A Greek Revival

The home of the Olympic Games looks toward 2004

By: Amanda Castleman

ATHENS The capital’s leading lady, Hotel Grande Bretagne, recently finished a lavish $70-million makeover just in time for the 2004 Olympics.

The hotel has a commanding position in the bustling Constitution Square (Syntagma) and overlooks the former palace, now Greece’s Parliament building, where the Evzone guards march in short pleated skirts and clogs.

Designed by Danish architect Theophile Hansen, the 1862 building originally housed a wealthy Greek. It was transformed 14 years later by Stathis Lampsas, a hotelier who began as a scullery boy in the kitchens of the royal palace. It was no easy task to create a premier hotel in the rough, dusty Athens of 1874. Initially, the staff had to buy water from street vendors and lug it inside.

Over the years, the mansion served as a rallying point for the Greek republic in 1924, a Nazi headquarters during the ’40s, and a political sanctuary in ’74 for deposed Prime Minister Constantine Karamanlis, who later formed a new government in a fifth-floor suite.

During World War II, the hotel served, in turn, as the headquarters for the Greek, German, and British forces; when Churchill was visiting on Christmas Eve 1944, a plot to blow up the hotel from the sewers was foiled.

Today, the Beaux Arts decor glitters with gilded candelabras, ornate chandeliers and crystal ashtrays. The hotel’s marble lobby is graced with Oriental rugs and tapestries.

The Grande Bretagne has 290 rooms and 37 suites, including a vast presidential apartment. Amenities include butler service, free high-speed Internet access, a salon, car rental, pool, gym and sauna. A wine cellar and the rooftop Acropolis Garden is scheduled to open this summer.

There are also “Smart” rooms with a desk, printer, fax, photocopier and direct phone line with voice mail.

Trials and Triumphs

Athens is lurching along, like Buster Keaton, on its way to the 2004 Olympic Games: prone to pratfalls and pandemonium, but eventually triumphing against the odds.

Many venues are expected to open just in time for the Aug. 13, 2004, opening ceremonies, without ever holding a test event. Infighting has stalled tram and railway construction, and construction on the 70-km. Attiki Odos, or Athens Ring Road Ring Road, is being hurried to make it ready for the traffic that the games will generate.

Organizers’ biggest worry, however, is finding beds for the 1.5 million spectators. Already, most of the city’s best accommodations are reserved for the 55,000 members of the Olympic Family, referees, sponsors and media.

Reportedly, about 10,000 rooms are available and officials are promising another 82,000 beds in the Attica region, a 90-minute drive. Cunard’s new Queen Mary II and other cruise ships will also be offering berths in Piraeus, the capital’s undistinguished harbor.

The city has had some notable achievements in recent months: Air pollution reportedly has declined 35 percent, luring back the owl, the ancient emblem of Athens; pedestrian strips have been created to link ancient monuments; Cars parked illegally on sidewalks are being ticketed and towed, much to the amazement of local residents; and, Psiri, Exarhia and Gazi , once disreputable sections of the city, now house galleries and funky restaurants with no-smoking sections.

The new airport, Eleftherios Venizelos (www. athensairport-2001.gr), is sleek and efficient. And a state-of-the-art 1.9 billion euro metro system adds muscle to public transport, with fascinating archaeological displays to while away the time while waiting for a train. n Amanda Castleman is a freelance writer who lives in Athens.

U.S. Olympic Committee, www.olympic-usa.org.

For tickets and accommodations, CoSport, official sponsor, www.cosport.com, 877-457-4647. For tickets, Cartan Tours, official sales agent, www.cartan.com, 800-360-2004.

Also, Ya’lla Tours USA, www.yallatours.com, 503-997-3758 or 800-644-1595. Commission ranges from 14 to 16 percent.

Hotel Grande Bretagne, rack rates, double, $200 to $410.

011-30-210-333-0000; www.hotelgrandebretagne-ath.gr.