ATHENS RISES FROM THE RUINS; Symbol of Athens: The Majestic Acropolis Towers over the City

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Byline: Teresa Levonian Cole

Forget smog and traffic jams. The chic Greek capital is now a vibrant city reborn

TOO much for the Germans and too hot even for the Italians, the Acropolis is deserted, bar some hardy Japanese tourists and a chorus of cicadas chirruping in their element.

Crowned by its four magnificent Periclean buildings, this remains the symbol of Athens and her premier tourist attraction.

And braving the midday, midsummer sun is a sure, if dizzying, way to avoid the worst of the teeming crowds. Poor Acropolis: its glorious stones have suffered such indignities.

The Ottomans turned the sacred Erechtheion into a harem; the Venetians blew up the Parthenon, Temple of Athena; Lord Elgin infamously took his hacksaw to Phidias' magnificent frieze; and the site has been shrouded in unsightly orthopaedic scaffolding for some 25 years.

It may have lost its pentelic marbles, but at 2,500-years-old, the Parthenon still stands, an imposing constant above a city which has changed beyond recognition.

For once, the change has been for the better. An expensive facelift in the run-up to the 2004 Olympics has transformed Athens into a vibrant, world-class city. The centre of Athens is best negotiated on foot and one of the city's most welcome embellishments has been the creation of a broad, leafy pedestrian walkway, lined with neo-Classical buildings.

Beginning near the monumental Temple of Olympian Zeus, it proceeds in a great loop that links the Acropolis and other major archaeological sites. You can follow this walkway to the Agora, or opt for the untrodden route through the peaceful hamlet of Anafiotika, built almost vertically beneath the Acropolis.

Tiny white-washed, shuttered houses cling to the rockface, reminiscent of the Cycladic island its original residents hailed from.

Many of these buildings now languish in picturesque ruin, the alleyways between them barely more than shoulder-width and overhung with abandoned fig trees whose ripe fruit lie on the ground, perfuming the air. Eventually, the path leads down into the newlysmartened Plaka district, the old part of Athens whose walkways are lined with tavernas, shops selling olive oil and ouzo, trinkets, Greek sandals and art galleries.

This is the traditional Athens of bouzouki fame, the place to hunt for the perfect worry beads (known as komboloi amber on silk cord is the classic version) and wander in the labyrinthine streets.

Turn a corner to emerge into a square where a Hellenistic ruin, a Roman monument, and a Byzantine church sit cramped and ignored amid 1950s buildings, while tourists head for more famous sights.

Venturing deeper through the lanes, past the famous souvlaki and kebab haunts off Monastiraki Square, you reach Avyssinias. …