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The Other Side of Greece

"There are thousands of squares in Athens, but when you say, 'Meet me in the square,' everyone knows you mean Kolonáki," says the Greek actor Antonis Fragakis, gesturing out from our marble-topped table in front of the Bibliothèque Café. It's dusk, and the fountain is lit. Across the square, above another café and behind a wall of plate glass, a row of svelte women on StairMasters huff and puff and survey the scene. All the tables at all the cafés on Kolonáki Square are occupied by unbearably fashionable people in chic (and very tight) clothes and designer sunglasses, cellular phones and cigarette packs set out next to their drinks, Armani and Versace shopping bags laid at their well-shod feet. In my Gap khakis and Converse sneakers, I feel seriously underdressed.

I first met Antonis in Manhattan, where he had moved to pursue his film and TV career after achieving celebrity in his native Athens. One Saturday in New York, over lunch following our yoga class, Antonis convinced me that, although I'd visited Athens, I'd never really seen it—not as I could with him as a guide. "People rush through Athens on their way to the islands," he said, "and take in nothing but the Acropolis." Antonis recited the words of a shepherd he'd encountered while lost in the mountains: "A foreigner and a blind man are the same. They don't see what's in front of them." And it's true—Athens has gotten a bad rap among travelers, for its traffic jams, overcrowded tourist sites, and seasonal air pollution. But there is another side to Athens, and those who focus only on the city's glorious past, Antonis says, are missing its seductive present: its sensual dry heat and sea light; its blue sky and bright flowers; the icy drinks, garlicky dips, and tangy cheeses served in cafés; the splashes of green and, everywhere, a citrusy smell; the startling hills that jut up heroically in the center of town.

So I booked my flight. What would you have done?

Kolonáki

Tumbling down the slopes of Lycabettus Hill in the center of Athens, Kolonáki's narrow, winding streets are lined with shops and restaurants. An aristocratic neighborhood since the 19th century, it reached the height of chic in the 1970's. Then, as other areas farther from the center blossomed, Kolonáki surrendered some of its status. "Too many people from outside now, a singles scene," sniffs Antonis, gazing out at the crowd from our café perch. Still, the modeling agencies and photographers remain, as does the prime minister, whose residence is just up the block.

Hilly Kolonáki is ideal for walking, shady and breezy even on hot days, and at once relaxing and lively. During the many afternoons we spend wandering the neighborhood I never tire of looking up at the apartment buildings, their terraces dripping greenery; at the come-hither shopwindow displays (I didn't buy); at the actual oranges hanging from the trees; and at the Greeks enjoying life as only Mediterranean peoples do, talking for hours with good-looking friends and lounging about over cool drinks as if it were their birthright. Oh, what we Americans miss, I think.

On our third day in town Antonis takes me for lunch at Kafenio, on Loukianou Street, where we sit at outdoor tables balanced on the steep hill. The angle of the wine in my glass makes me think I'm on a sinking ship. Kafenio opened in the eighties, during a Greek-retro craze, so it's designed to look like a traditional kafenio (café). Real kafenia tend not to welcome women, but here, the tables are occupied mostly by well-tailored ladies who lunch, all sporting astonishingly severe, armor-like sunglasses.

"Once, every village had a café like this," Antonis says. "The men gathered to drink ouzo, play backgammon, and argue politics. Every Greek is passionate about politics. 'If I were prime minister . . .' is probably the favorite line here."

Traditional kafenia also don't serve meals, but we dine well on fava beans puréed with olive oil and garnished with green onions, and flaky spinach pie. Under our private orange tree, the breeze is dry and cool. I try to remember the last time I dined indoors (what an absurd notion). The hours pass. I am feeling very Greek.

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