In Athens, Work Before Play

By Cindy Loose
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 18, 2004

Most of the news of Greece's preparations for the Summer Olympics is by now drearily familiar: Cranes still tower over unfinished projects; transportation will likely be inadequate for the expected 5 million spectators and 10,000 competitors; security concerns have contributed to depressed ticket sales, at least in the United States.

But one glance out my hotel window this month portends another way of looking at the situation: Athens will provide a stellar backdrop for the Games, scheduled Aug. 13-29. From the Hilton and nearly every street I walk, there is a view of the Acropolis and the Parthenon, both of which are more imposing and beautiful than millions of pictures have ever portrayed. Low-rise buildings, many glimmering white in the Mediterranean sunshine, climb the mountainsides. Tall, graceful columns and other ancient ruins dot the city, which spreads to a deep blue sea where sailboats, yachts and cruise ships bob in view of seaside restaurants.

I can't guarantee a stress-free experience for those who travel to Greece for the Games. But those watching from the comfort of their homes will be entranced, if not by the Games then at least by the scenes surrounding them.

Should the media coverage entice you to plan a trip to Athens after the Olympics, you'll arrive to find a city transformed, where several years and billions of dollars have been spent improving infrastructure and tourist attractions.

The government alone has spent as much as $20 billion on public works programs and on sprucing up Athens and other areas of Greece, including four Olympic venues outside Athens. Private enterprise has joined the investment craze, with major hotels spending an estimated $700 million. Fully 90 percent of hotels in Athens have been recently renovated and upgraded, says Dimitris Gemelos, a New York-based spokesman for the Greek Embassy. "All over Greece, the government and private companies have been remaking the nation," he says. The evidence during a week-long trip was everywhere.

The Greeks have been widely criticized for getting a slow start on preparing for the Olympics, and doubts about what will be finished in time abound. But in Washington, embassy spokesman Achilles Paparsenos predicts an outstanding show.

"We know a lot is at stake. This represents a link between the ancient and modern world, and we're going to show our best face."

That best face is on display the minute an overseas traveler arrives at the airport, with its new glass-and-marble terminal. The Athens International Airport can handle 600 flights a day, 16 million passengers a year.

The new tram wasn't completed, and I was confused by the bus system, so I have to shell out about $60 for a cab ride. On the other hand, the notorious congestion on the road to Athens is gone -- we breeze along a new highway and don't hit gridlock until we turn onto downtown streets a mile or so from our hotel.

In a jet-lagged fog, I pull open the curtain of my hotel and am jolted by an unexpected view of the Acropolis and Parthenon -- scaffolding that has been up for years is already starting to come down.

Inspired by the sight, I head to the subway, whose one old line has been fortified with several new lines and sparkling-new subway stations that are a little like mini-convention centers. In the Syntagma station, a cheese company has set up a convention-style temporary exhibit, and a giant flat-screen television broadcasts a show about Greek islands. Before going down the escalator to the train platforms, I spend half an hour looking in glass cases at the bronze, marble and clay antiquities unearthed at this spot during construction.

Nearly anywhere you dig in Athens, you find ancient treasures, Paparsenos has told me. Rather than move the finds to one of the country's dozens of museums, officials decided to display what they found when digging subway stations at the stations themselves. The best displays are at the Syntagma, Akropoli, Monastiraki and Panepistimio stations.

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