There is no better feeling than lying in the sun on your own private yacht sipping Lipton Iced Tea. Well — maybe having a beautiful woman lying next to you would improve things further. But, hey, who needs sex when you've got two weeks of sun, sea and sport to look forwards to in the shape of the 2004 Athens Olympic Games.
We'd all mocked the Greeks mercilessly in the run-up to the Games. The Athenians couldn't organise a booze-up in a taverna, if you believed all the news stories. But in true Mediterranean fashion it seemed Athens would be ready by the stroke of midnight.
We were bombing down the newly built road from Athens airport to the coast, our taxi driver talking to us in the International Language of Football.
"Ah Colchester United, I bet on the Colchester United, against the, how you say, Stockport County".
The aim was to get to the port of Lavrio to pick up a yacht, which we'd hired for a fortnight. I'd advertised on my website to find some other people to share the yacht and split the cost.
Lavrio, where our yacht the "Sea Pearl" was moored, was a pleasant enough resort, where restaurants and bars churned out the local Mythos brew until early into the morning. A couple of pints made my traversing of our boat's rickety wooden gangplank even more precarious. I was almost certainly going to fall in before the fortnight was out.
As we headed to bed, only one nagging question remained. Where in the world was Norman?
Much to my disappointment, as I stepped out on deck into the morning sun there was no call of:
"G'day mates! Got some fish going on the barbie!"
Norman from Australia was supposed to be the Sea Pearl's first paying customer. He'd left us a note at the Nava Yachts office saying he'd be here on the 11th, but that was yesterday, and there was still no sign of anyone mounted on a kangaroo and carrying a didgeridoo.
In Prague last year I'd helped devise a rather silly variant on a board game called "London Game Extreme" in which travellers around the London Underground were hindered by a large number of unlikely mishaps. I was frequently reminded of the game today.
"Forget to change at Markopolou, take the slow road to Athens and miss two turns"
"Excessive heat, you must stop to buy water at 10 minute intervals"
"Caught on airport metro without ticket, pay €20 fine"
Despite several hours playing games with the transport network, we finally made it into Central Athens. It was two years since my last visit, and there had been a huge cleanup operation for the Olympics. Athens hadn't suddenly turned into a green paradise, but the transformation was impressive. It was calmer, cleaner and smelt better.
The Acropolis was as imposing as ever, towering over the city of concrete. Preparations were underway for the arrival of the Olympic torch there that evening.
It was a bit odd to be walking round the site again with Andy Flower who'd never visited Athens before. I remembered odd things, like the statue of a horse I'd chosen two years earlier in the "which-object-shall-I-steal-from-the-museum" game.
Back at ground level colourful Athens 2004 banners and myriad kiosks hawking Greek flags flanked the motorbike-filled streets.
We wandered on past the Temple of Olympian Zeus, past the National Gardens, past the Visa Olympian Reunion Centre, past the archery practice field, to the massive marble 1896 Olympic Stadium, surrounded by the flags of all the Olympic nations.
We were trying to work out whether the flags were all in alphabetical order. "That's Azerbaijan I think." "That's definitely Angola. Or maybe Western Samoa." "But hang on, that's the USA." "Ah, but they must spell it differently in Greek." "Um, alpha, beta, gamma, delta, epsilon, ... er." It didn't matter too much. Tomorrow we'd get to see the real thing: the parade of athletes at the Opening Ceremony.
Hi Norman, we've just
nipped out for an hour gone to the shops gone to Athens for the day left the door open left the hatch at the back open given up in despair.
We'd pretty much gathered that Norman wasn't going to turn up, so we decided to go on a search for an Internet café in Lavrio.
"Does that sign say INTERNET"
It was not a long search. The BBC weather site told me it was a mere 29°C in London, compared to a balmy 37°C here in Lavrio. Meanwhile I had been offered a $375 million cut in a deal to transfer some money out of Nigeria by an ex-dictator. Yet more good news!
We used our transport experiment of yesterday and remembered to change in Markopolou. The bus staff were very keen we would not forget to change, reminding us at two minute intervals by shouting "MARKOPOLOU" and making the International Sign for "Change", a roly-poly motion with the hands.
A second bus took us from Markopolou to the airport, then we took the flashy new suburban railway straight to OAKA, the Athens Olympic Sports Complex. It was a sign of the last-gasp preparations that Neratziotissa station, which served the complex, had opened only three days previously.
I'd been to OAKA two years ago when it was still a dusty concrete shell, covered in graffiti and big piles of rubble. Now, colossal arched walkways, rows of fountains and gently waving sculptures stretched as far as the eye could see.
We took our seats. Before the ceremony began there would be an hour's "pre-show" to warm up the crowd.
At 19:30, a group of five workmen in overalls and hard hats wandered into the stadium, and loudly hammered a plaque into the ground.
There was a huge cheer. Even the proud Greeks could appreciate they'd left things a little late. But the stadium was complete and stunning and we had a great view over the water-filled arena.
The ceremony was long and spectacular. It had the usual incomprehensible song and dance routines, a boy floating around in a paper boat, a stunning starfield created when everyone in the crowd waved their flashlights, then the parade of athletes from 202 countries.
Being amongst the crowd you got a good impression of how much the countries were liked by the Greeks. Huge cheers for Cyprus, some boos for the USA, big roars for Mexico and Brazil, silence for Israel, a marvellous welcome for the Iraqis, a mixture of cheers and jeers for Turkey. And when Greece finally arrived, the stadium erupted with a light show of blue and white, the huge arches echoing to the sound of HELL-AS... HELL-AS...
All that remained was to swear the Olympic oath, raise the Olympic flag and sing the Olympic hymn. Finally Nikolaos Kaklamanakis ran through the stadium, up a long flight of steps high up into the crowd to light the Olympic flame.
I know Greek drivers are bad. I know taxi drivers are mad. But the wannabe Michael Schumacher who took us back from the airport to Lavrio last night was in a class of his own. Careering round twisting bends at 150kph, Andy revelled in telling me we were going at three times the speed limit. Arriving in Lavrio fractionally before we set off (some bizarre time/space dilation effect), we collapsed into bed at 3am.
It was Day One of the greatest show on earth, the Olympic Games. "The Greeks Did It!" proclaimed one of the papers. Our first event was the mighty tussle of the Women's Hockey Preliminaries.
The drive down the coast was enjoyable, ancient ruins jostling with sun-worshippers for our attention. A hop, a skip and a tram later we were at the Helliniko Olympic Complex. It was built on the site of the old Athens airport, and the area was still 50% flat open space. You could even see the old red and white windbreakers from next to the runway.
We passed a man wearing a Pepsi shirt. He was joking with one of the female Olympic volunteers about expecting agents from Coca-Cola, an official sponsor, to give him a hard time. "Funny you should mention that," she replied, "I'm actually in charge of ambush marketing." Oops.
We watched two high quality hockey games at the Hockey Centre. The Germans, their supporters armed with giant inflatable hockey sticks, beat the Australians, while Argentina gave Spain a 4-0 drubbing.
We weren't spending the whole holiday in taxis- it's just that every ride seemed to end up being an adventure. Tonight's journey back featured a driver who didn't speak a word of English and didn't really know where Lavrio was, leading to an excursion through a high-security zone at the airport, some interesting reversing manoeuvres, mad gesticulations by us to ensure he didn't miss the Lavrio exit again, and finally handshakes all round, and exchanges of "Football football?" "Football, Beckham?" "Ah, Beckham... penalty... ahahahahaha!" The International Language of Football™ coming to the rescue again.
A visitor to Athens for the 1896 Olympic Games would never have seen anything like it. In 2004 the colossal marble bowl of the Panathinaiko Stadium still takes the breath away. It would be used in a few days' time for the finish of the men's and women's marathons, but today the centre of the track had become an archery field.
OK, so archery perhaps isn't the greatest of spectator sports, but you had to admire the amazing accuracy of the sixteen women who repeatedly hit a bullseye 70m away in gusty winds.
One match was tied after 18 arrows each, so there was to be a shootoff- just one arrow each- to decide which woman would progress and which succumb. Malgorzata Sobieraj of Poland hit 9. Thin Khaing Thin of Myanmar hit 9. A second arrow. Sobieraj hit 9. Thin hit 9.
The third and final arrow. Whoever's arrow measured closer to the centre of their target would win. Sobieraj hit 8. Thin hit... 8. We peered through our binoculars, the arrows looked very close.
Out came the judges with the measuring tape. Perhaps that first arrow was a few millimetres closer? But no, an exact tie. For only the second time in Olympic history, a fourth arrow would be required to separate the two archers. It duly did, and Sobieraj was victorious.
We walked to Syntagma Square past the rather mysterious Heineken Holland House, a giant orange marquee. We couldn't quite figure out what happened to you if you went inside. Perhaps Norman had entered and never emerged.
Suppose you are a proud Greek warrior who wishes to defend your country. Now put on a skirt, a silly hat and big black fluffy pom-poms on your shoes. Now, whenever you walk anywhere, swing your feet back and forth in an exaggerated goosestep (Consult the Ministry of Silly Walks for further advice.) Now you can be an evzone and guard the Greek Parliament building.
The changing of the evzones was the funniest changing of the guards I'd seen since the ceremonial handover of the walkie-talkie in Oslo.
I like Athens' National Archaeological Museum because it has a lot of stuff. Some museums get very excited by their one Greek urn. The NAM has urns by the bucket-load, not to mention 4000-year-old figurines and enough statues to hold a giant statue party. We also spotted the tiny clay doll that was the inspiration for the Athens 2004 mascots.
Down at the Faliro coastal complex the music's blaring out and the announcer is whipping up the (male-dominated) crowd. Out run twenty beach babes clad in orange bikinis who begin gyrating and shaking their stuff to the crowd.
"Oh how tacky" I exclaimed. "Now where are my binoculars?" Welcome to the crazy world of beach volleyball, the only sport in the world with clothes regulations designed to make competitors wear as little as possible, where every point won is greeted by a blast of pop music, and timeouts are filled by more jiggling by the bikini-clad cheerleaders. Pierre de Coubertin would be turning in his grave, probably so he could get a better view.
When the crowd got going for the Greek pair, the noise was incredible. With "HELL-AS, HELL-AS" still ringing in our ears we set off back to Lavrio.