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History of the Grande Bretagne

The history of the Hotel Grande Bretagne is entwined with the history of Athens and the state of modern Greece

The Grande Bretagne is the most elegant hotel in Athens. Maybe not the fanciest. Some say the newer hotels like the Intercontinental or the Chandris or one of the super modern high tech fancy places are bigger and better. But the Grande Bretagne is old world luxury and location wise it has all the other fancy hotels beat. It sits in Syntagma Square right next to the former palace of the King, now the parliament building and from any balcony you can watch the changing of the Evzone guards and see the Parthenon.

Hotel Grande Bretagne in the 19th CenturyThe hotel was built in 1842 as a house for a man named Antonis Dimitriou, a wealthy Greek from Trieste, Italy, whose family originated on the island of Limnos. He was one of many Greeks and foreigners from abroad  who came to Greece after the country was freed from the Ottoman's just twelve years before. At the time Athens was a little podunk town of unpaved streets, dusty in the summer and a sea of mud in the winter. It was not taken seriously as the capital because people believed that the real capital of Greece would be in Constantinople and Athens was only a temporary stop on the journey there from the original capital at Nafplio. But little by little mansions were built and Athens began to look like a real capital. A foreign visitor described the Dimitrious mansion as "second in size only to the palace, but surpassing it in luxury".

In 1874 Stathis Lampsas, a Russian born Greek whose ancestors had come from Kalavrita who had been the King's cook at the palace next door, went into partnership with Savas Kendros, owner of the Grande Bretagne hotel on the corner of Karageorgi Servias and Stadiou, and with an 800,000 drachma loan bought and restored the Dimitriou mansion and named it the Grande Bretagne.

Having a hotel so luxurious that Kings and dignitaries would feel comfortable in a city like Athens where chickens ran lose in the streets and water shortages were a common occurrence was a difficult task to say the least. Sometimes employees had to bring the water in tin cans from horse-pulled water carriages and despite the hotel being considered luxurious by even European standards, there were only 2 bathrooms to accommodate the eighty beds. In 1888 after the death of Savas Kendros, Stathis Lampsas installed electricity in the hotel when Athens got it's first generator.

The hotel was also a center of intrigue, where alliances were made and broken, where spies and agents slept and governments formed and torn down. It's ballroom was the center of ceremonies, festivals and social gatherings. By the nineteen hundreds the streets of Athens were paved, horse-drawn trams were replaced by electric ones and there was even a train from the center to the harbor of Pireaus. By then the Grande Bretagne had running water, central heating, telephones and elevators.

With the establishment of the Republic in 1924 the Grande Bretagne became the central meeting place for the Greeks and foreigners who were shaping the political, economic and social life of the country. Industrialists, ship owners, judges, diplomats, government officials and journalists gathered daily in it's reception rooms while in it's elegant apartments famous foreigners stayed and in some cases lived. The new wing on Panepistimiou was built in 1930 to accommodate the presidents and kings, symphonies and delegations which came to Athens.

View from the Grande Bretagne in December of 1945During World War Two the Grande Bretagne was taken over by the General Staff and all the guests asked to leave. But when Athens fell to the Nazis April 28 1941 it became the headquarters of the third Reich and filled with hundreds of officers. For three years the Nazis lived in the hotel with regular visits by Goering and Himmler. Rommel and Hitler even stayed here on the eve of the Soviet invasion of 1941. During this period there was much famine, hardship and terror and Athens breathed a sigh of relief when the Germans left and the hotel became the headquarters of the British Expeditionary Force in the autumn of 1944. 

But Peace was short-lived as civil war broke out between the Greek army and the communist resistance who controlled most of Athens with the exception of the Grande Bretagne. The hotel became the scene of conferences between the government of George Papandreau and the British delegations headed by Harold Macmillan and later by Winston Churchill and Anthony Eden. The Grande Bretagne was a combination fortress and refugee camp with machine-guns set up in the entrance, windows and hallways, while the rooms were given to the fifteen hundred  homeless people who were crammed into the hotel.

Hotel Grande Bretagne, Athens, GreeceIn 1956 after the end of the civil war, four more stories were added to the hotel. In the years to follow the Grande Bretagne witnessed numerous demonstrations, election rallies, military parades and military coups. When the Junta of  April 1967 collapsed in July 1974 it was at the Grande Bretagne where Constantine Karamanlis lived for four months while he formed the new government in his 5th floor suite and the same year Arch Bishop Makarios addresses the Greek people from a second floor balcony on his way back to Cyprus after his near assassination and the Turkish invasion and occupation of the island.

Since being converted from the most luxurious mansion in Athens into one of the most respected and elegant hotels in the world the Grande Bretagne has had among it's guests over 40 kings, queens and heads of state. This is where all international leaders come and nearly all official banquets take place here, the gourmet food served with fine porcelain and crystal and nineteenth century gold silverware. While Athens has changed the Grande Bretagne continues offering a standard of elegance that all but disappeared from the world a century ago.

In 2003 the Grande Bretagne underwent the most extensive rennovations in it's long history and there is no longer much doubt that the Grande Bretagne is not only the most elegant but also the best hotel in Athens.

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