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The five-ring circus: The Acropolis

My bosses may not approve, but I took a little me time on Thursday to check a few of the sights in Athens. And that meant a trip to the Acropolis. Set on a rocky hill, high above the city center, this is definitely one of the most amazing places you’ll ever come across. It’s dubbed the sacred rock in the brochure they hand out at the entryway, which also tells you that for centuries this was one of the most important religious centers in all of Athens. Parts of it date back to the Neolithic period, and it’s centerpiece, the Parthenon, was built in the middle half of the fifth century BC.

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By Jason Sumner, VeloNews associate editor

The Acropolis.

The Acropolis.

Photo:

My bosses may not approve, but I took a little me time on Thursday to check a few of the sights in Athens. And that meant a trip to the Acropolis. Set on a rocky hill, high above the city center, this is definitely one of the most amazing places you’ll ever come across.

It’s dubbed the sacred rock in the brochure they hand out at the entryway, which also tells you that for centuries this was one of the most important religious centers in all of Athens. Parts of it date back to the Neolithic period, and it’s centerpiece, the Parthenon, was built in the middle half of the fifth century BC. Old is an understatement.

The Parthenon.

The Parthenon.

Photo:

I’m not going to bore you with the full tour, but even with the constant clatter of tourists streaming in and out (not to mention searing midday temperatures), a walk around the four main structures and the museum was inspiring. It’s crazy to think about what those walls (and columns) have seen.

The perch also offers some of the best views of the city. It’s not until you get up high that you really get some perspective on how big Athens really is. This crowded metropolis (3.6 million) stretches on for miles in all directions. It’s hard to imagine trying to drive from one end to the other. It would literally take all day.

The other thing that jumps out is the pollution. I’m told that when the wind blows in from the Mediterranean, things clear out a little and you can actually see some of the nearby Greek Islands. But that definitely wasn’t the case on this day. You could see for a good long ways, but it kind of felt like you were looking through a dingy barroom window.

The Porch of the Caryatids.

The Porch of the Caryatids.

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Just after heading out, I ran into four riders from the Spanish men’s road team. They were out scoping the course’s cobbled section, but had stopped to take a few photos. I tried to conduct a short interview in my best broken Spanish, but ended up with a handful of digicams and instructions to make sure I got the Acropolis in the picture. I did manage to get Igor de Gonzalez Galena to acknowledge that his team was one of the favorites for the road race. “Yes it is us,” he said, “with Italy and Holland.”

The cobble section of the course runs along the base of the Acropolis. They’re definitely not Paris-Roubaix caliber stones (much flatter, and smoother), but 17 trips up the slight hill in the heat of the day is definitely going to hurt. The Spanish team riders rode it twice was I was walking back into the city center.

I squeezed in two more stops on the sightseeing tour before heading back to the MPC. First was the Temple of Olympian Zeus. The largest of Greece’s temples, it sits just off one of the main thoroughfares, in the middle of a huge open park. Originally it had 104 columns, each 17 meters high, but today only 15 remain. Its sheer size is very impressive, and all the missing columns provide a nice view back up to the Acropolis.

Looking back to the Acropolis.

Looking back to the Acropolis.

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Lastly, I walked by the Panathenian Stadium (you couldn’t go inside even with a media credential). This is the last Athenian monument with Roman connections and was originally built in the 4th century BC. Read that a thousand wild animals were slaughtered there during the inauguration of Hadrian in AD 120. Yikes…

The horseshoe shaped structure went unused for hundreds of years until it was restored in 1895 and used the following year in the first Modern Olympics in 1896. At the 2004 Games it will serve as the finish line for the marathon and host the archery events. It can hold up to 60,000 spectators (they actually set a world record for largest number of people to watch a basketball game in 1968). Very elegant, simple place, with no fat-cat skyboxes, sponsor banners or big intrusive video screens.

That was about it for the wander-around day. Check back tomorrow for a report on the opening ceremonies. I wasn’t originally credentialed for the event (little niche magazines like VeloNews get the shaft for big events), but I managed to talk the kind folks at the USOC out of a “special” ticket.

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