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Athens

If you've never been to Athens -- or if you haven't been recently -- you'll discover that this ancient seat of world culture has quite a spring in its step; credit its fresh, bouncing vibe to its center-of-the-universe role as host of the 2004 Summer Olympics. Sure, several years have gone by since then, but the reverberations are still felt (and will be, we surmise, for a very, very long time to come). In a decade's worth of preparation for hosting the Olympics, city fathers (and mothers too) spearheaded massive upgrades, repairs and refurbishments.

Buildings that were once dingy dirty gray are now painted in cheerful shades of yellow, green and orange. Public squares have been pedestrianized (you won't recognize the now lovely Syntagma Square, with its lush trees and peaceful spots for repose; traffic used to course through this space). Sidewalks have been repaved and are quite walkable (still narrow, though), and concrete stripping was inserted to assist the physically disabled.

There are new roads, the subways and trains are near-spotless, classic hotels like the Bretagne got major facelifts, and cafes are flourishing throughout the city. There are swank digs for designer ateliers, ranging from Hermes to Dolce and Gabbana, in what were once decrepit old buildings. And the arts and crafts scene is flourishing with fabulous, original, largely Greek-owned boutiques and galleries.

But here's the thing that put a smile on my face during a recent visit here (my first since the pre-Olympic era): In all its general zest for improvements, Athens has managed to retain the soul of its ancient heritage. It has held on to classic treasures and the just old, from antiquities to its Victorian-era food market. All are worth exploring.

The Grecian capital city has long been known for its role in the 5th and 4th centuries B.C. as the seat of the world's art, culture and history, and so much of it is here, on display. The city's pre-Olympic general spiffing up included such storied monuments as the Acropolis, the Parthenon, the temple of Athena Nike and the Odeon of Herod Atticus, along with the very significant museums housing so many pieces of Athens' golden age. This idyllic time period didn't last forever -- the Roman Empire gobbled the city up in 146 B.C. -- but no matter, now. The city, one of the world's most fascinating in both a historic and contemporary context, offers a marvelous opportunity to walk in the footsteps of ancient Grecian legends, while at the same time celebrating what, despite normal urban stresses, reflects a modern city with a sense of soul.

And lest you think that Athens is some kind of museum to ancient Greece, well, it's more than that. There is much history of the more recent era that began when Greece became independent from the Turks in 1829, and which has developed in spurts and starts ever since.

--written by Carolyn Spencer Brown

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