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Athens

Athens is the city that Greeks love to hate, complaining that it's too expensive, too crowded, too polluted. Some 40% of the country lives here, making the city burst at the seams with 5 million inhabitants, a rumored 15,000 taxis -- but try to find one that's empty -- and streets so congested that you'll suspect that each of the 5 million Athenians has a car. The Metro (subway) opened its first station in Syntagma Square in January 2000, had stations open throughout central Athens in time for the summer 2004 Olympics, and continues to add new stations. In 2004, the Metro link with Athens International Airport was completed. Athens, along with the rest of Greece, is basking in the afterglow of the Olympic Games that brought new roads, new museums, and a new self-confidence to the country as the Olympics went off without a hitch.

Inevitably, there's muttering about just how Greece will pay its very big bill for staging the Olympics. With the dollar weak and post-Olympics inflation high, visitors should keep in mind that Athens is no longer a bargain-hunter's paradise. It is, however, a much more charming city than it was before much of downtown Athens was spiffed up with pedestrianized streets (no cars) perfect for strolling past the most famous ancient site in the world: the Acropolis.

Athens now boasts an "Archaeological Park," which for tourists means that they now can walk along streets (including Dionissiou Areopagitou), for pedestrians only, that link Hadrian's Gate, the Acropolis, the Ancient Agora, and Kerameikos cemetery. The legendary Grande Bretagne hotel in Syntagma Square and the Hilton on Vasillisis Sophias Boulevard were entirely remodeled for the Olympic year and beyond. The Metro has significantly diminished Athens's endemic gridlock and nefos (smog). Still, traffic in central Athens can be fierce. Visitors may be forgiven for sometimes wondering if Athens, with all its fabled glories, is the ideal holiday destination. Don't despair. You'll almost certainly develop your own love-hate relationship with the city, snarling at the traffic and gasping in wonder at the Acropolis, fuming at the taxi driver who tries to overcharge you -- and marveling at the stranger who realizes that you're lost and walks several blocks out of his way to take you where you're going.

Even though you've probably come here to see the "glory that was Greece," perhaps best symbolized by the Parthenon and the superb displays in the National Archaeological Museum, allow some time to make haste slowly in Athens. Your best moments may be spent sitting at a small cafe, sipping a tiny cup of the sweet sludge that the Greeks call coffee; or getting hopelessly lost in the Plaka -- only to find yourself in the shady courtyard of an old church or suddenly face-to-face with an ancient monument you never knew existed. With only a little advance planning, you can find a good hotel here, eat well in convivial restaurants, enjoy local customs such as the refreshing afternoon siesta and the leisurely evening volta (stroll) -- and leave Athens planning to return, as the Greeks say, tou chronou (next year).

You'll probably be pleasantly surprised at how very impressed locals are if you master the basics of ya-sas (hello) and efcharisto (thank you). If you have trouble pronouncing "efcharisto," here's a suggestion: It sounds a lot like the name "F. Harry Stowe." If you're still having trouble, try merci (French for "thank you"), which most Greeks use interchangeably with efcharisto.

And if you do get caught in an Athenian gridlock, remember what it was like when the Parthenon was built: Teams of mules dragged carts laden with 12-ton blocks of marble from Mount Pendeli along today's Queen Sophia Avenue to the Acropolis. If an axle broke, traffic stopped for several days until the damage was repaired.

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