"We're at the beginning of the 'Vroom,' " Antonis is telling me. "First came the small theater companies, then the artists, then the restaurants. In a decade, this area will be ten times what Kolonáki is."
It is early afternoon, and of course we're sitting outside at a café. ("Now you see why Greece produced so many philosophers," Antonis says with a laugh. "In the old days, the men had slaves to do all the work, so they could sit around and think and talk all day.") We're sipping frappés—a concoction made with Nescafé, ice, and sugar—in the heart of Psiri, which Antonis predicts will soon be the SoHo of Athens. Yet as I look around, I see only faded buildings baking in the midday sun: small manufacturers; shops selling wholesale furniture, lamps, tools, fabric, motorcycle parts. One dimly lit shop repairs old gramophones, another deals only in metal wheels. I see no evidence of an artistic renaissance or of anything remotely fashionable, other than an occasional Neoclassical façade in need of paint. And the streets are as dusty and deserted as the one in High Noon before the gunfight.
So I am dubious as we drink our frappés and eat our rich Greek yogurt and honey ("the best in the world," Antonis says). And I'm just as dubious when he leads me through the neighborhood to Psiri's meat and fish markets. On Euripedes Street, we peek into a dark cellar filled with freshly cut garlic bound into huge bouquets. An elderly man with a gleaming gold tooth slices through a green stem and hands it to me to smell. It's as thick as my thumb and oozing juice. "You work here, you breathe the garlic, it keeps you healthy," he tells us—although his wife sits chain-smoking as she works.
I am hot and very skeptical. "Just wait for the night," Antonis promises. "What's open now will be closed, and what's closed will be open."
That night we return to Psiri, and I hardly recognize it. It's as if one movie set has been struck and another constructed in its place. It's past midnight, and light and music and people are spilling out of cafés and into the streets. Antonis's friend Angelos, who owns a P.R. firm in town, takes us to Frourarhio, a huge, multilevel restaurant housed in
a former army barracks and onetime Communist party headquarters. Staircases lead everywhere. It reminds me of an Escher print.
After much table-hopping and cheek kissing, we sit down to eat in the central patio—sea bass from the Aegean, luscious mussels—while Antonis and Angelos hold court. Everyone here seems to know them, and as people and bottles of wine come and go, the conversation veers wildly from the architecture of the Parthenon to Cocteau to the historical Count Dracula. Back in New York, I'd been impressed by Antonis's erudition—he seemed to have an opinion on any topic. Now I see that this is a national trait: the Greeks are consummate conversationalists, delighting in their own verbosity.
When Athenians want to escape the city, they don't necessarily go to the islands. Instead, Antonis suggests a tour of the ruins at Delphi and then a night in Galaxídi, a chic weekend retreat for the Kolonáki crowd, 125 miles from Athens on the Gulf of Corinth.
By the time we get started it's mid-afternoon on Saturday. With Angelos happily ensconced in the back seat with a pile of magazines, we drive northeast out of town, stopping to see Antonis's parents in the fashionable suburb of Kifissia, where the old guard relocated when they fled Kolonáki in the seventies and eighties. Of course, we're running too late to get into Delphi, but the drive is beautiful. We pass through stands of orange trees, willows, and eucalyptus, with Mount Parnassus always ahead of us.
Galaxídi is a fishing village on a quiet bay. Along the line of quayside restaurants and bars, I see the same well-heeled Athenians I saw in Kolonáki, with the same cell phones, but skimpier fashions. Despite their presence, Galaxídi is tranquil, offering nothing but long walks along the bay, beautiful mountain views, turquoise coves for swimming, and, of course, cafés.
Past midnight, the music in the waterside bars grows louder and the patrons more boisterous. But we avoid what little scene there is by staying a few blocks away at an enchanting inn, the Ganimede Hotel, a 19th-century ship captain's house with a handful of simple rooms. It's owned by Brunello Perocco, an Italian who insists that, after 31 years here, he is "more Greek than the Greeks."
The Ganimede's greatest attraction, besides Bruno's hospitality, is an extravagant garden bursting with bougainvillea, roses, geraniums, flowering pomegranate, passion fruit, water lilies, olive trees, and the largest jasmine vine I have ever seen. It is here, the next morning, that Bruno serves an equally extravagant breakfast: eggs, cold cuts, cheeses, and whipped chickpeas; sun-dried-tomato rolls, lemon curd, and pound cake; an array of his own marmalades and chutneys; coffee and fresh juice. All this I must devour by myself, since my friends are still asleep. It's almost noon.