Spotlight - Hotel Grand Bretagne, Athens

For more than 150 years, HOTEL GRANDE BRETAGNE has proudly stood next to the Greek Parliament in the epicentre of Athens, welcoming heads of state, stars of stage and screen and Hollywood sirens alike. Nicholas Chrisostomou stays at the neo-classical grande dame of the Hellenic hospitality industry and discovers what makes it one of the world’s truly great hotels.

What makes a truly great hotel and makes it one of the world’s most renowned places to rest one’s head? The location is obviously a factor – not simply the address, but also the setting and position. A historic hotel which has stood the test of time and become a flag bearer for its country is often deemed ‘iconic’, although this word is often over-used. A place to stay which makes one feel excited to return, no matter how often or how infrequent, is always a good barometer for a hotel’s service standards. Where staff remember your preferences, and small touches elevate your stay beyond mere luxury, obviously makes for a memorable experience. A hotel which boasts a wealth of leisure facilities, sufficient to satisfy even the most indulged of spa travellers, can infuse a guest with eternally blissful memories. And 21st-century technology and hi-tech wizardry floats the boat of many a discerning traveller these days. There are just so many variables in hospitality that it’s hard to pinpoint what it is that makes a hotel truly great. Yet whilst Hotel Grande Bretagne embodies most if not all of these qualities, it is something else that makes it one of the world’s great hotels; the people who work there.

After just a few hours as a guest at Grande Bretagne, which has stood proudly overlooking Syntagma Square in the epicentre of Athens for more than 150 years, I felt utterly bathed in a hospitality glow, blissfully happy and totally at ease in my imposing neo-classical surroundings. But this is not a new feeling for me when visiting the Hellenic hospitality industry’s grande dame – a city landmark which has been in the middle of the nation’s history for the entire 20th-century. I have felt the same, time after time at Grande Bretagne, whether sipping a cocktail in Alexander’s Bar, taking breakfast on the roof mesmerised by the fabled Acropolis, or staying in one the hotel’s 320 plush rooms.

Yes, Grande Bretagne is a deluxe five-star property, and part of Marriott’s Luxury Collection of one hundred or so individual hotels which celebrate their local culture and setting. Yes, it sits in a killer location, in the heart of the city which gave the world its first democracy, on Athens’ oldest and most socially important square. And yes, the marble-lined lobby is the embodiment of an iconic hotel: grand, historic, imposing and elegant. But what makes Grande Bretagne unforgettable is the charm and obvious pride of its people.

A hotel can have all the marble and butlers in the world, but if rude or disinterested people are running the show a hotel literally has nothing. Unfortunately there are still plenty of dreadful five-star hotels around the world, even in today’s discerning day and age. Why Grande Bretagne positively hums with the buzz of a well-run hotel comes from the very top, and its general manager, Tim Ananiadis, because a top hotel starts with the people who manage and steer it.

Born and raised in Greece, Ananiadis studied in Canada and began his hospitality career in the States. His accessible, hands-on management style, and drive to provide a comfortable, friendly and efficient environment for guests while maximising revenues through constant innovation, are almost certainly why Ananiadis has been at Grande Bretagne’s helm for almost fourteen years, and deftly steers his people through a sometimes-tempestuous hospitality industry with the calm of a captain totally at ease and in complete control of his charge.

It would be doing Grande Bretagne’s people a disservice to merely call them staff since they are evidently so much more. From the hotel’s doormen, housekeepers and butlers, to its mixologists, restaurant managers and executive committee, all are evidently imbued with a sense of satisfaction to be part of such a historic hotel, which has stood at the centre of Athens life since 1878. And it is these warm and welcoming people which elevate the hotel way above the ordinary, and sprinkle it with the elusive hospitality fairy dust that so many others lack.

A vibrant city where the new sits beautifully with the ancient, Greece as a country might be suffering economic woes, and pretty much imploded in 2010 under the weight of its huge sovereign debt, but its tourist industry is currently booming and so Grande Bretagne routinely runs at full capacity.

These days, the views from the hotel’s grand stone balconies and tiled terraces across Syntagma may be obscured by tear gas when a particularly volatile rally occurs, but it’s all part of a long tradition of protest and the Greeks’ right to demonstrate. I, for one, love that Grande Bretagne continues to offer a front row seat for observers of Greece’s continuing dramas acted out on its iconic central square, and staying at the hotel brings with it a sense of excitement that literally anything could happen in front of you.

Needless to say given the hotel’s long history, the list of royalty, dignitaries and celebrities who have stayed at Grande Bretagne is endless: Maria Callas, Aristotle Onassis, Jayne Mansfield, Elizabeth Taylor, Rudolf Nureyev, Sophia Loren and Laurence Olivier to name but a few. Not to mention world famous fashion designers and pop stars including Giorgio Armani, Tommy Hilfiger, David Bowie and Sting. During WWII, a busboy saved Winston Churchill’s life by disarming a bomb in the basement. In 1972, Archbishop Makarios addressed the Greek people from a second-floor balcony after his near assassination and the Turkish invasion of Cyprus. But whilst modern Greek history quite literally shines out of every floor of this charismatic property, while it continues to welcome guests from every corner of the globe, there’s a palpable sense of modernity too, of moving with the times whilst respecting the past.

Grande Bretagne isn’t an old school hospitality exercise in taxidermy! On the contrary, alongside the glitz, history and glamour, contemporary touches, luxe detailing and modern happenings remind guests that whilst they are staying in a historic property they are actually living in the heart of one of the world’s most vibrant capitals.

A particular noisy or late-night demonstration in Syntagma will most likely result in one of the hotel’s divine scented candles being delivered to your room in a ribboned gift bag complete with an apologetic note from the management. Multi awarded French pastry chef Arnaud Larher collaborates with Grande Bretagne to create signature desserts for every season. Eat off vintage Versace crockery in the hotel’s Winter Garden while nibbling on scrumptious single-bite treats. Unwind with a small batch gin and tonic at Alexander’s Bar under an 18th century tapestry of Alexander the Great. And the hotel’s crowning glory, GB Roof Garden Restaurant, offers panoramic unobstructed views of the Parthenon and Acropolis Hill, offset by thoroughly modern Mediterranean cuisine, making it one of the most beautiful places in the world to have dinner. (www.gbroofgarden.gr)

Before the cynics amongst you start rumbling that hotel staff are primed to be super nice to writers like myself, let me assure you that it isn’t just me who is so well looked after at Grande Bretagne. Having observed the manner in which the waiters interact with breakfast guests, how the front desk team welcome new arrivals and seeing butlers go the extra mile for everyone, I know that I didn’t receive special treatment. Every guest is treated like an individual and their needs attended to personally. For it really is all about the detail and the people at Grande Bretagne – both its people and its guests. So long may she reign as Athens’ premier hotel and one of the world’s truly great places to stay.