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Hotel Grande Bretagne.

Hotel Grande Bretagne

Grande Bretagne means "GreatBritain'--in French. The Athenian hotel of that name was originally the guest house of a German--who ruled Greeks. Eighty years later, more Germans --Nazis--made it their theater headquarters, and a few years after that Communists pelted the place with kumquats to make management take down the hated "British' name. A Dane designed it, a Swiss managed it, and its largest clientele for years has been American.

But for all the international flavor,Athens' Hotel Grande Bretagne is a firmly Greek institution. It looks out over Greece's House of Parliament (the former Royal Palace) and Constitution Square--so named when Otto, the German-turned-Greek-king, was forced, like King John of Magna Charta fame, to guarantee a few liberties in writing.

Greece has suffered through morethan one constitution since then. But the Grande Bretagne carries on true to its regal origins--as a 60-room royal guesthouse completed in 1862, just before the hapless Otto had to beat it out of town. Despite the proximity of the royal palace, the Dane who succeeded Otto after the latter's deposition sold the place to an aspiring Greek hotelier who knew a good location when he saw one.

The Grande Bretagne's site is nowthe very heart of downtown Athens. Constitution Square itself, across the street, is a pigeon roost with benches and trees. Catty-cornered to the hotel are the Parliament building and the Monument of the Unknown Soldier, guarded round the clock by gaily dressed evzones, much-photographed at each hour's changing of the guard. On a far side of the square is a stretch of kiosks and open-air cafes that don't shut down until the wee hours; a few blocks from them is the Plaka, the oldest district of Athens--not counting the ruins--its winding, hilly alleys crammed with tavernas (loosely, night clubs) and boutiques, flea markets, and the like. And looming behind Athens medieval and modern is the touristic loadstone of the city-- the rocky Acropolis, crowned by the Parthenon, today covered by a web of scaffolding while titanium support rods are inserted in the columns to replace the present iron rods, which discolor the Attic marble. Numerous balconies on the Constitution Square side of the Grande Bretagne provide the best seats in town for Parthenon gazing.

The Grande Bretagne building itselfreflects the Continental influences mentioned previously. This is not a native Greek hostelry like the whitewashed Aegean inns, but an international mainstream effort of the late 19th century. The interior has been subtly updated by mixing modern design with the prevailing chandeliers, crown moldings, and Louis XV furnishings, while the great public rooms retain their imposing marble-and-damask treatment. Less grand but better known is the G.B. Corner, a restaurant renowned less for its trappings than for its status as Athens' best mingling place--and best source of hamburgers.

The American visitor to the GrandeBretagne will feel right at home with the direct-dial phones and the color televisions, and multilingual staffers will smooth over any remaining rough spots--such as this writer's futile attempt to communicate with the locals by hand signals.

Such courtesy's no surprise. Nowthat the Greeks are kingless, the Grande Bretagne's guests are the only royalty left in town.

Photo: The parade hasn't passed the Hotel GrandeBretagne by, so long as it maintains its prime location in downtown Athens.

Photo: Long before the Grande Bretagne's balconiesprovided this view, the Parthenon was Athens' foremost attraction.
COPYRIGHT 1987 Saturday Evening Post Society
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Copyright 1987 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Athens
Author:Lynne, Ed
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Article Type:Hotel Review
Date:Mar 1, 1987
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