Life is what you live
'til the moment you die...
This is how the time goes by."
Zorba the Greek
Kalimera (kal-ee-meh-ra). (Good morning). Welcome to Athens, Greece.
If you are cruising from the port of Athens (Piraeus), it's a good idea to arrive several days before sailing to allow time to explore this foremost city of the classical age. And, it's an equally good idea, to base yourself at the Hotel Grande Bretagne, the "Royal Box of Athens".
Deriving that name because of its commanding position on Constitution Square, the legendary Grand Bretagne Hotel is also known as "the Grande Dame of Athens", or more intimately, the "G.B."
The legend of the G.B. began in the mid 1800's when King George I of the Hellenes, the longest reigning Monarch in Greece, had his summer palace in what was then a rural area of Athens. During that period, many members of the royal families of Europe were frequently, and lavishly, entertained by the King.
The Grande Bretagne was built in 1862 by the Danish architect Theophile Hanson. This elegant, and spacious, 60-room mansion was assigned to be the Royal Palace's guest house for foreign royalty and heads of state visiting Athens.
HOTEL GRANDE BRETAGNE
The man selected to serve these royal guests was Eustace Lampsa, favorite chef of many of the crowned heads. In 1872, the exceptionally competent Lampsa bought the building and turned it into a hotel. Lampsa named his new hotel Great Britain after the world's then-dominant nation. However, influenced by his French wife, he so named it in French: Grande Bretagne.
"The luxury that prevails," wrote a guest traveler when the hotel opened its doors in 1874, "is worthy of special mention." Such hotels are adornments to a city. Who could imagine that Athens, which is going through the first stages of its life after so many years of servitude, would have hotels capable of receiving kings and princes?"
Now, well over a century later, the traditional setting of luxury still prevails at the G.B. It is still one of the Grand Dames of Europe's deluxe historical hostelries, to acclimate yourself to this bustling city, set amid magnificent monuments to her long and glorious past, begin with a tour of the ancient ruins scattered throughout this legendary city.
Driving through the city, you'll also pass the Parliament Building where mini-skirted Evzones (presidential guards) stand guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. You'll also glimpse the National Gardens, the Arch of Hadrian, and the Temple of Zeus.
EVZONES PARADE AT TOMB OF UNKNOWN SOLDIER
A tour will certainly take you to the Acropolis where you will climb from the base up the pathway and steps, through the impressive Propylaea and onto the lofty Acropolis itself. Wear comfortable shoes! At the site of the great Parthenon, the Erechtheum and the Temple of Wingless Victory, you will relive the Golden Age of Greece.
Although the above-mentioned sites remain basically the same as they were ions ago, they…like the city itself…have had a facelift since my last visit (pre-2004 Summer Olympics). Storied monuments have been cleaned; once somber buildings now wear colorful facades; sidewalks and roads are in great shape; public squares and pocket parks abound with flowers and verdant shrubbery.
Wander through the Stadium and feel the sweat, the pulse, the heartbeat, and the thrills of the 21st century runner, as he completes his 26-mile dash from the town of Marathon to the Stadium in Athens. Stroll through the ancient Agora, the marketplace and center of everyday life in the Classical and Hellenistic periods.
For a real taste of 21st –century Greek market life, check out the Central Market (Kentriki Agora) that abounds with Greek delicacies of every sort. At the Monastiraki Flea Market you might pick up some pure 24-carat junque (aka junk).
Markets aside, Athens does have some superb shopping. Check out Zolotas and Lalaounis for gold jewelry with the obvious influence of Greece's rich cultural heritage. Both jewelry shops are located on Panepistimiou Street behind the Grande Bretagne, and both are purveyors of exquisite, expensive, jewelry.
Hip Greek fashions, by creative Greek designers, can be found at shops bearing the designers' own names...such as Boutique Kostetsos, Ellina Lembessi, and Lakis Gavalas.
Be sure to leave time to wander the winding ways of the historic old Plaka, stopping at a tavern for dolmades (stuffed grape leaves), moussaka (eggplant casserole) and horiatiki (the Greek peasant's salad).
THE HISTORIC OLD PLAKA
When your time in Athens, the cradle of culture and of Western democracy, comes to a close, you can bid farewell to Athens by saying Kali adamossi. (Until we meet again.)
JANET STEINBERG is an award-winning Travel Writer and a Travel Consultant with THE TRAVEL AUTHORITY in Mariemont, Ohio.