A walk through Athens, then and now

More than 5,000 years ago, the Acropolis began as a fortress designed to keep foreigners out. But with the Olympic Games expected to effectively double Greek tourism this year, the "Sacred Rock" and other architectural achievements of classical Athens will attract visitors as never before.

Wedged between the two peaks of Arditos Hill, the Panathenaic Stadium sits at an angle to Vassileos Constantinou, the main thoroughfare east of downtown. A shallow, oblong structure ribbed like corduroy with rows of long white benches, it seats more than 60,000 spectators.

The sliver of playing surface (223 yards long by 36 yards wide) distinguishes this facility from its modern counterparts. Built in 330 BC, the Panathenaic Stadium was a venue of the ancient Panhellenic Games and hosted events such as wrestling matches and chariot races.

Over centuries, though, the stadium fell into ruin. It was fully restored at the end of the 19th century and, in 1896, Athens hosted the first Olympic Games of the modern era.

The simple, sinewy design of the reconstruction evokes an age when sports weren't such a flashy affair. Stripped down for a new multimillion-dollar Olympic renovation, the stadium looks as naked as the athletes of its ancient competitions.

A 15-minute walk to the west lies the Sanctuary of Zeus. Also called the Olympeion, the original temple, with more than 100 columns, was the largest on the Greek mainland.

Today, tall, muscular supports in the southeast corner prop up chunks of the architrave, or lower entablature. The other end of the foundation is a tragicsight: Two lonely shafts stand over a fallen comrade whose marble drums are splayed like tipped dominoes.

Construction began under Pisistratus the Younger in 515 BC, and continued for more than 600 years. In AD 132, the Roman emperor Hadrian arrived in Athens to dedicate the finished temple and promptly filled the holy building with statues of himself.

Just outside the sanctuary site, the emperor also erected a marble gate, marking his territory. The inscription on the side facing the Acropolis and the rest of old Athens reads: THIS IS ATHENS, THE ANCIENT CITY OF THESEUS. But the side facing the Olympeion declares: THIS IS THE CITY OF HADRIAN AND NOT OF THESEUS.

Since all that's left of his city is a few scattered stones, Hadrian's Arch actually helps glorify the Athens of his Greek predecessors. Walking through it does provide a ceremonious entrance to "the ancient city of Theseus," and when the gate is not hidden (as it is now) behind a mask of temporary metal scaffolding, it offers a nicely framed view of the Acropolis emerging from its rock like a giant wisdom tooth.

Quiet, narrow streets lead to the southeast entrance of the Acropolis site. From there the path up to the ancient city's highest and most sacred point is literally strewn with ancient remains.

Embedded in the steep southern slope is the Theater of Dionysus, where Western drama first came to life. At spring festivals in 5th-century Athens, paragons Aeschylus, Aristophanes, Euripides, and Sophocles all presented their plays on this stage - in competition, no less.

Overall, the theater is in a state of elegant decay. Tufts of grass push their way up between the flagstones of the lumpy floor, backed by an altar featuring shrines to Dionysus. The front-row seating is a line of now-battered thrones that were reserved for the VIPs of ancient Greece. There is no sign, however, of the imperial box that Hadrian had installed for himself.

What remains of the peripatos, the road that encircled the Acropolis in antiquity, leads to the Odeon of Herodes Atticus, an impressive Roman theater still in use today.

Above the Odeon, however, all the glory belongs to the Greeks, even if the star-studded Sacred Rock is going through a bit of a transitional stage. Two of the four structures - the monumental entrance to the Acropolis, called the Propylaea, and the petite Temple of Athena Nike - are caged in scaffolding, as is the north side of the prized Parthenon.

Even so, it is easy to see this world-famous Doric temple - with its cream-colored marble and a structural harmony deriving from Euclid's "Golden Ratio" - as an epitome of classical achievement.

Completed under Pericles, the Parthenon was dedicated to Athena in 438 BC. Sculptures squeezed into the cornices depicted the birth of the goddess and the contest she won against Poseidon to become the city's patron deity.

These pediments have since been removed, but fragments and model reproductions in the adjacent Acropolis Museum help the viewer piece together an image of the Parthenon in its original detailed entirety.

The fourth building, the Erechtheion, was a joint shrine to Athena and Poseidon, built between 421 and 405 BC. It is best known for its Caryatid Porch, whose marble maidens support the roof with their heads.

From the Acropolis, a meandering path descends into the ancient agora (meeting place), the social and political center of classical Athens and engine of the world's first democracy. Socrates, Aristotle, and Xenophon all lectured here.

The 30-acre archeological site includes a gleaming 1950s reconstruction of the Stoa of Attalos, once a multipurpose building that now houses a collection of agora relics.

Meanwhile, the stubby outdoor remains of walls, cemeteries, altars, and government buildings leave more to the imagination.

Nestled in a high corner of the agora is the Hephaesteion. Dedicated to Athena and Hephaestus, the Greek god of fire and metallurgy, the temple is sometimes called the Theseion because relief sculptures of that hero's adventures decorate its frieze.

Like much of the city's most celebrated architecture, the Hephaesteion is a product of the Athenian golden age in the 5th century.

Today, nestled in a high corner of the agora and flanked by hedges and a small lawn, the Hephaesteion is the best-preserved classical building in all of Greece.

This summer, the swarms of Olympic tourists will wonder how the temple has aged so well. The quick answer: adaptability.

The Hephaesteion was a Christian church for more than 12 centuries; and during the Ottoman Empire, it was even used as a cemetery for foreign travelers.

Moving around town isn't easy

If you think getting around Athens is a challenge now, just wait until August - that's what residents are telling one another. Although the city is addressing this concern as it prepares to provide quick, reliable transportation for the 2004 Summer Olympics, not everyone is confident the plan will succeed.

If successful, it would transform a city where getting from Point A to Point B is not only a chaotic adventure, but one that Athenians have long taken into their own hands.

For example, the city's 2 million automobiles hopelessly outnumber legal parking spots, so their owners find creative ways to squeeze them onto the sidewalk. Greece has the highest auto accident rate in Europe, and the capital's streets are seething with hotheaded motorists.

Frenetic lane changing is par for the course. Athenians are quick to use their horns, and it is common to see a driver bellowing expletives out his window long after the offending party has sped off. A few years ago, a public campaign was launched to reduce obscene gesturing in traffic. It hasn't necessarily helped.

The public bus system is extensive - and the government has ordered 400 new buses for the anticipated Olympic crowds - but regular schedules are rarely observed and they are posted almost nowhere. Bus maps at the stands are either too faded or too graffiti-marred to read. Athenians - particularly elderly women - cope by barking out questions to the general public before they board.

When their drivers are not on strike, taxis in Athens are abundant and cheap. The city has more cabs than either Paris or London. The starting rate is 70 cents, and it creeps upward in penny increments. Unfortunately, you get what you pay for - sometimes even less. "Hailing a taxi" usually means getting a cabby to roll down his window as he cruises by so the potential customer can shout where he's going, and the driver can decide if he wants to take the trip.

A $400 million tram line is expected to connect central Athens to the new coastal sports complexes by the end of March, and a 20-mile suburban railway linking the city to Eleftheros Venizelos Airport is in the works.

In anticipation of the Games, more than 50 miles of old roads have been upgraded and 60-some miles of new ones have been laid, including a multilane highway around the city.

The city will also implement special traffic regulations during the Olympics, such as restricting vehicle access to busy zones and reserving lanes for Games personnel.

The sleek Athens metro, built in 2000, may represent the future of the city's transportation, although at this point, its routes cover only 25 miles. With its airy, marble-floored stations and frequent trains, it is a comfortable and reliable way to get around.

The ubiquitous subway maps are remarkably simple to understand.

Compared to the noise aboveground in Athens, the hushed slide of the metro seems to belong to another world. If the rides were a bit longer, one might risk dozing through one's stop.

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