The Other Side of Greece
There's a whole other side to the Greek capital, far removed from the muddle that travelers have come to expect. It's found in chic cafés, in sultry nightclubs, in the quiet squares and shady streets of less-touristed neighborhoods—and in the languid pace of living on Athenian time
"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.
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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?
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.
"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.
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.