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Athenians head out as Games come to town

Posted: Sunday August 8, 2004 10:16PM; Updated: Sunday August 8, 2004 10:16PM
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ATHENS, Aug 8 (Reuters) -- For Athenians, the Olympics are the ultimate Odyssey.

Up to 40,000 people are leaving the bustling port of Piraeus every day, turning their backs on the Games and heading for sun, sea and sand on the Greek islands.

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As fast as tourists fly into Athens for the greatest sporting show on earth, Greeks are sailing off in the other direction.

With just five days to go before the start of the Olympics, Hrisa Ladaki, 23, could not wait to get away.

Heading aboard the Knossos Palace ferry for Crete on a sun-kissed Sunday morning, she said: "It never crossed my mind to stay in Athens for the Games. I'm not interested. I prefer to go on holidays.

"Beside that, all the security measures and the traffic restrictions are very annoying."

The people of Barcelona and Sydney welcomed the Olympics with open arms. The contrast with Greece could not be sharper with a recent opinion poll showing that 40 percent of Athenians -- around two million -- would be leaving the city during the Games.

NO HURRY

A straw poll among ferry passengers heading to Crete revealed a cross-section of Greeks who acknowledged what the Olympics had done to turn Athens into a modern city -- but they were in no hurry to buy tickets and cheer on the athletes.

Sofia Mamou, 25, told Reuters: "I am going on holiday. I can't afford tickets for the opening ceremony. I prefer to take my vacation back at my parents' place in Crete.

"I would rather relax than go to the Games. It's hard to get around in Athens with all the traffic restrictions."

Evagelia Delidaki, 36, said: "We are not going to go to the Games. We forgot to buy tickets."

But she still backed the Games without wanting to join in.

"The whole city has changed for the better because of the Games. All the traffic restrictions and security precautions against terrorism don't annoy me because they are necessary."

Gridlock normally reigns on the congested avenues of Athens. In the lead-up to the Games, the roads were practically deserted on Sunday morning.

A Piraeus port spokesman said that up to 65 ships are leaving the harbour every day. "It's been busy every day of this week," he told Reuters.

The tourists certainly enjoyed the breathing space in a city which had hoped for an Olympic-driven visitor bonanza.

"Athens has been empty but really nice," said 26-year-old Italian Paolo Capelli from Milan as he waited for the Crete ferry.

"Everything is so new. I came here seven years ago and it was dirty and disorganised. We came to see the Acropolis but I am not interested in sport. We are off to tour the islands."

He then sailed off from what must now rank as one of the world's most closely guarded harbours.

Piraeus, Europe's biggest passenger port, has been sealed off since August 2, allowing access only to ticket-holding travellers and accredited personnel.

With eight luxury cruise ships including Queen Mary 2 -- the world's largest -- docking in early August to act as floating five-star hotels, coastguard vessels and divers are patrolling the Saronic Gulf.

Several world leaders, including British Prime Minister Tony Blair, are set to stay in the port during the Games.

Authorities have also laid underwater sonar equipment and sensors along the port to prevent any attack from the deep.

(Additional reporting by Aliki Matsi)

Copyright 2004 Reuters Limited. All rights reserved.

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