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Hotel Grande Bretagne:

How I, a poor travel writer, ended up staying in the most luxurious hotel in Athens, Greece

Hotel Grande Bretagne, Athens, GreeceJuly of 2000 in Greece was the hottest month in over 100 years. In that month we were hit by two heatwaves from Africa and though we were on the islands where it was merely an inconvenience suffered for the short amount of time that it took to get from the air-conditioned hotel to the cool Aegean sea, people living in Athens suffered as the city streets absorbed the hundred degree sun all day and reflected it right back up at night. If you were in an air-conditioned hotel you were OK. You could go out for a couple hours and see what you had to see and then return to a cooler climate. But for those Athenians who did not have AC because they either did not like it or could not afford it, Athens must have been sheer hell.

Matt Barrett reviews the Hotel Grande Bretagne in Athens, GreeceIt was hell for me too. I was on the island of Lesvos at the Aeolian Village, the fanciest hotel in Eressos, in a room a hundred yards from the sea and one of the largest swimming pools in Greece half that distance away. I had my trusty Compaq Presario laptop and a decent phone line so I could download my e-mail and check up on the NY Mets. The air-conditioner worked fine and I was completely comfortable physically. There was decent food in the hotel restaurant and cold beer at the pool bar as well as some attractive (but married) tourist women from Isreal and Scandanavia, sunning themselves topless nearby. And yet I was in hell just like those poor people in Athens, who would not buy an air-conditioner because it was unhealthy, as they chain-smoked their way through the hot days and drank through the night. Though outwardly I appeared happy, in truth I was miserable.

Hotel Grande Bretagne, Athens, GreeceThe cause of my suffering was Andrea, my wife. I suffered because she was suffering and Andrea does not like me not to suffer while she suffers because my lack of suffering makes her suffer more. But it was not my lack of suffering or even the heat which caused her suffering, though they did contribute to it. Her suffering was caused because we had agreed to bring her mother along with us on the trip, thinking she would be helpful with our daughter Amarandi. Which she was, (though we will not know if there is any psychological damage in our daughter for at least a couple years), but the problem with bringing my mother-in-law on vacation with us is that it ceases to be a vacation. In fact it becomes more stressful than working in an office, being stuck in a traffic jam or even a burning building. She is a nice person but she has this habit of continuously talking, as if her life is a movie and she is the narrator. Plus she pushed all Andrea's buttons causing Andrea to shout and take it out on me and when Andrea is in a state of total annoyance nothing upsets her more than to see me happily working away on my laptop. So you get the picture?

Andrea wanted to go home, back to our little house in North Carolina where they were having the coolest summer in history and enough rain to cause several million dollars in damage to a local shopping center. Home, where we did not have an air-conditioned room but an entire house where each of us had our own space, our music, our books and 60 channels on cable (instead of 11). Where Andrea could wake up and turn on NPR and make a whole pot of gourmet coffee and not have to worry if the person at the cafe or hotel bar knew how to make a decent cup of espresso. Back to where she could happily pull weeds in her little garden and look at me proudly as I staked my tomato plants before retreating back to the airconditioned house when the sun became too hot. Yeah, this sounded OK to me too. I mean my purpose in coming to Greece was not to sit in a hotel room and answer e-mail from people looking for the ferry schedules. I wanted to take my new camera and explore. See new places. Meet new people. Try new foods. But the heat made it impossible. Strangely, all the other tourists did not seem to mind. We asked some Scandinavian people how they were coping with the heat. "We love it! This is why we came to Greece." And sure enough, to them it was like a normal day at the beach or the pool. They ate, drank, swam and talked with all the other happy Scandinavians in the hot sun. Ask anyone and they will tell you they would rather be hot than cold.
Except us.

Elaine JeromeSo I had to admit to myself that because of weather conditions this summer was not going anywhere and if I wanted to save my marriage I might have to give up the remaining month of summer in Greece and return Andrea to the boring security of Carrboro, North Carolina. I knew that once we committed to going back to America, the wonderfully cool summer there would emediately become the hot muggy NC weather we have always known and dreaded.  I also knew that if we decided to stay in Greece we would be slammed with another heat wave. How did I know this? Because my mother-in-law lived by Murphy's law and attracted ill winds. It was all she talked about and she was like a magnet for personal catastrophe and bad weather. So for the sake of the hundreds or even thousands of people who were in Greece because I said it was the greatest place in the world, we had to get my mother-in-law out of the country so the weather would improve, even if it meant the suffering of ourselves and our friends in North Carolina.

Sailing to Athens and the Grande BretagneSure enough,  the day the weather forecasters said the heat wave would end I looked on the weather map of the Herald Tribune to see all of Spain, Portugal and North Africa in a haze of wavy lines, what was certainly the next heat wave, which Sammie, a local fisherman said would hit on Friday, four days after this one ended. We calmly walked to Sappho Travel and booked 2 cabins on the ferry Mytilini, leaving Monday and then called the Attalos and booked three nights which was all the availability they had. We had wait-list tickets for Sunday for an Olympic flight to New York so we had two nights we had to find rooms for and they had to be in an air-conditioned hotel if there was a heat-wave arriving on Friday. We took our chances that we would find something and on the evening of  Monday July 31st we sailed out of the harbor of Mytilini on the beginning of our journey home, just as the the heat-wave ended.

The Grande Bretagne Project

Mike Constantinou of Greece AccommodationsIt was my idea really. My pal Mike Constantinou who was the founder and brains behind Greece Accommodations had just moved his organization from London into his new office at Omonia square and Andrea and I went to visit him. Mike has always been great to us, putting us up in nice hotels and taking us out to dinner and buying giant fish for us. He really was one of the best travel agent in Greece and a very cool guy too. He was one of those casualties of 9/11 that you really don't hear about. After the planes hit the towers and people were canceling their holidays left and right because they thought the world was coming to an end, Mike figured he could weather the storm. Unfortunately his largest collaborator in the states didn't and closed his office owing Mike several hundred thousand euros. It was too much for a small agency like Greece Accommodations to handle. Mike hung on for another year or so sinking deeper and deeper into debt. One day he just closed the office and left Athens and was never heard from again. The amazing thing is that nobody ever wrote and told me that they had booked their hotels with Greece Accommodations and they had gone out of business and taken their money. Usually when a travel company goes out of business they strand their customers. Not because they are crooks. They just don't have the money to operate anymore. I waited for the angry e-mails from my readers who had booked their hotels through Mike and they never came. Either he was able to pay the last hotels his clients were staying in or at some point he stopped taking bookings. I will never know. Mike disappeared as if he was taken away by aliens. Anyway back to my story...

Athens in August is a hard place to find a room if you have not booked one in advance and I had told Mike about our dilemma. I was sort of joking when I said "Why don't you put us up in the GB and I will make a website for it". It was a good idea really because the history of the Grande Bretagne is almost as rich as the ancient monuments of the city, but for three hundred dollars a night I was not expecting Mike to agree and so I said it in a way that he could dismiss it as a joke if he chose to. To my surprise he said he would check on it. Later when we thought that maybe the GB was a little rich for our blood he insisted on it. 

Hotel Grande Bretagne in Athens GreeceAnd so on Friday the 4th of August, Andrea, Amarandi, my mother-in-law and I got into a taxi at the C-Category Attalos Hotel with all our luggage, like we were on our way to the airport, and drove to the Luxury-Class Grande Bretagne, perhaps the first people in history to make such a journey.

We did make one short stop though. We went to the B-Catagory Athens Cypria Hotel and dropped my mother-in-law off there. With Murphy's Law following her around like a faithful hound dog we did not want to take any chances that our short holiday in the Grande Bretagne would be spoiled in any way. After leaving her and her bags in the lobby we continued on our journey to the famous old hotel. Andrea only wanted the last couple days to pass as painlessly as possible. But I wanted to salvage a summer gone awry. I wanted to at least get enough material for one decent website and I wanted to erase Andrea's bitter memory of a summer she would rather forget so I could convince her to come back again next summer and the summer after that too.

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