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The ancient cradle that’s still rocking

The ancient cradle that’s still rocking

Where to begin when talking about Athens ? There are 1,000-page history books on the subject. Where else can you walk in the footsteps of philosophers who created democracy, theater, booming architecture and grape-leaves-as-fashion statement ?

At first glance, Athens seems to be noisy, lacking character and polluted. And yet, for years that didn’t stop travelers from coming to see the incredible ruins built here nearly 2,500 years ago. But after a one-day visit, most head off to the Isles to cruise the heavenly blue. Today, things have changed. Especially since the Olympics were held here in 2006. Athens is cleaning up its ancient act. Even the trains have been modernized !

Popping up around the ruins, find trendy and traditional cafes and shops tucked into the narrow streets, often next to little, divinely decorated Greek Orthodox churches. For a high concentration of all things hip and upscale, head to Kolonaki near Lykavittos Hill. This is considered the "posh" area of Athens, home to rich Athenians, foreign embassies and several archaeological schools.

Wake up to a thick cup of Greek coffee before you journey to the crowded ruins. The showpiece is the grand monuments of the Acropolis. You may see some structures covered in scaffolding, as work is ongoing to preserve these ruins from pollution and acid rain. These won’t detract from the experience. You’ll immediately recognize The Parthenon— the largest temple on the Acropolis, and an enduring symbol of ancient Athens’ Golden Age nearly 2,500 years ago. Once the original home of the Elgin Marbles, a collection of classical Greek marble sculptures, the pieces were purchased by the British government in 1816 and placed in the British Museum. For years, the Greeks have asked for the marbles back, and for years, the Brits have responded with claims that Greece can’t give them a suitable home. But that may change now with the building of the new Acropolis Museum.

Designed by Swiss star architect Bernard Tschumi at a site south of the Acropolis, this long-overdue replacement for the musty old museum opened in June 2009. The Parthenon may have lost its marbles, but this state-of-the-art facility is ready and waiting for their return. Even without the sculptures, the new museum captures the wonder of ancient and modern Athens. Its two lower levels are aligned with the foundations of the ancient ruins beneath the building (which are exposed and open to the public). The top floor sits cockeyed, like the orientation of the Parthenon.

With your mind changed about Athens and with your Eurail Greece Pass in hand, you’re ready to hop on the 20-minute train to Piraeus. The town has the largest port in Europe serving over 20 million passengers, all seeking the whitewashed walls of the Cyclades and Iolian Islands. While lying on a beach, or sipping a Mavrodaphne dessert wine at a taverna, you’ll be glad to have not skipped the ancient, awe-inspiring city. Socrates himself would think you wise. And if you’re planning on traveling in Italy and Greece, consider getting a Eurail Attica Pass which includes round-trip ferry travel between Italy and Greece on Attica’s SuperFast Ferries, plus travel to the Greek islands on Blue Star Ferries once you’re there.

While lying on a beach, or sipping a Mavrodaphne dessert wine at a taverna, you’ll be glad to have not skipped the ancient, awe-inspiring city. Socrates himself would think you wise.

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