Undeniably the Grande Bretagne Hotel on Syntagma (Constitution) Square in Athens is the queen of the great imperial hotels of Europe. It seems that everything of consequence in Athens happens at the GB.
Until the summer of 1986, it was a difficult feat to secure a booking, particularly in the summer at this grande dame of European guest palaces. Everybody wanted to be registered there while visiting the capitol of Greece. This summer, however, the great lady languished with an average occupancy rate of perhaps 20 percent. The slump is mute testimony to the hotel's reliance upon Americans for its main body of guests.Within days of President Reagan's warning to Americans to steer clear of Athens airport, and therefore Greece, the canceled reservations from the United States piled up at the Grande Bretagne, as they did at the much newer Hilton, Intercontinental and Marriott hotels. For the first summer in the hotel's 120 years and three major transformations, the GB would not be doing capacity business, indeed appallingly far from it.
Nevertheless in the tradition of the queen of Constitution Square, what events, excitement, and interesting arrivals in Athens did occur, the GB was the venue for most of them. In six weeks of headquartering at the Grande Bretagne paying leisurely respect to the two bars and the Mirror Hall off the lobby, I encountered almost everyone interesting who did make it to Athens this summer.
I became acquainted with one king without a country, Fouad, son of Farouk of Egypt; one beautiful blonde U.S. actress Roberta Collins, starring in a film using the GB as a location to represent a finishing school for randy girls; two Hollywood movie producers; the ambassador from Cyprus to Greece, who arranged an invitation to his island republic; a Greek shipping magnate, who took me on a long weekend of cruising the islands in his 140 foot yacht; a lady companion to international art dealer Alexander Iolas, who asked me around to a viewing of the collection conducted by the great Iolas himself; an attractive female archeologist, who invited me out on a dig; top satirist and international author Taki whose London Spectator columns frequently draw the ire of the rich and famous; all these and many more. Yes, even when the season is slack the happenings are at the GB.
Stepping from the hot and fume polluted Syntagma Square into the subdued air-conditioned lobby of the Grande Bretagne Hotel is a soul uplifting experience not unlike stepping into one's home at last. Presiding over the hotel's ambience, attending to every detail, available to any quest who might want to talk to the boss is managing director and fourth generation member of the owning family, Apostolos Doxiadas. He runs the hotel smoothly and efficiently, acknowledging the debt he owes to the Cornell Hotel School for training him in all the intricacies of modern hotel management techniques.
The chances are that when a busy executive, journalist, or frequent traveler finally leaves the GB, one of the facilities he will remember being most impressed with is the telephone department. The skilled and multilingual operators accomplish miracles in communications all day and night. While I was on a seven-day cruise of the Greek Islands, the operators at the GB somehow found out where I was, contacted the ship's radio room and had me on a relay
from New York to the GB to the MTS Oceanos somewhere between Crete and Rhodes.
It used to be said that after the White House the telephone operators at the Tokyo Press Club were the greatest in the world. Having had some experience with both these institutions, I can unequivocally nominate the ladies of the GB telex and telephone system to sit as peers with the best in international communicators.
For the stomach and palate of the average American, no matter how catholic his acquired tastes, Greek food as a steady diet can be disquieting. Recognizing this fact of gustatory life, Apostolos Doxiadis created the GB corner where along with all the Greek delicacies offered there is a real U.S.
menu available with everything from hamburgers and cheeseburgers with french fries to club sandwiches and New York strip steaks available from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 the following a.m. The atmosphere is that of an English pub with a cozy U.S. steak house thrown in.
The history of the GB is richly interwined with the history of Greece since its emergence as a modern state after its severance from the Ottoman Empire in the 1820s. The paintings on the walls of the hotel's basement gas and explosives proof vault used by the Nazi general staff in World War II when the German Army took over the hotel as its headquarters still show gay scenes of Bavarian drinking life. When the British drove the Germans out of Greece, the GB became the headquarters for the British Army. During the Greek Civil War when the communists tried to take over the country, Winston Churchill was slated to stay at the Grande Bretagne for political and tactical meetings.
Members of a Greek communist demolition team spent several weeks moving hundreds of pounds of high explosives through miles of sewers and planting them under the foundations of the hotel. It was only because of an alert sewer worker attempting to find out why the hotel's plumbing was sluggish that the plot was discovered and the charges which would have destroyed the hotel neutralized. Mr. Churchill never did make it to the Grande Bretagne.
All of this is to say that if you go to Athens without at least a visit to the GB you haven't really seen the capital of Greece.