Going greek

Sunday, August 8, 2004

ATHENS, Greece -- In front of a popular restaurant, a line of customers waits for taxis. And wait. Most of the cabs are full. That's nothing unusual in this city of 4 million people. But it's 2:30 a.m. in a morning that started out being Tuesday night.

Visitors to the Olympic Games may leave disappointed if they see Athens only through the eyes of the typical tourist, who makes a beeline for the islands after the obligatory visit to the Acropolis and the quaint but predictable Plaka district.

To fully appreciate and discover Athens' many charms, do as the Greeks do: Venture out into the neighborhoods, find the packed nightclubs, eat at one of the innumerable restaurants tucked in the most unlikely places, or see Hollywood stars under real stars in a romantic outdoor cinema.

The Greek capital is named for the ancient goddess Athena whose favorite animal was the owl. It's a fitting symbol for the city's nocturnal nature, which often culminates in summer with a bleary-eyed rush hour just before dawn.

As native Athenian Panos Demestiha observed: "Athens by day is unlivable, but it's magical at night."

Athenians cope with notorious traffic congestion, strewn trash, diminishing green space, ripped up and dusty streets and miles of drab apartment blocks. City officials are using the momentum of the Aug. 13-29 Olympics to fix some of these long-ignored problems and make city life more bearable.

But the eclectic neighborhoods and intense nightlife -- along with lounging in cafes or on the beach -- show Athens to be more than its reputation as a sad modern city with a glorious past.

More than ever, it's now easier to see the hidden Athens with the extended subway system and new tram.

"In Greece, people have a quality of life. People here live beautifully," said Otto Rehhagel, the German coach of the Greek national soccer team that made history by beating incredible odds to win the European championship on July 4.

Nowhere is Athens' versatile personality more noticeable than the old working-class neighborhood of Psirri, where diners, dancers and dandies can gaze up at the nearby Acropolis.

In a triangle on the edge of a huge flea market and the main shopping drag of Ermou Street, the neighborhood has one of the city's greatest collections of Byzantine churches, built around the 11th or 12th centuries.

They somehow survived the mass demolition of more than 70 dilapidated or damaged churches in 1843 -- about 20 years after Greeks began their successful rebellion against Ottoman rule. Material from the razed churches was used to build a cathedral in Monastiraki.

Psirri's renaissance, which gained steam in the early 1990s, has produced fine restored buildings, car-free pedestrian paths, galleries, top-notch restaurants, small artisan shops and music clubs.

Now it has become a popular entertainment district that is being compared to London's Soho. Psirri even has a web site in Greek and English that gives a description of the neighborhood or a site to make dinner reservations online.

The old feel is maintained by the natives of the neighborhood, whose quirky history includes colorful characters from underworld hit men to migrants from the Greek islands. The nearby Monastiraki subway stop brings in wannabe dwellers all the time.

Just behind the subway station -- and not too far from touristy Plaka -- is Psirri's Heroes' Square, honoring the Greek revolutionary fighters of 1821 who used to meet here to exchange information about the Ottoman occupiers.

By day, the scents and scenes are reminiscent of the past. There is the glassmaker, the leather shoemaker, the furniture restorers, the candle factory, the architects and, naturally, the omnipresent bakery, such as Papageorgiou Brothers at Eschilou 8, near the square, where fresh bread is made daily.

As in many European cities, the old ways live comfortably with New Age concepts like yoga classes, canoeing and mountain biking.

But when the shops roll down their iron grates and call it a day, the evening arrives and the city's blemishes melt away. The jasmine smells sweeter, the cicadas sing and the lights add a twinkle to the night. Athenians come out in droves -- but rarely before 9 p.m.

Heroes' Square, boxed in by renovated neoclassical buildings in soothing yellows, reds and heather green colors, becomes a prime vantage point for people-watching. Young men and women use it as a place to meet and flirt.

Restaurants serve outdoors. Some even offer their own wine in another sign of Greece's efforts to gain respect for its underrated vineyards.

Cuban cigars and French fashion magazines are at a nearby tobacco shop. Side streets rock with Greek and foreign music, parents treat their children to the homemade ice cream at Gelatomania between Taki 21 & Esopou streets, and huge lines form outside the Cine Psirri outdoor movie theater. It is housed in the same restored factory as the restaurant Kouzina, meaning kitchen in Greek, boasting a wine bar and al fresco dining with views of the Acropolis.

The revival of Psirri has inspired the renewal of other once-downtrodden neighborhoods such as nearby Gazi, Metaxourgio, Thessio and Exarhia -- all within walking distance of one another.

Gazi takes its name from the 19th century gas works that were later made into the Gazi Technopolis Cultural Center. Besides being an artist's haven, it also has plenty of nightclubs, restaurants, cafes and bars. It wouldn't be an Athens neighborhood without them.

Metaxourgio was on the brink of desertion a couple of decades back. New luxury hotels are finding it as the ideal location while Avdi Square with its modern playground, set up by the Athens municipality, draws local families. Tables are set outside the bars and places called ouzeri, or ouzo places, which offer drink and hors d'oeuvres.

Thessio best exemplifies the city's effort to unite, clean and enhance all archaeological sites. With its signature restored mansions, Thessio is ideal for long walks, talks, sipping drinks and gazing skyward to find the stars or to marvel at the Acropolis aglow in light.

Exarhia is the definitive watering hole for the antiestablishment, the restless and those who take pleasure in snubbing the snobbish Kolonaki district next door. The main square is always abuzz with Athens' version of cafe society, whose members later later head down Mavromichali Street to grab a table at one of the taverns on Methoni Street.

Graffiti here runs from bashing the Olympics to bashing Uncle Sam. It's not the place to wave the Stars and Stripes.

When the political buzz gets to be too much, escape with a stroll along Kallidromiou Street at the foot of peaceful Strefi Hill, just a few yards past the police station that often clashes with the neighborhood's best-known residents -- the anarchists.

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