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Athens: A modern marvel

A decade ago, Athens was a smog-choked metropolis with scant regard for its ancient treasures. But as Simon Calder reports, the Olympics were the catalyst that turned it into one of Europe's most alluring capitals

Saturday 03 June 2006 00:00
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Forty-eight hours: not a bad premise for a city-break feature, The Independent concluded back in the Eighties. Since then, the series prescribing a good weekend in the world's great cities has covered everywhere from Istanbul (the first victim) to Tokyo (today's target). But in the Nineties there was one glaring exception to the 48-hour rule; after a research trip to the Greek capital, the headline switched to Eight Hours in Athens.

"Surviving the Greek capital is a marathon in itself", was how the story uncharitably began. "But providing you're first in the queue for the Parthenon, you can jog around the city's few redeeming features in less than a single day before heading for the ferries."

For a couple of millennia and more, "Athens" and "civilisation" were synonymous; at some stage, they became antonyms; the Greek capital became a city choked by both traffic and its effluent, the foul blanket of smog known as the nephos. Not any more.

The tip about arriving early to see the architectural miracle of the Parthenon still holds true. Yet in a decade, Athens has transformed from a place where "all the indices of urban unpleasantness are out of control" to an alluring, vibrant and indulgent city. And largely thanks to a sporting event.

Barcelona and Sydney certainly reaped an Olympic dividend, but nothing compared to the capital of the nation where the ultimate test of human prowess originated. "Suddenly every Greek was so proud of his country," says Sofia Ignatidou, who writes on music and nightlife for Capital A magazine. "It was a great victory for our self-esteem." (So, it must be said, was Greece's triumph in the 2005 Eurovision Song Contest.)

At times, the task of following Sydney as host to the world's greatest sporting event looked almost beyond the reach of one of the EU's smaller member states. Athens had far more work than most venues to make itself ready for the Olympic party. But the city succeeded. And during the event, something else happened: the city, previously one of the most mono-ethnic of Europe's capitals, opened up to ideas from all over the planet. "That proved very stimulating," says Ignatidou. "All the things that started with the Olympics are moving on: from design shops opening to more festivals and events."

Those with credit-card limits of Olympian proportions will head for the Kolonaki area. Upmarket stores in this wealthy niche just off Syntagma Square are proliferating in response to increasingly prosperous locals and visitors - including one man who has done much to make Athens more accessible: Stelios Haji-Ioannou, founder of easyJet.

"As a Greek I felt very proud the other day, when I landed in Athens without having made arrangements for anyone to pick me up," he says. "It was such a pleasant, civilised experience that one would not have expected even 10 years ago. I walked from the airport into the Metro, sat on the train for less than half an hour and I was in the centre of Athens next to the Hilton Hotel."

Rather like some of Britain's over-running Millennium projects, not all the fruits of infrastructure projects ripened for the Olympics. While the new airport opened in good time for the Games, the rail link to the centre has only recently been completed. It was well worth waiting for: the Metro is wonderfully swift and your €3 (£2.20) ticket remains valid for the rest of Athens' public transport system for a further 24 hours.

The Metro has other pleasant surprises. At Acropolis station, you are confronted with a sight that will be strangely familiar to anyone acquainted with the highlights of the British Museum: sculptures from the east pediment of the Parthenon, better known as the Elgin Marbles. These are, of course, replicas. But if the designers of the new Acropolis Museum have their way, the originals will be home soon.

Unlike the gloomy structure up on the hill that it is to replace, the new museum is designed to allow in plenty of natural light. It will have room for 10 times as many pieces as the present museum - including some that are currently absent. "It's going to have gaps where other museums have works of art," says Kiriakos Karseras, an archaeologist and writer. "The pressure will be on other governments to send things back."

The climb to the top of the hill is demanding and, initially, disappointing. To see the Parthenon in something like its original glory, you should go west to Nashville, Tennessee, which, bizarrely, boasts a full-sized replica of the structure. But the diminished original is still the greatest.

The magnificent structures on the Acropolis endured centuries of upheaval; the Parthenon became a Christian church, then a mosque until 1687 - when it was being used as an ammunition store during an attack by the Venetians. A shell struck the Parthenon, and the rest is ancient history. The next blow was clumsy restoration work, and much of the present scaffolding is putting right that unhappy chapter. But look beyond the steel skeleton and you witness a miracle.

The Parthenon appears even more spectacular than its scale - eight columns by 17 - would suggest. Astonishingly, it has no straight lines. The base curves upwards, the columns slant inwards. The full weight of Classical mathematics, science and architecture was applied to create the world's biggest optical illusion. The subtle curves are designed to make the structure look even taller, defiantly rectangular and more alive, than the reality of the old stones.

While the builders are in, treat yourself to an inspection of the Erectheoen - the temple to Athena Nike in a fold of the hilltop just north of the Parthenon. Its fragility is belied by its antiquity. The slender Ionic structure, predicated upon six caryatids, bestows a grace and elegance that transcends even the supreme temple. Looking outwards is equally rewarding. The 360-degree view reveals a city whose time has come once again. Your gaze skips along the red roofs huddled below the Acropolis, then has to hurdle over the concrete cubes that are strewn across the suburban carpet. Yet few cities have so spectacular a backdrop: muscular mountains protecting the north of the city; the sheen of the Aegean, from which (on a good day) islands emerge through the mist, and the corrugated horizon of the Peloponnese.

No city has a greater sense of time than Athens: as you walk through it, the centuries peel back. Other cities can make claims for the world's greatest museum - the Louvre in Paris, the Hermitage in St Petersburg - but none can claim such command of antiquity as the National Archaeological Museum. The collection stops around two * * millennia ago, but by that point it has been celebrating 7,000 years of human achievement, back through Mycenaean and Cycladic eras to Neolithic times. The museum closed for nearly three years before the Olympics and re-opened triumphantly shortly before the Games. Gone is the plodding, stuffy chronology; today, the principle is to provide plenty of light and space to intensify the achievements of the ancients.

How best to make sense of the collection? Hire a licensed, English-speaking guide for €70 (£50); I was tutored by Irene Pavlou, a guide diplomée, who in the course of an hour revealed secrets that most visitors miss. Such as fragments of ceramics known as ostraka, on which Athenians could inscribe the name of a citizen who was considered a danger to the city. If 6,000 such votes were cast, the man was duly ostracised.

The sculptures of gods and humans made long before the birth of Christ possess extraordinary vigour. Irene Pavlou's favourite is one of a beautiful young woman " who died before she could properly live". It dates from 550BC and was discovered in 1972, not far from the site of the new Athens airport. The original rich colours have been preserved, along with a wealth of sculptural detail - and a heartbreaking epigram that, in the land of Eros and Aphrodite, roughly translates as: "I met death instead of love".

Some of the young of Athens still live each day as though it were their last. "Most people stay up until six in the morning," says Sofia Ignatidou. The current centre of indulgence, whether you are looking for jazz, techno or a taverna, has moved to the formerly run-down Psiri neighbourhood just west of the centre. It is around here that you will also find some of the new Athenians - workers from the Indian sub-continent and the former Soviet Union. Two immediate consequences for the visitor: plenty of internet cafés, and the prospect at last of a decent curry. Yet to opt for a chicken tikka masala when the city has so much else to offer would be a sin worthy of ostracism.

At the Cafe Avissinia, which is about as central as any restaurant can get - on Avissinia Square in Monastiraki - you have to battle with the locals for a table. Choose the ground floor to appreciate the robust, friendly architecture (the same terms describe the service, and the food), or the first floor for a view of the Parthenon to accompany the encyclopedia of Greek flavours: dakos from Crete (dried barley bread with tomato and goat's cheese) followed by meat dishes from Macedonia, accompanied by salads as verdant as spring in the foothills of Mount Olympus. Elementary, and superb.

The land of Bacchus has yielded some excellent wines, especially young whites; try Savatiano, from Spata, for a very reasonable €14 (£10). Countless holidaymakers have also discovered that Greece also produces some potentially dangerous drinks based on aniseed and pine resin. Ignatidou says the traditional British complaint about the after-effects of ouzo or retsina (or, in extreme cases of recklessness, both) has a simple remedy: "You are drinking too much, and too fast. If you drink slowly, you will not have any problem."

To appreciate the local liquor, seek out the Ouzadiko Restaurant in the unlikely location of the Lemos International Shopping Centre in Kolonaki. The name means "the ouzo place", and besides excellent food, it offers nearly 700 varieties of the aniseed drink.

Even so, you may still be the sort of traveller who wakes up not knowing where you are. What you need is a room at the Periscope Hotel, one of the new breed of boutique lodgings. A dozen rooms, a dozen aerial photographs of Athens on the ceiling that enables you to slip off to sleep with a vision of the city, and wake with a day of urban adventure. To delve more deeply into the corners of Athens, you can descend to the stylish bar and take command of the "periscope" (a rotating television camera) on the roof that display images of the city on plasma screens. You won't find this sort of facility at the Athens International Youth Hostel, but you will find a comfortable bed where you could stay for a month for just £200. The Hilton charges about that for one night. It is one of the few Sixties structures that has architectural merit. But to the credit of the city authorities, much of the damage of the latter 20th century has been repaired.

Around the Acropolis, the roads that once intimidated the visitor have been replaced by walkways, lawns and flowerbeds. Man is on the way to displacing motors, allowing you to appreciate in a degree of tranquillity the achievements of the ancients. View the Parthenon from every angle. In the foreground you will walk through flowers, past neo-classical villas with freshly scrubbed façades, and into the tangled lanes of Plaka.

"Mother of Arts and Eloquence" was John Milton's verdict of Athens in Paradise Regained. The utopia was, for a time, lost, but is now re-establishing itself.

Once, you went to Athens exclusively for the old. Now you should go there for the new, or the re-born. Close to Syntagma Square, the former stables of King Otto (later the Nazi HQ in occupied Greece) has become the Attica department store. Hermès, Dolce & Gabbana and Nike are here - but home-grown retail offerings include a number of Greek designers plus a store specialising in homeopathic cosmetics. City, heal thyself.

"Try to breathe, and the air poisons you", warned The Independent. "Try to cross a road, and a conspiracy of cars prevents you. The Greek capital puts you in a bad mood as soon as you arrive." Oops.

"It's a really friendly, liveable city," counters Kiriakos Karseras, the archaeologist with an eye for the future.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

Simon Calder flew from Gatwick with British Airways (0870 850 9 850; www.ba.com) for £174 return. BA also flies from Heathrow, as does Olympic Airlines (0870 606 0640; www.olympicairlines.com), which also flies from Manchester. The no-frills carriers are easyJet (0905 821 0905; www.easyjet.com) from Luton and Gatwick, and FlyGlobespan (08705 561522; www.flyglobespan.com) from Stansted.

STAYING THERE

The cheapest place to stay is probably the International Youth Hostel at 16 Victor Hugo Street (00 30 210 523 2 049). A bed in a dormitory costs a very reasonable €14 (£10), excluding breakfast. There may be less expensive places, but you probably wouldn't want to stay in any of them.

At the other end of the spectrum is the Periscope Hotel (00 30 210 729 7200; www.periscope.gr) at 22 Haritos Street in Kolonaki, where double rooms start at €150 (£107), including breakfast.

EATING THERE

Café Avissinia (00 30 210 321 7047; www.avissinia.gr), on Avissinia Square in Monastiraki.

Ouzadiko Restaurant (00 30 210 729 5484), Lemos International Shopping Centre, Karnadeadou Street, Kolonaki.

MORE INFORMATION

Greek National Tourist Office: 4 Conduit Street, London W1 (020-7495 9300; www.gnto.co.uk).

To download the writer's podcast on Athens, visit www.independent.co.uk/passport

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