An airport layover in Athens? Plan a quick visit to the Acropolis

Airport lounges, even the best of them, are no fun. But many of the cities on whose edges they sit are fun, and then some. Take Athens, for instance. In fact, take Athens especially. Athens is a frequent layover point for plane trips from the United States or Europe to Africa, the Middle East, and the Far East. I've paused in the ancient Greek center several times, always on the way to or from someplace else, never leaving the airport, never seeing the city's major sights.

On my most recent trip through, however, I was determined to quit the airport lounge and glimpse the Acropolis. I had four hours between my airplane arrival and cruise ship departure. This, I discovered, was enough time to take a cab to the historic ruins, climb about the marble pillars that stand notably high above the city, explore the hilltop museum that sits in the Parthenon's shadow, and even relax for half an hour in a caf'e at the foot of the Acropolis before heading to the port. I do not recommend this as the way to see Athens, but it is certainly one way to enjoy a four-hour stopover to the hilt and at least get a first-person peek at the city's most famous feature.

A word of warning before I offer the details of this pleasant whirlwind: On Tuesdays you can admire the Acropolis only from afar, as it is closed. Every other weekday (9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.) and Sunday (10 a.m. to 3 p.m.) it is open. You can get there from the airport cab stand in under 20 minutes for less than $4. (It's wise to negotiate the fee with your driver before climbing into his cab.) He'll probably offer to wait for you while you tour, but that's not necessary, for at the base of the Acropolis you can easily hail another cab for your return trip to the airport.

The cab ride will take you through modern Athens. But well before you are dropped off at the Acropolis, you will see that ancient landmark rise hauntingly in the distance, luring you back in time, a vivid contrast to the skyscrapers and madhouse traffic that surround you. When you leave your cab, you'll walk up a wide cobblestone pathway to the third-century Beule Gate, and you'll pay just over $1 (150 drachmas) to enter the renowned heart of old Greece. Don't expect to have the place to yourself. From April through November, you'll find crowds of other travelers wearing cameras like necklaces, and traipsing around in shorts and sunshirts under a glorious blue sky. From December to March, the crowds are pleasantly smaller and primarily Greek, but there is a good possibility of chilly, wet air. The miracle of this site, however, is that no matter how small or large the crowds or how wet or dry the day, it is equipped to carry you back 2,500 years and stir your imagination and senses with its beauty.

Ancient Greek cities were frequently built around fortified hills, and this citadel was one of several acropolises (``high towns'') of its day, such as Corinth and Thebes. But then, as now, it was preeminently the Acropolis, sculptured atop a 10-acre mesa-like rock, 300 feet high and crowned with the sublime Parthenon.

To enter the Acropolis, you stretch your legs on steep, time-worn steps up to the monumental Propylaea, a once-roofed limestone threshold still marked by its original faade of six doric columns of white marble. For a thousand years, the first thing people encountered after passing through this entrance was a colossal bronze statue of the virgin goddess Athena, daughter of Zeus and guardian of the city. In AD 6th century, she was carted off to Constantinople (now Istanbul). All that is left of her today is the base on which she stood. Consequently, the visitor's eye goes right to the Parthenon, which stands on the highest point of the rock, its fluted columns rising into the blue to hold up a ceiling no longer there.

Like the Propylaea, the Parthenon was designed by and constructed under the direction of the masterful artist Phidias, often referred to as ``the greatest sculptor of all time.'' In the wake of the Greeks' 5th-century BC victory over the Persians, Phidias was commissioned by his friend Pericles, head of the powerful Athenian city-state, to build a temple to the virgin goddess Athena. It was Pericles's intention that the temple would stand through the ages as a symbol of thanksgiving for the liberty Athena bestowed upon her people. He named the magnificent building ``the virgin's place,'' that is ``the Parthenon,'' and after 2,500 years it still stands.

Just north of the Parthenon lies the Erechtheum Temple, noted for its caryatid maidens -- six elegant doric figures gracefully supporting the south porch roof of the temple. Recently, it was discovered that air pollution has decayed these stone maidens alarmingly, so they have been replaced with fiberglass replicas.

Magnificent as it is, what is before you is but a hint of what once was. The bulk of the masterful sculptures that once graced this high town were stolen, destroyed, or purchased centuries ago.

Missing for hundreds of years is Athena Parthenos, the 12-meter gold and ivory statue of the goddess Athena. Sculptured by Phidias himself for an elaborate chamber in the Parthenon, it was considered the chief treasure of ancient Athens.

Also missing since the early 19th century are the famed Elgin marbles, including sculptures that originally decorated the pediments of the Parthenon. These exquisite carvings were purchased in 1806 for $370,000 by the British ambassador to Constantinople, Lord Elgin. In 1816, he sold them to the British Museum for $175,000, in the face of bitter controversy about their artistic value and his right to remove them from Athens. To this day there is a movement in Greece to have them returned from London to Athens.

Some of the surviving Acropolis sculptures are harbored in the cool shadows of a small museum at the eastern end of the Parthenon. Here you can see the winged Nike that once graced the balustrade of the Athena Nike Temple, built alongside the Propylaea to honor the goddess of victory. There are plaster models of the east and west pediments of the Parthenon, as well as the actual bas reliefs from the friezes that decorated the Parthenon's interior. And, important to those of us who are only passing through, here you can buy a catalog that you can turn to later to tell you what you've seen.

If your stroll through the museum is not too leisurely, you will have time to drink in a breathtaking view or two from your sky-high vantage point. Southwest you'll see the Odeon, an 8,000-seat open-air theater built by the Greek poet Herodes Atticus in AD 161 and still used for the Athens summer festival of drama and music. Southeast is the 330 BC Theatre of Dionysos, honoring the Greek Patron of Drama who, like Athena, was the child of Zeus. Beyond that is the Temple of Zeus, the Greeks' supreme god, son of Father Time himself (Titan Cronus). Northeast is the famed placka, the oldest inhabited section of Athens. It is a marvelous maze of skinny streets, small squares, churches, caf'es, and shop stalls. (So marvelous, in fact, that if you are in Athens on a Tuesday when the Acropolis is closed, you might want to visit the placka and look up at the Acropolis rather than vice versa.)

By now it is time to hike down from the temples of the gods to the caf'e nestled in the trees at the southwest foot of the Acropolis. In this arbor-bordered restaurant, you can get a hot or cool drink accompanied by a slice of baklava (a pastry of phyllo dough, nuts, and honey), moussaka (eggplant, ground beef, and a bechamel sauce), or gemista (vegetables stuffed with rice in a lemon or tomato sauce). There is a clean restroom, where you can wash your hands and splash your face before venturing out to hail your cab. Just cross the highway that curves between the caf'e and the walkway to the Acropolis, and start waving your hands.

Catch a cab. Catch a plane. Read your catalog.

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