At once glamorous and gritty, magisterial yet village-like, nothing – not the years of civil unrest, nor any economic crisis – can crush the vital, life-loving spirit of Athens. More visitors than ever crowd the ancient Plaka area near the Hotel Grande Bretagne, a stone’s throw from the leafy Syntagma Square. Lovers kiss and argue around the fountain, the waters of which constantly change color; rollerbladers practice moves; violinists serenade at the café tables. On the adjacent pedestrianized shopping street of Ermou, impromptu tango and street dancing has become a late-night ritual for anyone who feels inclined to join. This is Europe’s city that never sleeps.
GB, as this great neoclassical landmark hotel is known, has seen it all. Since 1842, it has witnessed weddings, love matches and diva-esque strops – such as the time when Maria Callas retreated to her suite here and refused to ever sing again. But it has also withstood wars, revolutions and occupation (it was adopted as Nazi headquarters in the war), and Winston Churchill narrowly avoided an assassination attempt here. Given the roll call of rich and famous who have swept up the hotel’s marble steps, it’s all-the-more impressive when the doorman remembers your name. Service is as gracious and old-style as the gilded, draped, fringed interiors; a suitably theatrical backdrop for the popular high tea in the gardens, surrounded by palm trees, or martinis in the rooftop bar. What was once an area of storage units on the upper mansard floors is now the hotel’s USP – breakfast on the rooftop terrace, where the views overlooking the up-lit Parthenon and Tomb of the Unknown Soldier are staggering, is a particular highlight.
There’s a flourishing organic food movement in Athens, thanks to the Nice n Easy restaurant group, whose restaurant sits on a chic, tree-lined side street in Kolonaki.
Fight your jet lag with a visit to the hotel’s heavenly subterranean spa, where the circuit after a swim in the warm pool includes an amethyst grotto, a serail mud chamber, an ice cave and a laconium (dry sweating room) to relieve high or low blood pressure.
The Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center is an urban retreat with a Renzo Piano-designed opera house, library, canal café and hanging gardens.
Take time to book a session with esthetician Dimitra Goula, the source of many a Greek celebrity’s flawless looks, and stock up on her natural products, some of which contain a secret compilation of ancient herbs harvested by monks.