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It's time for another FLASHBACK! This time it is the year 2000, when I first stayed at the Grande Bretagne. I have stayed there several times since then, always courtesy of my favorite travel agents, but back then the idea of staying at the GB or even having a drink there was wishful thinking....

Hotel Grande Bretagne Project

How I 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 themsleves topless nearby. And yet I was in hell just like those poor people in Athens, who would not buy an airconditioner 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 Scandanavian 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 Scandanavians 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 airconditioned hotel if there was a heatwave 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 heatwave 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 cancelling 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 colaborator 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. Theyjust 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 can be a hard place to find a room if you have not booked one in advance and I had told Mike about our dilemna. 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-Catagory 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 coninued 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.

What's So Great about the Hotel Grande Bretagne?

Hotel Grande Bretagne in Athens, Greece Everything is great about the Grande Bretagne, Greece's most prestigious luxury hotel. From the moment we walked into the lobby I was filled with awe at the high ceilings, the marble, the wood, the furniture and the amount of activity. I knew from the moment I set foot in the building that I would have to force myself to leave.I loved the way the people at the desk smiled when they spoke to me and how the doorman just stuck a little tag on my bag and told me not to worry about it and sure enough it arrived at my room a few minutes after I did. I loved the elevator which was as elegant as an elevator can be. The lobby is the kind of place you can sit down, order a capuccino, read the paper and be entertained by the people who walk by and sit near you, all day long and into the night.

Hotel Grande bretagne, Athens, GreeceI especially loved my room with the two giant beds and closets, full fridge and the 100 page handbook of hotel services, menus, history and anything else I might desire were I to decide to spend the rest of my life living there, which I was considering. We were thinking like parents and not like lovers so while my mother-in-law had a big room with two beds to herself in the Cypria we had to ask for a cot which made the room a little more cramped than it needed to be and kept romance at a very low level. Call me immoral, perverted or irresponsible but I would much rather have wild sex in a luxury suite then watch a family picture on the hotel's Pay-for-view movie channel. 

Syntagma Square from the Hotel Grande Bretagne, Athens, greeceProbably my favorite feature was the balcony which looked over Syntagma square and from which I could see not only the Acropolis but the Evzones guarding the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. In fact on Sunday morning there is a ceremony where the entire legion of evzones comes marching to Syntagma complete with a marching band and we had the best seats in the house, with breakfast and great coffee. My second favorite feature was the telephone which not only had an answering service but also a connection for my laptop so that I did not have to unplug the phone to plug in my modem. Talk about knowing your clientele. And if Andrea got tired of me clicking away there was a business center on the second floor wher I could plug in my laptop or if my laptop blew up there were a couple desk-top computers.

Breakfast at the Grande Bretagne, Athens, GreeceBreakfast at the GB Corner of the Grande Bretagne is worth whatever they charge (ours was free). There is a buffet table that looked like it came out of  Martin Scorcese's The Age of Innocence with so much food on it I didn't know where to start. They called it the American Breakfast Bar and sure enough the restaurant was full of Americans as well as Europeans who looked like they just stepped out of a John Le Carre novel planning the overthrow of nations or corporations over bacon and scrambled eggs. And indeed in the past (and for all I know the present), the GB Corner Bar and Restaurant has been a place where high stakes players, spies, diplomats, princes and oil ministers have rubbed elbows with normal people like you and me.

Hotel Grande Bretagne, Athens greeceThe type of service they provide at the Grande Bretagne is something we had never experienced before. It seemed like everytime we used a towel a new one arrived to take it's place. We would return home to our room from the Plaka and find the bed covers folded over neatly so we could just climb in and a small chocolate candy placed on it. Not only that but they would place a cloth napkin (or whatever the word for it is. I am sure there is a name for this) on the floor by the bed so we could go from our shoes to the bed without our bare feet ever touching the actual carpeted floor. One day we arrived home to find a big bowl of fruit with a note from the manager sending his best wishes. OK. Maybe it was because they had heard of me and wanted to give me a good impression, but for all I know everyone gets this treatment, in fact they probably do and my feeling special was just self-delusion. And what other hotel do you wake up to find the International Herald Tribune and the Athens News hanging from your doorknob.

Winter room at the hotel Grande Bretagne, Athens, GreeceSo the last couple days we spent most of our time in the hotel. We would venture out for lunch meetings and maybe to shop, and one night Andrea and I went around the corner to the Cafe Neon for fresh pasta while Amarandi went with her grandmother to MacDonalds, two of the many fast food restaurants within a block of the hotel. That's not exactly a selling point with me either but for some people this is important. If you are not into Greek food and you have the money then don't bother leaving the hotel because the GB Corner restaurant will make you feel right at home. And with us the only arguments we had was over which room to eat our breakfast or have coffee or tea in, the GB Corner or the Winter Room.

Grande Bretagne Hotel in Athens, GreeceWhen it was time to leave the hotel we were pretty sad to go. Even Andrea was realizing how good she had it and we had long discussions about our difficult re-entry to the real world where unknown people did not come around to make your bed or pick up your dirty socks or leave breakfast menus for you to check off and leave hanging on the outside of your door before you went to sleep so that you would have it when you woke up in the morning. Perhaps we would never again be satisfied in the real world. But before we could sink into deep depression we were informed that we did not get seats on our wait-listed flight and we would have to stay another day. Yay! 
We celebrated with breakfast on the balcony.

Of course Mike Constantinou could not have been very pleased. Remember him? He's the guy who was paying for this and at this point he was probably wondering if we wouldn't get on the next flight either. Well we did. I was not to thrilled about leaving but it was either the Grande Bretagne or my family. I could not afford to support both. And I don't think Mike was ready to put me up in the old hotel for the rest of my life.

Hotel Grande Bretagne, Athens GreeceSo this small chapter of my life ended on Sunday August 7th when my pal George Kokkotos the Famous Taxi Driver showed up in his new Mercedes to take us to the airport in the style we were now accustomed to. Sure a few days before we were like the Beverly-Hillbillies, but you would be surprised at the amount of sophistication that can rub off on you in a place like the Grande Bretagne. As the doorman helped me put my bags in the trunk I realized that the next time a uniformed man helps me with my bags it would probably be a New York customs agent trying to find out how many bottles of Mytilini ouzo or sardines I was  bringing into the USA. Chances are unless someone starts some kind of charity or collection for me, then I will never stay in the Grande Bretagne again. But if you ask me if I had a couple million dollars would I stay there on my next trip to Greece?
Hell, if I had a couple million dollars I would live there.

View of the evzones from the Hotel Grande bretagne, Athens, GreeceAs I sit in my office now in Carrboro, North Carolina, working away on my computer I realize I am doing exactly what I was doing in Greece during the heatwave. I am in my room with the AC on, writing about Greece. Really the only difference is that when the sun goes down and the air gets cooler there are no outdoor restaurants where I can meet fellow travelers, drink an ouzo and have some grilled octopus. When I look out my window I see my neighbor Josie's little patio and pond and as pretty as it is it's not the same as seeing a platoon of marching evzones. Carrboro, unfortunately, does not compare with Greece and in fact I would take Athens in a heatwave over North Carolina on a beautiful day anytime. It's kind of depressing really, when I think about it. But Andrea is happy and she is not on my case and just yesterday my mother-in-law moved into her own apartment. And I have a feeling that our three days at the Grande Bretagne left a favorable last impression so that I should be able to convince my family to make another trip to Greece this year.

Parthenon from the Hotel Grande Bretagne, Athens, GreeceIf you are traveling with a difficult person and his/her mother, take my advice and do what I did. Stick the mother-in-law in the Athens Cypria Hotel and you and your difficult person spend a couple days in the Grande Bretagne. And if you have a child put him/her with the mother-in-law. There is something about those rooms that invites romance which a cot with a sleeping child tends to dilute. Yeah it's an expensive hotel but if you have the money it is worth it and if you don't have money just think of it as an investment in the future. Not only because it will make convincing your mate to visit Greece again this year a little easier, but because anywhere you can look out your window and see the Parthenon is a place you will remember for a long time.

You can go right to the booking form or read the rest of my Grande Bretagne site which has a history of the hotel and a pretty funny photo essay of all the famous people who have stayed at the GB

E-mail me with questions and comments or join my Greece Travel Facebook Page

Hotel Attalos, Athens, Greece

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