Friday, May 21, 2004

ATHENS — Greeks call it the “volta.” The daily stroll is a beloved ritual. It helps reduce the stress and anxiety of life in the city — especially one as congested, noisy and dusty as Athens is amid the frenzy to complete projects before the Summer Olympics.

A proper stroll — with the proper effect — must be slow. It can never be rushed.

Visitors to Athens for the Aug. 13-through-29 Olympics need only put on their walking shoes to partake in a favorite pastime and discover the other side of one of Europe’s most unruly — but lively — capitals.

A new cobblestone promenade around the base of the Acropolis offers history on two levels: the ancient monuments and a taste of turn-of-the-20th-century Athens before traffic and runaway development turned the city into an untamed sprawl of nearly 4 million inhabitants.

“The great walk” — as it is called by its architects — winds for 21/2 miles along elegant neoclassical buildings, poppy-dotted knolls and the epicenter of antiquity, including an arched 2,000-year-old open-air Roman theater ringed by olive trees. Above, the ruins on the Acropolis offer a constantly changing visual feast as the walkway winds along.

The project is part of a long-overdue face-lift to Athens’ center. The Olympics provided the momentum, but the work is expected to continue even after the athletes and spectators go home.

Under the program, called the Athens Unification of the Archaeological Sites, hundreds of neoclassical buildings have been restored, unsightly billboards have been removed, and much-needed green spaces have been planned.

“The Athens downtown will be aesthetically, environmentally and culturally upgraded … The residents and visitors of the Greek capital city will be able to enjoy a ‘vast open museum’ that will include all the archaeological sites and monuments of Athens, along with the traditional districts of its historic downtown,” according to the plans of the unification program.

Along the majestic Dionissiou Areopagitou street, lovers nuzzle on a stone wall, alfresco cafes serve iced coffees, and an outdoor cinema advertises this summer’s movie lineup. The classics are on tap, from the 1935 “Anna Karenina” to 1951’s “The African Queen.”

All is quiet. Footsteps tap on the cobblestones, tourists click their cameras, and the senses are aroused by the aroma of flowers and the grilled oregano-sprinkled kebab, or souvlaki in Greek.

Then comes a jolt back to the real Athens: the sound of digging and drilling in the full-steam race to finish Olympic works.

The International Olympic Committee’s point man for the Athens games, Denis Oswald, expressed confidence recently that the Greeks are making up for lost time. “I’m really confident if this pace is kept up, everything will be ready,” he says.

The IOC wants the steel-and-glass roof over the main stadium soon enough to allow time to install wiring, technical systems and other upgrades for the Summer Games. Pre-Olympic test events also must be held at the 75,000-seat stadium.

The roof has become the summit atop the mountains of delays. Its installation could silence some persistent critics and serve as the crowning glory of the Games. Left unfinished, it would be an embarrassing reminder of Athens’ failure to plan properly for the Games despite a seven-year lead time.

Other projects behind schedule include the soccer stadium, tram and light-rail transport works, and preparations of the classic marathon route.

Government officials also have scaled back some venues, such as a roof on the aquatic center.

For Greece, having the Olympics return to their ancient birthplace has been the catalyst for modernizing the country. New highways, a bridge designed to withstand earthquakes, a new airport, urban transportation and an Athens beautification program are upgrades that should improve the quality of life after the Games.

The post-Olympic benefits of the works is a mantra often repeated by officials to lift the spirits of frazzled Greeks, who expect the Olympics to cost far more than the $5.6 billion budget — with at least $1.2 billion going for security.

One of the most tangible changes is Athens’ revamping project, which includes the foot trail around the Acropolis. It makes up, somewhat, for the city’s lack of public green spaces and bike trails so common in other European cities.

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