By Nicholas Papandreou

I think of Athens as two separate cities, accessible via the two separate subway systems, the old one (1957) and the new (2000).

The old subway line starts in Kifissia, runs beneath Athens, and comes out in the ancient port of Piraeus. Before it dips into the earth, it passes olive groves, cypress trees, a motley jumble of apartment buildings, and the new Olympic Stadium, with its rib-like polycarbonate roof built by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava. The structure is now a fixture of the city’s bright nightscape.

The passengers of the old subway system are primarily working-class people, so the whole setting is grittier, dirtier, with greater opportunities for mingling and being surprised. Today I find a young Gypsy boy, no older than eight or nine, playing a small bouzouki. A well-dressed woman in her 50s, looking like a high-school marm, sings a high-pitched Bulgarian folk song.

If Constitution Square, the Parliament, and the Grande Bretagne are the heart of the new upscale Athens, then Omonia is the heart of the old. From here the colorful districts of Psiri, Metaxourgeio, Monastiraki, and Plaka are all within walking distance. I take Athinas toward Plaka, a bustling street, a perpetual marketplace. Here everything is tinged with the exotic: Along the way are open satchels of pistachio nuts, white coconut sliced into small boats, small signs indicating the price per kilo. Hundreds of cheap shoes crowd a wheel cart; a gruff-looking man sells wooden staffs carved by shepherds from the Greek highlands.

Somewhere in the middle of Athinas Street I stop. I lift my gaze. I can almost feel the goose pimples.

There it is. The Acropolis.

I am seeing it for the first time. Again. I like to pretend I am a tourist who has never before been here. The monument is sometimes gray, sometimes white, and sometimes yellow. At night it is orange. Whatever its color, the Acropolis is queen of the city. She cannot be ignored. Like a voyeur I am drawn to it. Today, a balmy October afternoon, a thicket of cranes rises above the temple, because certain segments are being moved to the new Acropolis Museum.

I pause in front of the city’s largest meat market. Bovine heads hang from hooks. A man in a white apron hacks a lamb to pieces. For six euros you get a small glass of ouzo, a bowl of tripe, and a seat at his greasy butcher's block. At the fish market, next door, an octopus is splayed out on a wire, its dried suckers big as a bathroom plunger. The fish are beautifully arranged along ice-packed crates, their eyes in an even row like beads on a string. A man tries to sell me two kilos worth of shrimp wrapped in a paper funnel. Another with a moustache stretching from ear to ear lifts a glass of ouzo to my health, then downs it in one gulp.

I take the new subway up to Constitution Square, right below the Parliament building. The passengers speak in hushed tones. Today, there are no peddlers; the sound system is playing Vivaldi; the granite floors are shiny clean. This experience belongs to the other Athens, the Athens rebuilt for the Olympics.

This Athens built the new Acropolis museum designed by Bernard Tschumi, refurbished the Numismatic Museum on Panepistimiou Street, and united all the archaeological sites so that they are accessible on foot alone, rediscovering the grand designs imagined by the city’s original planners. This tour starts across Hadrian’s Arch in the old town of Plaka, continues down into Psiri with its infinite taverns and restaurants, and, depending on which way you turn, ends at the retrofitted former industrial area of Gazi or at Monastiraki and its bizarre bazaar. The cobbled roads are built from stones and marble from the Cyclades. Each stone is a thick cube ten centimeters deep, wide, and long.

It’s in the thoroughly modern Syntagma Square metro station, with displays of the archaeological finds discovered during its construction, that the two cities finally meet. I am taking the escalator into the depths. Four or five Gypsies hesitate in front of the moving stairs. People pile up behind them. I realize suddenly they are adults who have never seen moving stairs before. Worried that their feet might get caught in the metal teeth, the way I used to worry when I was a kid, they jump onto it from a distance, then prepare themselves to leap off at the end. Two of them take the stairs, sticking to tradition.

NICHOLAS PAPANDREOU is an Athens-based novelist who also does social commentary on Greek television and in print.


About Athens and Greece

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