Richard Turen
Richard Turen

This was always illegal until now. The Greek government had passed a law that only Greece-flagged ships could sail roundtrip from the country. As there were no truly upscale Greek passenger lines, this was hurting the economy and was quite a boost for Istanbul. Over the years, so-called cruises to the Greek islands began or ended in Turkey.

Now that has changed, and we've arrived in Athens for a bit of exploration before beginning our roundtrip sailing from Athens on a nearly perfect itinerary.

At the moment, I am sitting in a contemporary, multilevel, glass-and-stone building called Dionysus, which sits at the edge of the main bus parking lot opposite the walkway leading up to the Acropolis, a site I have visited many times and is, perhaps, my favorite of the world's ancient sites.

While sipping a perfect cappuccino freddo served with miniature almond cakes and writing notes to myself, I keep looking up. It is impossible not to.

The Parthenon sits high above at the confluence of two ancient, perpendicular stone walls. From my viewpoint, it looks poised on the edge, and I can see the sunlight passing between the columns. I see no people. They are hidden below the top of the walls. I only see the structure, posing center stage left, giving me still another travel gift I can never forget.

The building's columns hide a treasure trove of memories. It was an ancient munitions storage center, then a church, and it later became a mosque. It was an army barracks, later attacked by the Venetians, and it was thoroughly looted by the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, Thomas Bruce, the seventh Earl of Elgin. Yet it still stands, an act of defiance and perseverance, much like the city itself.

I always keep a notebook of "best strategies" when I travel. Today I advised myself that clients should skip a large breakfast and meet their guide in the hotel lobby at 7:30 a.m. That way they will arrive at the Acropolis at 8 a.m., when it opens, before crowds occupy the grounds and the bus parking lot fills up. If the gods are with us, my clients won't be too late for a partial sunrise. I will then have them brought to this wonderful cafe for brunch and an opportunity to savor and reflect on the building in front of them.

Athens is easily Europe's oldest city and one of the world's oldest cities, as well. It can trace its origins to about 3,400 years ago. But there were local inhabitants for more than 4,000 years before that.

And still, the city functions. In fact, the traffic seems more controlled. The streets are cleaner than I have ever seen them. The new airport is certainly an improvement. The restaurant scene is active, and the Kolonaki shopping district is still trendy and crowded.

Kolonaki is an aristocratic neighborhood in central Athens. It is situated at an exclusive location encompassed by Syntagma Square, Vasilissis Sofias Avenue and the southwestern slopes of Lycabettus Hill. Sitting proudly on the corner of Syntagma Square is Athen's best hotel, the Grande Bretagne.

Across the street is the Parliament building, where the changing of the guard takes place hourly. Huge demonstrations took place here eight years ago when an austerity program was introduced after the country's debt became unmanageable. The Grande Bretagne has seen it all, a strong lady with a thick facade. But I cannot pass the hotel without remembering that it served as Nazi headquarters during the German occupation in World War II.

There are so many secrets buried beneath this ancient city. Even the name is shrouded in myth. It is said that Athena and Poseidon each wanted to be the official guardian of the city. To ingratiate themselves to the people as well as to the gods, they each selected a gift. Poseidon offered a saltwater spring, but Athena's gift of olive trees won over the population.

Today, it seems, every Athenian tourist guide is an unemployable archaeologist who lectures visitors on the medicinal value of olive oil. They seem not to know that when we purchase olive oil in the States it is made in Italy, and there is a good chance that Greek olives are being bottled somewhere in the country.

I spent some time learning my way around Kusadasi, Turkey. The Turks simply place antiquities on a higher level than the Greeks. I remembered that fully 60% of the wonderful archaeological find of Akrotiri on the Greek island of Santorini remains uncataloged. The Greek government simply doesn't have the money to fund ventures devoted to saving the antiquities.

What, I wonder, must it be like to do a construction dig in this city? Some of the greatest archaeological finds of all time occurred when Greece decided to build a new Athens Metro for the 2004 Olympic Games. The unimaginable finds included more than 50,000 cataloged artifacts.

As I married into a totally entertaining, proud Greek family 34 years ago, I have been rather involved with Greece and this city. On this trip, I expected to find despair. I found none. Instead, there is a kind of stubborn optimism.

A university economics professor told me, "The crooks were kicked out, and we replaced them with someone with little experience. But he is young and somewhat good looking, so we are hoping he is less of a crook than his predecessors."

A university student told me that the Greeks can't believe how poorly the prime minister speaks English. Greeks begin studying English in the third grade, and by the time they are entering university, most speak three or four languages.

The guides still smile when discussing the average Athenian's relationship with the government. They no longer blame the Germans for pushing for strict austerity to pay off the country's massive debt. Everyone seems to understand that tourism is the key to the country's future. Many of the taxis are new Mercedeses, and the country is not overpopulated.

The population of Greece is about 11 million, and about a third of that is in Athens. The small villages are just barely hanging on. There is little heavy industry, and unemployment hovers around 38%. State-funded colleges are free, as is health care.

But one has to pass a rigorous test to gain entrance to a public college, and if you want a uniquely qualified doctor or surgeon, you will have to pay for it.

Greece has been a stepping stone for refugees headed north, and Athenians are generally proud of the way they have handled the crisis. Of course, it has been made easier by the fact that the refugees want to keep moving toward Germany and, hopefully, Scandinavia. They are not looking to settle anywhere where four out of 10 adults can't find employment.

I went to the villages, and they each told the same story: boarded-up homes or small properties with a sprinkling of olive trees are sold to foreigners in cash for far below what they were worth just 10 years ago.

I remember once visiting Athens and going out to dinner with a group of friends. The men went out into the street after dinner to try to hail a taxi to take us back to the hotel. The taxis would slow down, and you had to yell where you wanted to go through the open window on the passenger side. On this night none would stop. There were too many of us, a problem best avoided. We only got home when the women volunteered to stop three taxis. It took them less than five minutes.

Today, the taxis have meters that actually work, and the drivers seem more intent on taking passengers where they actually want to go. They are trying to make a good impression. They really are. Given that they invented democracy (for men only, I must point out), let's see what we can do to support them in their efforts.

The Greeks have ample historical reasons to be proud of their heritage. As my late father-in-law once told me, "We Greeks invented everything worth anything in this life and a few things that aren't worth much."

I am pulling for this city.

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