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The Other Side of Greece

Gazi

If Psiri is newly hip, then nearby Gazi is on the verge. The physical heart of this Athens neighborhood is the former public gasworks, a sprawling, architecturally arresting building that's being transformed into a cultural center. Devoid of traffic and commerce at night, Gazi is dark, almost spooky. But galleries and theaters are opening up, and the actress-singer Irene Pappas has founded an acting school here. There's a real buzz in Gazi, which you feel most at Mamacas, the hottest restaurant I visited all week.

Mamacas is edgy, but with a dreamlike atmosphere. At night the pistachio-colored Neoclassical villa seems to float in the darkness, its tall windows thrown open, its tables spilling onto the sidewalk. Across the street, a half-dozen more tables are placed at the edge of a leafy park, and the waiters—in crew cuts, T-shirts, and jeans—hustle back and forth, hoisting plates of Greek comfort food: paximadia dakos, a dark, chewy round of bread topped with olive oil, chopped tomatoes, olives, and feta; and soutzoukakia, herbed meatballs in tomato sauce.

A bright half-moon is shining above Mamacas when we arrive at 11 o'clock. The crowd is much artier and more relaxed than in Kolonáki. We're seated outside, underneath a French window, out of which the pretty blond hostess leans to talk to her friends at the table beside us. One is a young Bette Midler double with cropped blond hair, a skintight Harley-Davidson T-shirt, multiple earrings, and a lavishly tattooed arm. Everyone includes us in the conversation (switching between Greek and English for my benefit), and Bette buys us a bottle of credible Greek champagne. A Philippe Starck-designed silver-and-orange Aprilia motorcycle roars up, and a woman in a blue vinyl jacket and a tight mini jumps off. Someone turns up the jazz really loud, and the hostess brings us all sweet glasses of Visanto. Soon we're having a party.

Avenue of Poseidon

At the end of each summer workday, Athenians flee the city center for the nearby seaside, where their favorite clubs and restaurants set up warm-weather outposts in June. Late one night, I find myself with Antonis and Angelos, speeding along Poseidornos (the Avenue of Poseidon), a road that stretches from Piraeus to Cape Sounion, site of the Temple of Poseidon. "The world's most historic coastline, traveled since thousands of years before Christ," Antonis tells me proudly. Tonight, though, this historic road is lined with rocking clubs.

We pull into Privilege, a branch of a trendy Athens nightspot. While space in the city center is at a premium, this place by the beach sprawls. Men with slicked-back hair and snazzy suits, and women in tight dresses and spiky heels, swarm across a football field-sized parking lot toward the glowing entrance. We join the crowd, passing a phalanx of white-suited bouncers, and enter—although enter implies an inside, and the arena-sized club is roofless, at the edge of the floodlit sea. To the left is a huge bar and dance floor; to the right, on a raised platform, is the restaurant, where waiters dressed like navy captains cruise between tables, pouring goblets of wine for cigar-smoking businessmen and their heavily accessorized dates. Everything is big, bright, and expensive-looking. It's Hollywood, it's Vegas—and it's midnight on a Tuesday.

Kesariani Hill

By my last evening I am totally exhausted. These past few days, we've squeezed in some sightseeing: the Acropolis and the ancient Kerameikós Cemetery, the archaeology museum. But Antonis insists on one last excursion: a drive up Kesariani Hill for a view of the city. Even with traffic we're out of town in less than 15 minutes, up in the hills amid a cool and breezy landscape lush with cypress trees and olive groves. My guide parks the car and leads me along a path past the ruins of a ninth-century church, its crumbling brickwork embedded with marble columns from ancient temples. And suddenly, there it is: mountains receding in waves behind us, distant islands in front of us, and Athens—just as he'd described it over that fateful, post-yoga lunch back in New York—flowing down to the sea like a river.

"You know, they're digging up all the streets down there for the new subway system," Antonis says. "But the problem is, every time you start digging in Athens, you find the old Athens underneath. You hit a statue or some ruins and then you have to stop digging. It's the law." Overwhelmed by emotion—he's returning to New York tomorrow, too—Antonis seems to be talking to himself. The past is a constant and powerful presence in the lives of today's Athenians, as I've come to realize during my week with Antonis. But Athens today is where they live—and what a vibrant city it is. Not just a jumping-off point but a fashionable destination in its own right. I never missed the islands during my week here. In fact, I never gave them a thought.

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The Facts

Spring and fall are the best times to visit Athens—the days are warm, nights are cool, and the air quality is good. In January, the city added two new subway lines and 13 stations, which are expected to improve traffic congestion and pollution; several more stations, including ones near the Acropolis and the Agora, are scheduled to open later this year.

Hotels

Andromeda Athens Hotel 22 Timoleontos Vassou; 30-1/643-7302, fax 30-1/646-6361; doubles from $270. Stylish and luxurious boutique hotel on a quiet street near the American embassy, with a bar and restaurant.

Athenian Inn 22 Haritos; 30-1/723-8097, fax 30-1/724-2268; doubles from $109. A small, unadorned hotel in the heart of Kolonáki. The 28 rooms are simple yet comfortable, and breakfast is included.

Hilton Athens 46 Leof. Vassilíssis Sofías; 30-1/728-1000, fax 30-1/728-1111; doubles from $373. Within walking distance of Kolonáki, it's well-located and notable for its outdoor pool. Ask for a room facing the Acropolis.

Ganimede Hotel 21 Gourgouris, Galaxídi; 30-265/41328, fax 30-265/42160; doubles from $43.

Restaurants and clubs

Kafenio 26 Loukianou; 30-1/722-9056; dinner for two $35.

Frourarhio 6 Agion Anargyron; 30-1/321-5156; dinner for two $58.

Mamacas 41 Persefonis; 30-1/346-4984; dinner for two $35.

Privilege Poseidornos; no phone; also at 130 Pireós, 30-1/347-7388; dinner for two $145.

Thalassinos 36A Tsakalof; 30-1/361-4695; dinner for two $58. An excellent seafood restaurant on the upper floor of a stout Neoclassical mansion in Kolonáki.

Aristeridexia 3 Andronikou; 30-1/342-2606; dinner for two $69. Lively and modern, with an outstanding wine cellar and nouvelle Greek cuisine.

Diros 10 Xenofóndos; 30-1/323-2292; dinner for two $26. So old-fashioned it's practically retro-chic, serving excellent traditional Greek food. Off Constitution Square.

Strofi Taverna 25 Rovertou Gkalli; 30-1/921-4130; dinner for two $29. A favorite of actors and dancers. Get a table on the roof for a view of the Acropolis.

Maritza Galaxídi; 30-265/41059; dinner for two $29. A casual restaurant with outdoor dining on the quay.

Liotrivi Galaxídi; 30-265/41781; dinner for two $29. The name means "olive press," and this atmospheric waterfront tavern has two giant ones on display, plus a wonderful view of the water and mountains. A good place to watch the sunset.

Shopping

Parthenis 20 Dimokritous; 30-1/363-3158. Black, white, and beige fashions from the Greek designer of the same name.

Magia 18 Haritos; 30-1/723-4572. A wittily designed shop in Kolonáki that sells whimsical jewelry and clothes.

Martinos 50 Pandrossou; 30-1/321-3110. Four floors of fine antiques, ceramics, furniture, carpets, art, and jewelry in a building that's more than a century old.
—A.B.

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