Attended the Summer Olympics

My wife and I had no plans to go to the Olympics. Neither of us are big sports fans. In fact, I had never been drawn to any sport on TV until they started televising poker. That’s my kind of sport!

Our decision was made while watching the opening ceremonies of the Olympics in Greece on TV. What a moving, inspirational, historical and visual spectacle it was. By noon the next day we had reserved air tickets and hotel. We had to pay about twice what we usually do for the airfare to Greece, but that’s to be expected on rather short notice.

Norm and Mary Helber pose with Katie Couric at the Olympic Village.

Hotels were another matter. Most of the quality hotels in Athens were asking €700 -€1,700 (near $900-$2,175) per night. The only hotel we could find under $300 a night in a central area was Hotel Fivos, which had a cancellation that we scooped up for $275.

We had a fourth-floor walkup with no phone and no TV. Other than that, it had no amenities whatsoever. On the Internet, it said Hotel Fivos had three stars. Trust me when I say that if it ever had one star, that star had faded long before the Olympics. Nevertheless, everyone we talked to told us how fortunate we were to find anything so centrally located at any price.

We were concerned about crime, but we felt very safe everywhere we went. Four or five kinds of police were highly visible, plus, supposedly, there were huge forces of undercover police.

With the exception of hotel rates, prices were not overly inflated. A liter of house wine was usually available for under €7 ($9). Lamb chops as an entrée ranged from €7 to €12. And it was always possible to top off a nice dinner with ouzo for about €2.50.

We didn’t have a bad meal on the whole trip. Greeks can really cook. We have never seen so many restaurants with so much atmosphere as we discovered in Athens. Really nice dinners with drinks seldom set us back more that $40. My kind of country!

Even at the sport venues the prices were very reasonable. A huge beer at the stadiums was €2 ($2.50). (The same would be $6-$7 at any stadium in the States.)

The Athenians were wonderful hosts. They made the charming city not only inviting but easily accessible. It was a short stroll from the luggage claim at the airport to an ultramodern, clean and fast connecting train (metro) which for €12 a couple dropped us off in the middle of the downtown Plaka/Monastiraki area. The public transportation system connecting all the Olympic venues was well thought out and supported with frequent trains, trams and buses.

The Games were wonderful and presented in such beautiful surroundings that the spectators were awestruck. We attended five different events, including Women’s Team Handball. I swear they were making up the rules for this one as they went along. Sometimes they would dribble, sometimes they wouldn’t, and they were allowed to grab one another. It was sort of a cross between hockey, basketball and football. We saw Angola kill Greece (kill seems to be the appropriate word here as two women had to be carried out on stretchers).

We watched our Women’s Basketball team roll to victory over Greece’s women. The stands were filled with screaming Greeks who cheered wildly every time their team scored and booed just as enthusiastically every time the U.S. team touched the ball. We just restrained ourselves as the U.S. maintained about a 30-point lead.

Cycling was great fun to watch inside a beautiful arena. We saw Australia roll to two gold medals.

The most exciting thing we did was attend the end of the Men’s Marathon. The final lap was in the Panathenaic Stadium, which was built to be the venue for the first modern Olympic Games in 1896. (Of course, the first Panathenaic Stadium was built in the fourth century B.C.) There must have been 30,000-40,000 in attendance, sitting on the historical marble stadium seats and watching the marathon from start to finish on huge TV screens. When the runners finally entered the stadium it was absolutely chilling. We felt so fortunate to be there.

Without exception, Mary and I were treated with affection by the local population. They were sad that not many Americans attended the Games. They missed the “spirit of America”; American flags were few and far between. Apparently, the American athletes were told to keep a low profile. (Thank you, Gary Hall, for proudly displaying our colors.) Younger people were quick to tell us that while they have no respect for the current government in the USA, they love the American people.

The city was clean. The stores all had sales. The locals were friendly. Security was everywhere. We couldn’t have asked for a better atmosphere. The improvements made to the infrastructure of Athens will make this remarkable city even more user-friendly for years to come.

After the Games we made one side trip to Meteora about 200 miles from Athens. We took a bus, and the first thing we noticed was that the woman across from us kept making the Sign of the Cross. We figured maybe she had ridden with this driver before and knew something that we didn’t. Then we figured out that she crossed herself every time she passed a church. It was reassuring.

Meteora is the site of ancient monasteries, most from the 11th to 14th centuries, built on the tops of very pronounced rock formations (similar to those in Sedona, Arizona). Apparently, these rock formations were formed about 25 million years ago when two mighty rivers ran together. They were really something to see. Check out the pictures, which enlarge when you click on them, at

We hitchhiked around the area, as we did not rent a car, and met the nicest people. We stayed two nights in the town of Kalambaka, which had a fantastic restaurant. It also had a magnificent church which was built in the ninth century and was very hard to get to; it involved climbing steep streets, paths and stairways. Of course, it was closed when we got there.

We loved Greece — its people, its antiquity, its beauty. We are planning another trip there in 2006. It’s a magical place.


Scottsdale, AZ