With less than three months to go before the start of the 2004 Summer Olympic Games as organizers struggle to fast-track completion of venues, upgrade transportation corridors, and provide housing and security for athletes and spectators the world's media are focused on Athens. Prolonged construction delays and unresolved logistic details left some observers fearing that the Games, like Zorba's ill-fated logging scheme, were destined to self-destruct in a confusion of last minute glitches. But last month the IOC completed its final inspection and gave Athens the green light. On Aug. 13th the Summer Games will return to the country where they began in 776 BC, and to the city where the first Modern Olympics were held in 1896.
Even though it's been 20 years since Betty and I were in Athens the current flood of news, both good and bad, brings back vivid memories of our visit to southern Greece, and a heightened awareness of how much, and in some cases how little, things have changed since we were there.
We arrived in early August. It was hot and there was a taxi strike. With temperatures hovering in the low 40s our shoes stuck to the softened asphalt of the empty parking lot. A long sweaty walk took us to the nearest trolley, where we wedged in among the other passengers and trundled off in what we thought was the general direction of our hotel. At the end of the line a friendly passenger, who spoke a little English, informed us we should have gone the other way.
An hour later we dragged our packs into the lobby of the Electra Palace, a mid-priced hotel in the heart of old Athens. It boasts a modest roof garden with sweeping views across the city but, except for the Acropolis, the vista is singularly drab. Unlike the magnificent architecture of Classical Greece the clutter of squarish low-rise buildings that sprawl across modern Athens seems totally lacking in character. Trees are sparse, there is little green space, and the distant hills are barely visible through a haze of pollution. We divided our time between visits to the Acropolis, and exploring the narrow, winding streets of the Plaka, both within easy walking distance of our hotel.
The Acropolis, a flat-topped limestone hill which rises 200 feet above the Attica plain, has been inhabited for at least 5,000 years. Its bounding cliffs, easy to defend, made it a natural fortress with commanding views of the surrounding plains and the ocean. Springs, and later wells, provided fresh water for various peoples who lived there until 510 BC, when the Delphic Oracle declared it a holy place of the Gods and banned habitation by mortals.
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