The 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
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.
During 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.
In 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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