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|| News Item: Posted 2003-09-29

Countdown to the Olympics
Getting to Athens

By Bill Auth, US News & World Report

Photo by
We sat on the runway at Dulles for 45 minutes after our flight pulled away from the gate, waiting for the Great Blackout of 2003 to pass. Our pilot said the Air Traffic Control officials were working on a new flight plan that would keep us out of the danger zone and eventually we lumbered into the air.

It was breakfast time when we landed in Heathrow. A bit of advice; don't order toast. Service takes forever and is as weak as the coffee. After a quick scan of the London papers' reporting on the "tragedy" in NYC, it was off to Athens.

This was my second trip to Greece in the last 12 months, so I was happy to see more staff working our arrival gate and the bags were onto the carousel very quickly, all but mine and a few others. Our carrier, British Airways, is notorious for mis-routing and losing bags. Everyone I told my story to in Athens had also lost luggage. Good thing I carried on most of my gear and had a list of what was in my checked baggage. The cost of replacing your essential personal items and prescriptions is much higher in Athens than most places in the US. Carry-on is the way to go.

Customs and Immigration are almost non-existent, just a cursory stamp of my passport and a check that I had a ticket to leave. My trips, which included a 2002 visit to the island of Mykonos, removed any doubts that Greece still has one of the least secure air transport systems in Europe.

I'd arranged an English speaking driver to meet us at the Airport. Lots of Greeks speak English, but few cabbies do.

Since I had my two cousins with me I wanted the girls to have the comfort of calling someone to take them around to see the sites while I was off shooting. English-speaking drivers are hard to come by. I'll share my guy's number with you, but it'll cost you a drink.

Photo by Bill Auth / US News & World Report

Photo by Bill Auth / US News & World Report
There's also a transportation help desk at the airport where they will translate your destination into Greek and give you an idea of how much the cab will cost. Close by is the American Express money laundering facility. Use it. You'll need anywhere from 20 to 40 euros to get into the city, depending on time of day and how much luggage you're carrying. You can get more euros later at a local bank.

Much has changed in the last year, as the Greeks continue to prepare for the 2004 Games. It's definitely not the same old Athens!

The new ring road around the outer suburbs is very close to finished, as is the new highway into the center of town. For a cheap thrill, have your driver take you into town on the old roads; you'll save a euro and see where and how normal folks live.

Yes, it really is the Middle East and every third building or house seems under construction. If I understand the rules correctly, you don't start paying property taxes until you finish building. Thus, most buildings are unfinished! Don't worry. Plenty of Olympic venues are ready.

Athens is always busy, even in August when folks of any means at all go to the islands or their home villages. Many local restaurant owners close for the month, but there are lots of tavernas, pubs, clubs and ouzo bars that are open, many of them 'til 4 am. I had no problem eating at 10 pm and buying gifts 'til midnite, although more shops are open during the day. And the Acropolis is lit all night. Athenian families stroll around the Acropolis in the evening. Join them and enjoy 5000 years of history!

Be prepared to bargain. It's understood the initial asking price is negotiable, unless it's Olympic-related stuff, which is sold on almost every street and is very pricey. And cash, euros or dollars, can bring an additional discount, so make that your last offer.

If you've ever stood high up on Mulholand Drive in LA and looked off to the Pacific, you'll have a bit of an idea of the geography of Athens. Mountains around a basin that leads to the sea. Do they have earthquakes? Sure, there was one a few days before we arrived and a pair of English tourists were badly injured hiking on a nearby island. Are they ready for a big one? No, not like LA, but there are few tall buildings and most roads are surface, and the fire and rescue folks are experienced.

How about crime? Athens seems a bit more sedate than US big cities, but I've never strayed far from well-lit, downtown locations, except for the time last year there was some kind of police sweep up of single men, but they let me go after I showed them my passport. Always carry your passport.

Cabs are the best, if most expensive, way to get around. All the decent hotels will call one for you and tell the driver where to take you. Most drivers will round up the meter and you can add a small tip. The English-speaking drivers will likely try to double the meter - negotiate in advance !!

Photo by Bill Auth / US News & World Report

Photo by Bill Auth / US News & World Report
I loved all the food I ate. Chicken, octopus, calamari, spanikopita and salad were my staples. Prices are about the same as dining in the States, and there are lots of Domino's, Starbucks and McDonalds outlets to give you a taste of home. It's warm and dry at nite, so try to eat outside if you have the chance.

The best local beer is Mythos, with Heiniken and Amstel available everywhere. Sodas and bottled water are also in wide supply. Drink plenty of water, early and often.

Perhaps the most unique thing in Athens is the local kiosk. Mostly self-standing, sometimes just a hole in the wall, there's a kiosk almost every block in the populated parts of town. Many are open 24 hours and have EVERYTHING you need, especially if you've lost your luggage.

My kiosks had hot and cold sandwiches, frozen foods, newspapers, pharmacy items and beer and soda. And the price is right, about half a euro for a soda, tall boys (16 oz beers) for a euro and ouzo for 3 euros. Make sure you have small bills or coins - these guys don't keep much change.

Keep a lookout for "New Greek Friends". These are guys who hang around the Acropolis area downtown, make a little conversation and want to celebrate their new friendship with a drink at a bar down the street. It's usually a scam. The drinks are overpriced, likely to be spiked and you're soon buying rounds for the house. If you're lucky, it'll only cost you 200 euros. If you really feel in trouble, find a phone and call the Tourist Police while you're going to the bathroom. And yes, those cute Russian girls at the bar are hookers.

Speaking of phones, don't leave home without a phone card!

Photo by Bill Auth / US News & World Report

Photo by Bill Auth / US News & World Report

Speaking of phones, don't leave home without a phone card!
Hardly any phones take coins anymore, and likely fewer will in the summer of 2004. You'll even need phone cards in the Olympic venue press centers - it's one of the ways to finance the Games. At least the rates are low. A local call last month was just 7 cents euro.

The weather for both my trips was brutal. Temps in the mid-day shade hover around 96/f with 35% humidity and a wind from the North that stiffens to about 25mph in the afternoon. Nites were much nicer, cooling to about 76/f with a more gentle breeze. There is little rain, maybe 2 days a month, and the wind is a bit gritty - tough on the eyes.

Yes, my bag finally arrived, in the middle of my third nite; and everything was still there, so I could charge my batteries and put on some clean clothes. I was so happy I took my poor cousin out to the kiosk at 2 am for beers !!

Will the Games be ready on time?


The time will come when things have to start and the Olympic officials will declare everything ready. The staff will cover anything not done with Olympic bunting and flags and the work of the Games will start. My guess is that the roads will be open but just barely. The venues will be clean and new and smell of fresh paint. Many venues are already done. The Media Village will be spartan and frat-house chic. The Press Center will hum with efficiency 24/7. There will be security everywhere. And getting around the city will be chaos, much like Atlanta.

Will you enjoy Athens?

That's harder to say. If you're flexible, poised, informed and patient you'll probably have a good time and do some quality work. All the things you really need will be there. And the folks running things want shooters to succeed.

They really are committed. But much is out of their hands.

Broadcast rules. Don't forget it. Don't think you can change it.

If you want the Games to be like the Tour d'France or the World Cup or the NBA Finals you'll be disappointed. The Games are run differently and the Greeks are certain to do it their way, on a "Human Scale" and that means up-close and personal. Pride and Passion will rule. Get over how you do it "at home" and you'll be fine.

Next: A look at some venues.

(Bill Auth is with US News & World Report. He has worked the Montreal, Los Angeles, Atlanta and Sydney Summer Olympic Games and expects to be on the Photo Services team in Athens.

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