As Athens prepares for a sporting renaissance, the big question is: will they be ready?
Athens. Named after Athena, goddess of wisdom, centrepoint of the ancient world, this city was the birthplace not only of democracy and western civilisation, but also the ancient and modern Olympics.
The city is attracting world attention these days as host of the XXVIII Olympic Games in 2004.
History shows that the first games were held in August 776 BC, lasting for five days, with events such as wrestling and chariot racing. The ultimate prize was an olive wreath, the emblem for the 2004 Games. Other awards were shields and woolen cloaks. From 702BC, athletes were made to compete naked to prevent cheating and those who made false starts were whipped. The games were banned in 339AD, as after 12 centuries they were deemed to be pagan.
The first modern Olympics were held in Greece in 1896, with foot racing, wrestling, javelin and discus the only sports remaining from the ancient Olympics. The 1896 Games had just 245 athletes from 14 nations, but spectator numbers at the Panathenaic Stadium were high. The next Games, held in Paris and St Louis, had disappointing receptions, so they returned to Athens in 1906. This time there were 900 athletes from 20 countries.
One large obstacle for Athens residents and visitors now is the sinister nephos (smog cloud), which hangs over the city making life quite unpleasant. Authorities intent on presenting a "clean" Olympics have banned cars from the central Plaka, limiting driver access in the city to alternate days only. And a mass-transit subway has been installed, with advertisement-free, marble stations which display archaeological finds discovered during construction. Businesses in Athens which produce any sort of pollution have been made to relocate and much work is being done on archaeological sites, classical buildings and public squares. A new airport is up and running.
Right now it seems that the city is just one big construction site, but locals, without exception, believe Athens will be ready.
One really successful step has been reunifying the city's ancient sites. Places such as the Acropolis and Plaka will be joined by paths.
Restoration is centred around the Acropolis entrance, the Parthenon, Hadrian's Library and the Roman Agora.
The Acropolis is the reason for Athens's very existence and, with the Parthenon, it stands guard over the city, visible from almost everywhere. Floodlighting gives it a beautiful ethereal look at night and during the day, its white marble gleams.
The Parthenon (meaning virgin's temple) was the largest Doric temple ever completed in Greece and the only one to be built entirely of Pentelic marble. It was commissioned by Pericles to house an enormous gold, ivory and precious jewel statue of Athena and as a treasury. The statue was completed in 432BC but disappeared from Constantinople in 426BC. The Roman copy can be seen in the National Archaeological Museum.
The Plaka is the oldest continuously inhabited section of Athens and has a number of archaeological sites, including the Greek and Roman agoras. It is also a place of restaurants, cafes, nightclubs, souvenir shops and hard sell.
Syntagma Square is home to much of the Athens government. The marvellous neoclassical building at the head of the square is the Greek Parliament building. Much construction has gone on to build an underground railway station there and there are lots of incongruous gaudy fast-food places as reminders of the 20th and 21st centuries.
The Best Western Esperia Palace Hotel, not far from Syntagma Square, is rated four-star. It gives easy access to commercial and shopping areas and is walking distance to the Acropolis, museums, National Garden and Plaka.
Athens, capital of Greece
Best Western Esperia Palace Hotel has rooms starting at around $305 per double per night, including breakfast.
Qantas flies daily to London with British Airways connections starting from $2396 from Adelaide, $2398 from Melbourne, $2407 from Darwin, $2408 from Perth, $2410 from Brisbane and $2415 from Sydney. Prices are per person and include charges/taxes and are current at time of recording, but may vary at time of booking. Seasonal surcharges and conditions apply.
Please note prices are valid at time of transmission and to the best of our knowledge are inclusive of GST.
Hellenic Tourism Organisation
Ph: (02) 9241 1663
Best Western Esperia Palace Hotel
22 Stadiou Street, Athens 10564
Ph: 0011 301 0323 8001
Fax: 0011 301 0328 8100www.bestwestern.com
City of Athenswww.athensguide.gr
Athens Olympics 2004www.athens.olympics.org
George the Taxi DriverGeorge_loula@hotmail.com