A sneak peek at pre-Games Athens

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ATHENS -- For all the talk that this city is hustling to be ready to host this summer's Olympic Games, much progress has been made, not only in constructing athletic venues but in upgrading and revitalizing transport, accommodations, monuments and even entire districts -- improvements that should benefit visitors for years to come.

Nikos Dimadis, president of the Greek National Tourism Organization, said preparation for the Olympics coincided "with an effort already under way to move into a new phase in our tourism development" and "permitted very important improvements in the tourism infrastructure of Athens."

These massive investments come as Greece enjoys record economic growth, at a rate of 4.5% last year -- among the highest in the European Union.

During a recent visit, I took a day to explore the increasingly prosperous city center both on foot and via subway, visiting must-see historic highlights and well-trodden tourist traps as well as up-and-coming or reborn neighborhoods.

Planes, trains, autos

Of course, my trip began well outside the city center, at state-of-the-art Eleftherios Venizelos Airport, which opened in March 2001 to much acclaim.

Arrival was a breeze, but getting to the city center via public transportation remained complicated; although a high-speed train link to the airport is under construction, it's not likely to be completed before 2005.

So, I hopped an express bus for a half-hour ride to the Ethniki Amyna station of Athens' efficient and modern Metro system, via several miles' worth of the 130-plus miles of roadways paved for the Summer Games.

Ethniki Amyna, a show-stopper of a subway station, boasts an underground "field" of olive-tree sculptures, a commemoration of an olive grove felled during construction.

Other stations on the metro's three train lines boast even more spectacular displays.

For example, those at Evangelismos, Daphni and Syntagma -- where I changed trains for my hotel -- boast exhibits of artifacts unearthed during construction. Some even expose ancient burial chambers -- complete with human remains.

New digs out of old digs

From Syntagma, it was two stops to my hotel, the Titania (see room key, below), a grey, "modernist" behemoth that -- like much of modern-day Athens -- was built five decades ago without so much as a nod to the city's history.

But the Titania and other properties, such as the Hotel Grande Bretagne on Constitution Square, have gotten much-needed, multimillion-dollar retrofits, again in anticipation of the Games.

The 321-room Grande Bretagne reopened last year after $85 million in improvements that resulted in new guest quarters and restaurants, a fitness center and health spa, and a rooftop pool and sundeck.

The hotel is across the square from Parliament, where, in true tourist form, I watched the hourly changing of the skirted, male evzone guards.

A short walk away, through the touristy but atmospheric Plaka area, stands the Parthenon, still holding court atop the Acropolis.

Perpetually under renovation, the Acropolis offers breathtaking views of both its temples and the city sprawled below. Be sure to visit the often-overlooked Theater of Dionysus on the southeastern slope of the hill.

Spiraling down the Acropolis via Apostolou Pavlou (St. Paul's Road), I was surprised by very upmarket cafes and restaurants in Psiri, a working-class neighborhood that transforms itself each evening into a trendy dining and drinking hot spot.

Many of the charming buildings housing Psiri's eateries are being restored, in contrast to the gritty, run-down reality of much of Athens. Head there at night for a break from the touristy aura (and prices) in Plaka.

I stopped for an espresso within view of the ancient Agora marketplace and its Temple of Hephaestus before pushing my way through the Athens Flea Market and past the spice and nut stalls that line Athinos Avenue to the more authentic Varvakios Agora meat, vegetable and fish markets.

There, visitors can jostle amid the hustle-and-bustle of actual Athenians as they haggle for ingredients for that night's moussaka and baklava.

For more information on Athens, contact the Greek National Tourist Organization

in New York at (212) 421-5777 or www.greektourism.com. Or contact the American Hellenic Tour Operators Association at (201) 963-9004 or www.ahtoa.com.

To contact reporter Kenneth Kiesnoski, send e-mail to [email protected].

Room key: TITANIA HOTEL
Address:
52 Panepistimiou Ave., Athens, Greece 10678
Phone: (011) 30-210 332-6200
Fax: (011) 30-210 383-0497
Reservations: (011) 30-210 332-6217
E-mail:[email protected]
Web:www.titania.gr
Manager: Nikolos Spiridonos
Rates: From about $157-$328, per night, for standard double.
Commissions: Negotiated
Rooms: 391
Facilities: The Olive Garden, Vergina, Brasserie restaurants
Review: Built in the 1960's as a tourist-class hotel, the Titania -- more popular with Greeks than U.S. tourists, who account for only 5% of guests -- completed two years of renovations this February to raise itself to "four-star" status, up from two, in preparation for the 2004 Olympic Games. The new, sparkling lobby and ground-floor brasserie are now world-class, stylish meeting points for Athenians and visitors alike, but the rooms, suites and hallways- while clean and updated -- are still more "tourist" than "class." Selling points: The city center location (near Omonia), its views of the Acropolis, and dinners at the rooftop Olive Garden.

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