by taxi on the six-lane ring road to get to the Intercontinental, on the fringes of downtown, and cost about $22, plus tip. During rush hour, it can take twice as long. A suburban railway, starting at the airport and connecting to the Metro to the city’s center, will not be finished by mid-August.

But most of the new Metro is in place, and it’s a really good transit system, safe -- thanks to regular patrolling -- and spotless. Greek street signs can be confusing -- there seem to be two or three spellings for many places -- and your fraternity-days Greek just isn’t going to cut it. But M is for Metro and stations are clearly marked with blue, white and green signs centered with the letter “M.”

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Renting a car is foolish, if not downright dangerous. (Access to Olympic venues will be by bus or Metro and will be free to those with tickets for that day’s Games.)

“Eighty percent of Americans who come to Athens and rent a car give up in the first two hours,” said George Kokkotos, my Athens guide. “Greeks are nice people, but when they take the driver’s seat, they become like animals.”

Besides, riding the Metro can be fun. Some of the new stations display contemporary art, and my favorite -- the Syntagma Square stop, hub of the system -- has a mini-museum of artifacts uncovered during construction, including a 4th century BC grave (with skeleton) and 1st century BC wine jugs. Legends are in Greek and English.

For sightseers, Syntagma Square is a good starting point. On one side of the square stands the elegant and expensive Grande Bretagne Hotel, a recently renovated 19th century landmark that was Nazi headquarters during the World War II German occupation.

A drink in its lovely Winter Garden costs about $11, but the people-watching is superb. One night I happened by just as ex-King Constantine, who has lived in self-imposed exile since a 1967 military coup, was leaving the hotel. The rooftop restaurant has a drop-dead view of the Acropolis, which is illuminated at night. Just steps away, McDonald’s sells Big Macs for about $2.75.

Tourists gather throughout the day outside the yellow parliament building on the square, where the National Guard, or evzones, in their kilts with 400 pleats (one for each year of the Ottoman occupation) and red clogs with big black pompoms regularly change shifts with a snappy routine. A ceremony with band takes place at about 11 a.m. Sundays. The 40-acre National Gardens adjacent, although poorly maintained, are one of the few green spaces in the city.

For a glimpse of the beautiful people and the places where they shop, Kolonaki Square is the place, an easy walk from Syntagma. The square and its side streets are home to chic designer boutiques, galleries, restaurants and sidewalk cafes. There’s a pedestrian mall with enough shoe stores to keep every Greek well shod.

If jewelry is your thing, Athens is your city. High-end Ilias LaLaounis, just around the corner from the Grande Bretagne Hotel at 6 Panepistimilou, has stunning handmade copies of classic Greek designs in 18- and 22-karat gold. There’s even a LaLaounis jewelry museum at 4a Karyatidon St. in Plaka, Athens’ old town.

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The narrow cobblestone streets of Plaka, at the base of the Acropolis, swarm with tourists, but it’s still a must-see. Olympic trinkets are for sale at dozens of souvenir shops, but the largest selection in Plaka is at the official store of the Summer Games at 37 Kydathinaion St. Many items bear images of the rather unfortunately chosen Games mascots, a brother and sister named Phevos and Athena, both modeled after a 7th century Greek doll. They reminded me of nothing so much as Bart Simpson on LSD.

Off nearby Monastiraki Square is a narrow street with a warren of shops selling hand-woven fabrics, leather sandals, plastic worry beads, copperware, sea sponges and dreadful replicas of Greek sculpture. Pause briefly and merchants appear, hoping to reel you in. Monastiraki is at its best on Sunday mornings, when the flea market takes over with a feast of junk and junque. You’ll find fewer tourists and more Athenians in the restaurants in the narrow streets of the newly stylish Psyrri area, just northwest of Monastiraki. I had dinner at Krasopoulio tou Kokkora, where the startled proprietor asked, “How did you happen to find us?”

It was a wonderful evening, amid Greeks singing to the music of a guitar and a mandolin-like bouzouki. It also was my introduction to beet root salad, to which I could become addicted. I can’t explain this -- usually I wouldn’t touch beets -- but sliver them and mix them with yogurt and garlic and spices and they’re delicious.

First, the Acropolis

Just strolling about, taking in the street life, is one of the pleasures of Athens, but with limited time, visitors will want to set priorities. For those in Athens for the first time, my “absolutely see” list would be topped, of course, by the Acropolis (allow a couple of hours), followed by the Archaeological Museum, which has the world’s greatest collection of Greek antiquities. The view from Lycabettus Hill, at almost 1,000 feet the tallest point in the city, is remarkable. It’s on the outskirts of Kolonaki just east of the city’s center and there’s a funicular to take you up -- or, if you have the energy and about 45 minutes, you can climb.

If you can spare a full day, the trip to Delphi (of oracle fame) is wonderful. I didn’t have time on this trip but on an earlier visit overnighted at Delphi and spent most of a day exploring the ruins and museum. A 48-mile drive south from Athens along the blue-green water of the Saronic Gulf leads to Cape Sounion, where you can enjoy a coffee (or a frappe, a Greek favorite blending instant Nescafe, water, sugar, milk and ice) while drinking in the view of the ruins of the Temple of Poseidon.

One morning I took the $54 Athens city tour offered by Chat and touted by my hotel as the best, but it was disappointing. The lion’s share of the three-plus hours was spent at the Acropolis, where our guide talked quite a bit about Greece’s ongoing quest to get back the Elgin Marbles -- or, as she pointedly called them, the Parthenon Marbles -- from the British Museum. Athenians don’t buy the idea that Lord Elgin’s acquisition of the sculptures from the occupying Turks in the early 1800s was legal.

Interesting, but another time I’d just take a good guidebook and set out solo. (A ticket to the Acropolis and the National Archaeological Museum costs about $7.) A word to the wise: Go early in the day, to beat the heat and the crowds, and wear comfortable rubber-soled shoes. There’s a long, slippery climb to the Acropolis.

Anyone who remembers Melina Mercouri as the happy hooker in “Never on Sunday,” or just likes the idea of eating fish by the seashore, will want to visit Piraeus, a short Metro ride from Athens. During the Olympics, nine cruise ships will anchor there as hotels. It’s crowded and noisy, with motorbikes buzzing past the open-air restaurants like super bees. While I was lunching at Mikrolimano, the smaller and prettier of the two boat harbors, a young man and his girlfriend came crashing down the steps into the restaurant on his motorbike, almost landing in my guide’s lap.

So, let the Games begin. These “won’t be the best Games ever,” Haris Gargalidis of the Ministry of Press told me. “We are a small country, [but] we’ll manage to organize good Games.”

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

A taste of Athens

GETTING THERE:

From LAX, connecting service (change of planes) to Athens is offered on Lufthansa, Delta, Air France, KLM, British and Swiss. Until May 29, restricted round-trip fares begin at $882. From May 30 until June 19 and Aug. 15 to Sept. 11, those fares start at $1,288; from June 20 to Aug. 14, at $1,328.

TELEPHONES:

To call the numbers below from the U.S., dial 011 (the international dialing code), 30 (country code for Greece), 210 (city code for Athens) and the local number.

WHERE TO EAT:

Psara’s, 16 Erehtheos at Erotokritou Street in Plaka; 321-8733. Tucked away on a less-traveled street in Plaka, a cozy candlelit taverna (circa 1898) serving up Greek music with its fish, grills and baked local specialties. Dinner entrees $6.75-$24.

Vivliothiki, 18 Plateia Kolonakiou, Kolonaki; 363-7897. Inviting brasserie and bar tastefully decorated with faux antique murals. A great choice for a light lunch or for dessert, a sandwich, coffee or glass of wine in the afternoon, when fashionable shoppers stop by. Most entrees $14.50-$31.50.

Byzantino taverna, 18 Kydathinaion St., Plaka; 322-7368. Touristy, yes, but nicely situated on a tree-shaded square is this welcoming, unpretentious little place for good, basic Greek specialties. There’s smoking inside, so try to nab an outdoor table. Most dinner entrees less than $18.

Krasopoulio tou Kokkora, Karaiskaki and 4 Esopou, Psyrri; 321-1565. Atmosphere aplenty in this small restaurant, whose decor includes vintage prints, photos and collectibles. Friendly, fun and local. Dinner entrees $8.50-$15.75.

Kanaris, 50 Koumoundourou; 412-2533. Overlooking Mikrolimano harbor in Piraeus. Fresh fish served seaside. Fish is sold by the kilo, which is about 2.2 pounds, enough for two or three ($60-$85 a kilo) and, by law, is cooked and presented to you with head on so you can tell whether it’s fresh.

SIGHTSEEING:

To see as much as possible in a limited time, I hired George Kokkotos, an excellent English-speaking guide (and Greek-born former New Yorker). He drives an air-conditioned limo and will charge $334 a day, for one to four people, during the Olympics. For information: 963-7030, fax 963-7029, or e-mail george_loula@hotmail.com.

TO LEARN MORE:

Greek National Tourist Organization, (212) 421-5777, www.greektourism.com.

-- Beverly Beyette


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