CULTURE

A hotel in the heart of Athens

The uncovering of the new Grande Bretagne in Syntagma Square in the heart of Athens a few months ago signaled the Greek capital’s entry into the new century. No other Athenian building in a similar position and with such symbolic weight so clearly stands for the culture of European city life, which, through its many transformations, it has attempted to inculcate since the late 19th century. The return of the Grande Bretagne to the vanguard of Athens’s hotel network, and as yet another member of the Luxury Collection of Starwood Hotels Worldwide Inc., which has taken over management of the hotel for the next 25 years, marks the re-emergence of Athens as a destination with great potential. Indeed, this was the consistent goal of the sagacious businessmen of the 1870s who tied their fortunes to those of the hotel: to link the Greek capital to international tourism networks and to contribute to the general infrastructure development that would bring visitors, ideas and money to Greece. The complete overhaul of the Grande Bretagne, at a cost of 74 million euros, was decided upon in 2000, when control of the company Hellenic Hotels/Lampsa SA, owners of the hotel, passed to Hyatt Regency. All those who have followed the progress of the renovation works on the building, which began in 2001, will be aware that the hotel was completely rebuilt, preserving only its facade. Now, however, with the successful completion of the work, everything is reminiscent of its usual splendor and many are talking of a new, promising and sensational phase. The new Grande Bretagne (designed by architect Pantelis Masourides’s office) literally glows, and it is truly remarkable to encounter (once more) the atmosphere of the great European hotels in dishevelled Athens. The history of the Grande Bretagne is, of course, not simply the history of a great hotel, even more so in a country such as Greece with, a few decades ago at least, a small metropolitan society. It is linked to the country’s economy, to international collaborations and prospects, to the growth of tourism, to the entrepreneurial resourcefulness known as private initiative and to the rise of Athens from the dusty and distant Balkan periphery to a cosmopolitan Mediterranean center. All this and more is contained in the new book «Grande Bretagne – a Hotel-Symbol,» which is something akin to a biography of the hotel. This beautiful volume, with full-color photographs, is published by Kerkyra Press. It would, however, be an injustice to dwell only on the truly captivating photographs, which mark a journey of over 125 years. History of tourism In essence, this book is the first Greek record not only of the history of the hotel but also of the history of tourism in Greece. The historian Angelos Vlachos, a specialist in social and economic issues, carried out extensive research in archives and collections, collated testimony and photographic material, and bound it all together in an exciting narrative that analyzes the hotel’s history from many perspectives. It is possible to view it as a delightful fairy tale, starting in the Athens of King Otto when, in 1842, the Demetriou Megaron was built, designed by the Danish architect Theophil Hansen. This palace, with its stately design that departed somewhat from strict Attic classicism, flirting with Renaissance prototypes, was the seed from which the Grande Bretagne was to be born – and reborn many times. Yet, much more than a romantic fairy tale beginning in 19th-century Athens, the story of the Grande Bretagne, as Angelos Vlachos tells it, is of a journey faithful to the future of Greece. With emblematic figures such as Efstathios Lampsas and his French wife, Theodore Petrakopoulos, his son Pericles Petrakopoulos, Thomas Doxiades, Apostolos Doxiades and Margaret Lampsa-Petrakopoulou, from the 19th to the 21st century the Grande Bretagne has remained a symbol of entrepreneurial resourcefulness. If one were to take into account the conditions in the early years, the business climate in Greece, the lack of infrastructure and the massive problem of water supply which until 1930 kept Greece trapped outside the international tourism network, then figures such as Efstathios Lampsas and Theodore Petrakopoulos come across as pioneering heroes. Honor certainly ought to be done to them for their vision and the risks they took to introduce into Greece international prototypes of hotel services at a time when the economy was weak and city life limited. From the beginning, the aim was for Athens to have an equivalent to the Ritz that would operate as an engine for the economy and boost tourism. In comparison with the Madrid Ritz, the most luxurious Mediterranean hotel during the Belle Epoque – a hotel which Angelos Vlachos often uses as a reference point for European hotel history – the then Grande Bretagne, smaller in size, falls dramatically behind in terms of overnight stays, indicating the difference between the Iberian and southern Balkan peninsulas in the early 20th century. The difference lay mainly in the ease of movement and also in the provision of comforts. Although the Grande Bretagne was the first large building to be fitted with electricity in 1888 (when some Aegean islands only got electricity in 1980!), the difference between it and the large, competitive European hotels is marked in the first decades, when Greece had not yet begun to modernize its urban centers. A pioneer in the introduction of European-style services, the Grande Bretagne was constantly evolving into something greater and more beautiful. The first important extension was towards Voukourestiou Street in 1927, with the new wings designed by the Swiss architect Emil Vogt, a hotel specialist. In 1959, the new building on Georgiou A Street was opened, built on the site of the historic building designed by Hansen. The Grande Bretagne was a pioneer here too, because at a time when the international style of the day meant a box-shaped building might have been expected, the hotel maintained its grand style. Photographic material plays a leading role in the book, with much input from historian Georgia Panselina. The building and its rooms, as well as the staff, owners, directors and the historical figures who paraded through the hotel, from Churchill (when the extension had been built) to Sophia Loren and Elizabeth Taylor, are all here. Most important of all, the Grande Bretagne continues to write the history of Greece from its own vantage point.