It's no wonder that all roads lead to the fascinating and maddening metropolis of Athens. Lift your eyes 200 feet above the city to the Parthenon, its honey-colored marble columns rising from a massive limestone base, and you’ll behold architectural perfection that has not been surpassed in 2,500 years. Today, this shrine of classical form dominates a 21st-century boomtown.
Athens is home to 4.5 million souls, many of whom spend the day discussing the city's faults: the lack of city funding, the murky pollution cloud known as the nefos, the overcrowding, the traffic jams with their hellish din, the transport strikes, and the characterless cement apartment blocks. Romantic travelers, nurtured on the truth and beauty of Keats's Grecian urn, are dismayed to find that much of Athens has succumbed to that red tubular glare that owes only its name, neon, to the Greeks. But while Athens is a difficult city to love, its concentration of culture and lively spirit make it impossible to ignore.
To experience Athens—Athìna in Greek—fully is to understand the essence of Greece: ancient monuments surviving in a sea of cement, startling beauty amid the squalor, tradition juxtaposed with modernity—a smartly dressed lawyer chatting on her cell phone as she maneuvers around a priest in flowing robes heading for the sleek, space-age metro. Locals depend on humor and flexibility to deal with the chaos and, lately, the raging economic crisis; you should do the same. The rewards are immense. To appreciate Athens is to appreciate life with all its surprises and complexities.