Hotel Grande Bretagne, Athens: the perfect autumnal weekend escape
This superb five-star Athenian monolith, with stunning views of the Acropolis, is the ultimate base from which to explore the Greek capital
‘Athens, the eye of Greece, mother of arts and eloquence’ - John Milton
When one goes in search of a sun-kissed late summer adventure, few places fit the bill better than than the Europe's historical playground, Athens. The birthplace of democracy, the arts, science and western civilisation, it is a city that boasts the perfect Mediterranean climate while playing host to some of the finest restaurants, hotels and bars in the world.
The magnificent Hotel Grande Bretagne, located in Syntagma Square and which has welcomed everyone from Winston Churchill to Elizabeth Taylor, would be my home for the next couple of nights. This neoclassical masterpiece continues to stand out as the place to stay for all discerning visitors to the Greek capital, so steeped in history is it; across its 148 year existence, it has played a crucial role in shaping the city's political and social proceedings. Its salons have undergone Nazi occupation, served as the backdrop to deal-making industrialists and played host to matchmaking socialites - the building even served as the one-time Greek government headquarters.
Today, under the shadow of the Parthenon and fresh off the back of a $100 million dollar renovation, the hotel seamlessly marries old-world opulence with all the amenities one would expect from a modern five star hotel.
The bedrooms, each individually designed, are full to burst with classical furnishings; chandeliers hang from the ceilings above the most comfortable king-size beds I have encountered in a long while. The views from my room were extraordinary, overlooking the parliament building and the architectural ingenuity of the original Olympic Stadium dating back over 2000 years.
It’s often small touches that help differentiate the good hotels from the exceptional ones. Upon entering my room, I was greeted by a complimentary bottle of Mantilla liquor (a traditional almond spirit from Kefalonia) and a 30 cm tall white chocolate model of Athena (fittingly, the Goddess of handicraft).
With the sun shining down on my balcony and temperatures easily surpassing 30 degrees Celsius, it felt like the perfect time to go and check out the rooftop open-air pool and bar on the seventh floor.
If the interior of the hotel is a celebration of grandeur and classical design, then the roof-top pool transports guests somewhere else entirely; to a chic Ibizan beachside pool bar where the staff, dressed in pristine white, shuffle back and forth making scrumptious cocktails and keeping all their guests hydrated.
In my head I had made plans to go and explore the city, but with the sun beating down and the staff fulfilling my needs I simply never found the will to leave. When the sun eventually disappeared behind the Acropolis, I did manage to work up the energy to head back to my gorgeous room to freshen up before going out to explore the wonders of Athens.
Having dined on a delicious pool-side lunch earlier, I had not left the hotel on the lookout for food, but a bar recommendation wouldn't have gone amiss. As such, the concierge had very kindly sent me in the direction of The Clumsies, a multi-award winning cocktail bar merely a stone's throw from the hotel. Their menu is winners all the way down; a patron could order anything blindfolded and still be blown away. I decided to order the ‘Athean Negroni’, a mix of Old Tom Gin, Ambrator, vermouth, Campari, fennel seeds and Diktamus. Last year it was voted as the world's best cocktail and it's not hard to see why; the intricate balance of the sweetness of the vermouth balancing the sharpness of the fennel seeds with the saltiness of the Dictamnus leaf (an aromatic plant exclusive to Crete) results in perfection.
The next morning, awakening with somewhat of a heavy head after possibly one cocktail too many, my mood was lifted by the prospect of breakfast at the much-lauded GB Roof Garden Restaurant. What I saw when I walked through the doors onto the roof garden was astonishing - I have been lucky enough to experience stunning scenery in foreign lands but this was another level. Guests look out from their tables to an unspoilt panoramic view of the city and the very buildings which have played such a huge part in sculpting our world as we know it.
With breathtaking views of the fabled Acropolis, Syntagma Square, the Doric Greek Parliament, Lycabettus Hill, the original Olympic Stadium and more, every table in the restaurant offers an unrivalled insight into Athens’ mythical past.
How the food even attempts to jostle for one's attention with these views in the background is beyond me, but it manages; freshly squeezed orange juice from Portokalia and Athenean roasted coffee help you extinguish last night's flames before giving you the green light to enjoy the breakfast buffet.
A giant square of fresh honeycomb stands proudly next to an assortment of six different breads, five different pastries, four greek pies, an assortment of three cakes, and on it goes. Bowls of exquisitely fresh fruit are laid out next to Greek yoghurts, cheeses, charcuterie, salads and crudités. This is a continental breakfast lover's Nirvana. However, for those who prefer a cooked breakfast, fear not: you can order anything to your table without having to break your gaze from the dazzling scenery around you.
With my breakfast finally digested, it was once again time to go out and explore, taking in the iconic Parthenon, a former temple dedicated to Athena located in the heart of the ancient citadel of The Acropolis. And with so many other sites, galleries and museums to visit, a whole afternoon of sightseeing ensued, broken up with the occasional cold glass of local wine before returning for a quick swim in the hotel's secret rooftop oasis.
As evening fell on Athens, with the city awash with a golden glow, I decided to treat myself to a pre-supper cocktail at the famous Alexander’s Bar at the hotel. With its rare 18th century tapestry and cigar lounge opening onto a hidden garden, it is the most sophisticated of settings to enjoy a cocktail or two, while wine lovers are offered a great opportunity to make a dent in the 3000-bottle wine library.
As this was my last night in Athens, I wanted to eat at the best restaurant in town, and luckily for me the journey there was a simple elevator ride; the hotel's own GB Roof Garden Restaurant is itself an award-winning restaurant that consistently tops the lists of the best places to eat in Athens. The menu is based on traditional Mediterranean culinary ingredients with the application of modern haute cuisine technique, and is brought to life using inexhaustible innovation.
Perusing the menu, I noticed out of the corner of my eye the ingredient ‘mastic’ which I had read a lot about during my stay, and resolved to order the tuna and sea-bass carpaccio with olive oil, lemon and mastic and see what all the fuss was about.
The subtle taste of mastic is hard to pinpoint. It’s a resin obtained from the mastic tree and tastes like a triage of fennel, aniseed and mint. This flavour combination helped raise the carpaccio dish to a whole new plain, introducing an incredible assortment of freshness and sweetness to offset the acid and oil. This was a delightful way to start any meal.
Although tempted by more fish - especially the grilled sea bass on fig leaves, green peas with artichokes and bottarga - I refrained and instead opted for a traditional Greek dish; grilled lamb cutlets and slow cooked leg of lamb.
Coming from this innovative kitchen it captured the flavours and rustic nature of a traditional lamb dish, often found in most tavernas, whilst introducing modern twists and techniques to elevate it. The divine rare cutlets and slow cooked ‘fig wrapped’ leg of lamb (which had been cooked low and slow for over eight hours) paired with a pasta gratin and an imperious creamy oregano infused yoghurt with crunchy potatoes was simply heavenly.
Often we have to make compromises as we travel for a weekend break, having to make the tricky decision between culture or sunshine, great food or nightlife, relaxing or sightseeing, location or proximity. Athens, however, is a city where compromise is never needed, and the Grande Bretagne is an encapsulation of the Athenian ethos of offering the best of everything to the city's visitors, all under one roof.