Two weeks after returning from Athens, host city for the Summer Olympics, my head is swimming not with visions of Greek temples but with images of scaffolding, cranes and miles of orange plastic webbing wrapped around construction sites.
Whether Athens will be ready for the late summer sports spectacle is still a question. But for those planning to attend the games -- tickets still are available -- the bigger questions are how to make the most of your time, what to see and what to expect, so I came here in March to find out, making the 7,000-mile journey to a city that many consider exotic.
Athens sits near the tip of the Greek peninsula, which juts into the Aegean Sea about midway between Italy and Turkey. Its seaport, Piraeus, is about six miles southwest. The Athens metropolitan area sprawls over 167 square miles -- about twice the size of Baltimore -- and is home to 4 million people, 40 percent of the country's population. It is congested, polluted and not particularly pretty.
Yet its importance as the birthplace of European civilization -- and the monuments and artifacts that remain as legacies from Greece's golden age -- make it compelling. Its crowning glory is, of course, the Acropolis, and the majestic ruin of the fifth-century B.C. Parthenon, reason enough to make the journey.
Today, it is a metropolitan capital, with deluxe hotels and expensive restaurants serving Continental cuisine and competing with traditional tavernas for tourists' euros.
What doesn't seem to have changed is the Greek mindset. "Now" means sooner or later, which tends to explain why, only a few months before the Olympics, piles of rubble sat on partly laid tram tracks, the heart of Syntagma (Constitution) Square was hidden behind a corrugated metal fence and the main Olympic stadium was roofless. Overpasses stood unfinished; road widening was a work in progress.
Will Athens pull itself together for the games -- competitions that, one can't help but observe, are to begin on Friday the 13th of August? The International Olympic Committee officials have expressed concern, but Athenians tend to shrug and insist that the Greeks are simply being Greek.
"Like all Mediterranean people, we do everything at the last minute," said Haris Gargalidis of the Ministry of Press. But will Athens be ready? "We hope so."
Visitors planning to combine the Olympics with sightseeing may find the Parthenon still being shored up under scaffolding and part of the National Archaeological Museum -- a real city treasure -- closed for renovation.
There still are hotel rooms, from modest to deluxe, as well as apartments, but be prepared for high prices unless you're willing to stay some distance from the venues. Athens is expensive and will be even more so during the games.
Hotels have increased their prices, some reportedly 40 percent or more. So have operators of daytrips. "There will be new prices for the same tours," said Yiannis Pigadas, concierge at the Athenaeum Intercontinental Hotel, where I stayed. He then produced a sheet showing that a morning tour offered by the Chat agency -- about $54 when I took it -- will increase to about $70.
The good news for those who may decide to go to Athens at the last minute is that tickets are available for many events. Hotel prices may cause sticker shock, but tickets are priced lower than they were in Sydney -- from $14 for one of the less popular events to $1,170 for a premium seat at the opening ceremony.
The main Olympic complex in northern Athens -- which will be the location of the opening and closing ceremonies and events including the basketball final, gymnastics, swimming and diving -- is a 15- to 20-minute Metro ride from the city center. Other venues are scattered about the city. The Athens 2004 committee advises visitors to be prepared for hot, dry weather (average temperature in August is close to 90 degrees) and to be ready to do some walking.
Public transport a plus
You have your tickets and you've booked a hotel. Your first glimpse of Athens likely will be the big, sleek international airport, which opened in 2001 about 17 miles from downtown Athens.
I arrived close to midnight on a Sunday, and it took me less than half an hour by taxi on the six-lane ring road to get to the Intercontinental, on the fringes of downtown, and cost about $22, plus tip. During rush hour, it can take twice as long. A suburban railway, starting at the airport and connecting to the Metro to the city's center, will not be finished by mid-August.
But most of the new Metro is in place, and it's a really good transit system, safe -- thanks to regular patrolling -- and spotless. Greek street signs can be confusing -- there seem to be two or three spellings for many places -- and your fraternity-days Greek just isn't going to cut it. But M is for Metro and stations are clearly marked with blue, white and green signs centered with the letter "M."