Now is the time to return, or make your first visit, to Athens, says Tim Ananiadis, GM of the city’s iconic Grande Bretagne hotel, universally known as ‘the GB’. Athens has so much to offer it is a ‘Greek tragedy’ that so many first-time visitors merely schedule flying in and going on a cruise, perhaps to some Greek islands, the following day. Emirates’ flights from Dubai, for instance, land at the earliest at 3pm, which means that even with speedy immigration and the superb new highway people are unlikely to reach the Grande Bretagne before 4:30pm.
Through all the recent years of upheaval the GB soldiered on, though occupancy went down to 24% at its nadir. From time to time ground floor windows had to be boarded up and doors sealed as its location at the north-east corner of Syntagma Square, across the road from Parliament, made it extremely vulnerable to protestors. As of 2017, I was told, the situation began to improve, and now, once again, the hotel is busy: occupancy this year should close at 78%. The gorgeous inner Winter Garden, at the rear of the main lobby, has the afternoon tea crowd, and, day- and evening-long, groups chatting, and enjoying themselves in the way Greeks do.
Cleverly, even before the troubles started, GM Tim Ananiadis had closed one eating/drinking place, GB Corner, and converted it into the GB Concept Store; entry is from the hotel lobby or direct from Panepistimiou. An upper gallery allows quiet seating and meeting, while downstairs there are well-displayed belts and shoes from Zeus+Aione, along with macaroons and other sweet things from consultant, Paris-based patissier Arnaud Larher, often called the ‘star of Montmartre’. There are Zegna items here too, so you have a full range of gifts, as souvenirs of your ‘trip to Paris’, to keep or give to friends. Although everything is displayed as if on Rodeo Drive, the Concept Store’s main decoration is a living olive tree, about ten feet high.
Soon after arriving I headed up to the hotel’s seventh floor terrace pool. This is strictly hotel guests-only, accessed by your room key, and certainly provides relief from the hubbub that is sometimes down in the lobby and, at any time, in the street outside. The outside pool, by contrast, is so calm you feel like talking in whispers. I like the way that the pool bar, with tempting arrays of bottles displayed alongside a glass-fronted chilled cabinet of Mövenpick icecream, is bordered by a white high-up dining counter, guarded, as it were, by several flourishing herb pots.
The Pool Grill menu is local, and basic healthy food. I asked what someone else was eating and obviously enjoying. Souvlaki, I was told, and it was, indeed, delicious – two wood skewers holding six bites of pork, four pieces of pita, tomatoes, onions, cucumber-tzatziki dipping sauce and, bliss, skinny fries. Tim Ananiadis arrived unexpectedly. He often slips away from business to have a quiet lunch here, but today he chatted away non-stop, sharing the great news about better business and the fact that not one of the 650 employees was let go, though retirees were not replaced; everyone, from top to toe, took a pay cut and some stepped back temporarily from full-time to part-time. But now the mood and business at this memorable Athens hotel is once again on the rise…
Regulars stay at the GB, part of the Luxury Collection, for luxury, style, service and history. Built in 1842 for Antonis Dimitriou, a wealthy Greek from Trieste, it was demolished and rebuilt in 1957, but in similar theatrically rococo style (the interiors, says the gal, are similar to what Ritz-Carlton tried to achieve a couple of decades ago). One of the premium rooms, of the total 321, is suite 416. You have dining for ten and a small sitting room to escape the buzz of the main salon. Paintings in heavy gold frames adorn most walls, interspersed with windows looking either east, down to Vas Sofia and Parliament, or south, over Syntagma.
I do wonder if the heads of state and others who stay here do justice to any of the bedrooms’ interiors. There is so much to see and do in the city, just outside; on one visit I remember watching, through one of 416’s French windows, the weekly Sunday-at-11 main changing of the guard parade. It is also tempting to watch, every hour, the more simple change-overs of the guards who stand in two white sentry boxes overlooking Syntagma. All the soldiers of the Greek Presidential Guard, Evzones, wear red hats with long black tassels (farion caps, from Crete), fermeli waistcoats over white Ypodetes shirts and white foustanella skirts which take 30 metres to fold into 400 pleats. And then, to finish off, there are white stockings and tsarouchia clogs with characteristic black pompoms.
It is exhausting even to think about getting into such a time-consuming uniform. I collapse on my bed, gold-edged headboard framing heavily-padded, button-held fabric. I look up at yet another memorable ceiling, and I consider again: what is luxury, today? Here, it is the view outside, the history of this building and the service. Butler-service rooms here have separate check-in, with Veuve Clicquot at any time of day. Butlers seem to be there when called for, but they do not intrude.
The fruits in my room are in perfect condition; they are whole rather than messed up, which is labour intensive and not as pleasing or hygienic as whole fruit, and I have a knife and a fork. The espresso machine in my pantry is an easy-work Nespresso and rather than having a measly one or two capsules, here I have a box full. I also have plenty of big-size Molton Brown toiletries, easy to identify and easy to open, and the various shower buttons are clearly labelled.
Many other pleasing details include the antique writing desk, with a filigree metal fence, all of two inches tall, around its top, and the gorgeous pictorial wallpaper in the powder room. Yes, this is indeed an agreeable hotel and it is not surprising that international business is coming back. Australians are discovering it is a prime entry to Europe after flying here, mainly via Dubai or elsewhere in the Middle East, and cruise passengers are stopping here before, and/or after, their time aboard.
After a much-needed ESPA revival in the hotel’s spa, dinner was one of those meals to remember at the GB Roof Garden Restaurant & Bar. Having said that international visitors are now returning to Athens, I must add that local people, who for a few years have stayed in their houses and presumably had their taramasalata and grilled fish in the privacy of home and family, are beginning to revert to their traditional habit of joyfully dining out, en masse.
On my evening, the restaurant, which was packed, included four tables of ten – all locals, said Tim Ananiadis. I ate simply, starting with a tuna tartare and continuing to fish of the day (a seabass atop lots of grilled vegetables) and of course the wine had to be red, from the Peloponnese (its label was literally all Greek to me). Of course I took photos of the sunset, and I took photos of people taking photos of the sunset. Oh what a memory of that last night in town. A few hours later, my alarm went off, the gym was open (not surprisingly, there was no one else there) and at 5:30 precisely, when I descended, the night manager checked I had my passport. The car was waiting and an alert doorman asked, with a big smile, when I was coming back. Luxury hotel ranking is made up of an endless jigsaw of tiny moments.