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