A HOTEL — LOST IN ATHENS Adrian Mourby

A HOTEL — LOST IN ATHENS

( words)

Photograph:  (c) Kate Tadman-Mourby 2021

PATRICIA HIGHSMITH AND THE STRANGE CASE OF

THE DISAPPEARING KINGS PALACE HOTEL OF ATHENS


Patricia Highsmith was one of the best crime writers of the twentieth century. Her tales of Thomas Ripley have been made into several films including – most notably - The Talented Mr Ripley (1999) with Matt Damon as Ripley,  and Ripley’s Game (2002) with John Malkovich in the same role). One of the most recent adaptations was an excellent Athenian tragedy called The Two Faces of January (2014) which starred Viggo Mortenson and Kirsten Dunst.

Highsmith’s 1964 book and Hossein Amini’s film both follow Chester and Colette McFarland (Mortenson and Dunst) as two Americans on the run after Chester absconds with his investors’ money. Arriving on a liner in Athens’ Piraeus port in the 1960s ,Chester hires a taxi driver who assumes that as wealthy Americans they will be staying at the Hotel Grande Bretagne in Syntagma Square.

Patricia Highsmith continues: “’Well … I’m not quite sure,’ Chester said. The Grande Bretagne was unquestionably the biggest and best hotel in Athens, but for that very reason, Chester felt wary about stopping there.” In the end the couple settle on The King’s Palace Hotel, which Highsmith described as “across a street at one side of the Grand Bretagne”.

As a regular hotel visitor, I had heard that this was indeed a real hotel in Athens during in the 1960s, with a beautiful spiral staircase, but as far as I could see no such building existed opposite the Grand Bretagne today in an avenue of shops and offices.

The King’s Palace plays a pivotal role in both film and book.  It is here that Chester gets into a fight with the private detective tailing the couple and ends up accidentally killing him. Chester and Colette’s flight across Greece from the repercussions of this killing goes from bad to worse and proves fatal for them both in the end.

A little research on my part revealed that the King’s Palace Hotel was built in 1954 and would have taken its name from the palace of the King of Greece (now the Greek Parliament Building) which is only one block away.

“The lobby looked first-rate to Chester,” wrote Highsmith after having visited Athens, for the first time in December 1959. “Maybe not luxury class, but first-rate. The carpet was thick underfoot, and, judging from the warmth the central heating really worked… A few minutes later they were comfortably installed in a large, warm room with a view of the white-geranium-garnished balconies of the Grande Bretagne and a busy avenue six storeys down, which Chester identified on his map of Athens as Venizelos Street.”

But things go badly wrong at the King’s Palace Hotel and, having failed to adequately hide the dead detective’s body Chester and Colette have to flee Athens overnight.

The opening of the  film Two Faces of January was shot in Athens at the Acropolis and in Monastiraki  in September 2012, but the production relocated sooner than intended to Turkey. Rioting in the Athens kept interfering with the sound recordist’s work.   So the interior of Highsmith’s King’s Palace Hotel was created in an old Istanbul hospital which was decorated to resemble Chester’s “first rate lobby”. Ironically the production designer, Carol Spier ended up making it look like the Grand Bretagne opposite.

In 2020 however I heard news of an M Gallery Hotel that had opened on the site of the old King’s Palace. This venture was the latest by the Lampsa SA group who own the Grand Bretagne. The new hotel had opened in September 2020 but unfortunately had to close again almost immediately, in November 2020, because of a rise in Greek Covid cases. (The last 18 months have not been kind to hotels worldwide.) In May 2021 however the Athens Capital Hotel - M Gallery Collection opened again and recently I was back in Greece and able to arrange to visit.

The façade is new, dating from Lampsa’s major refurb of 2018 and there is no longer a thick carpet or visible central heating in the lobby. Once inside I was shown the old staircase which has been preserved. It is indeed spiral but elliptically so. Looking up as it swirls to the top of the hotel’s original eight floors is like is like gazing at a work of abstract art.

I was shown round by Demi Roussou, the PA to general manager, Euripedes Tzikas. Demi was very proud of the new M Gallery’s commitment both to original art and to being a hotel at which single female travellers in particular can feel at home. She explained something of the history of the building since its building in 1954. In 1974 when the Greek king, Constantine II was deposed following a decisive referendum the Panhellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK) was formed here under eventual Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou. Today there is a plaque near the elliptical staircase  commemorating that event on 3 September 1974. Later PASOK converted the hotel into the headquarters of the country’s Bank of Agriculture. The connection with PASOK is also commemorated by the fact that today, if the hotel’s three meeting rooms are combined, they create one big meeting room that bears the name 3 September 1974.

Elsewhere the new hotel honours four Greek artists in its four executive suites. Two on the seventh floor are named after singer Maria Callas and Manos Hatzidakis, the composer of (amongst many other works) the song “Never on a Sunday”. The suites on the eighth floor are named after the Nobel prize-winning poet Odysseus Elytis and Melina Mercouri, the actor and Greek Culture Minister who in 1960 won a Cannes Film Festival Best Actress Award for her role in the film Never on a Sunday.  

All 159 bedrooms and 18 suites are white and modern, but comfortably so.  The whole design is by hotel architect, Maria Viafadis whose other projects have included the Kempinski Budapest and Hotel Schweizerhof, Bern. Each bedroom is decorated with an original oil painting by the abstract artist Sofia Petropoulou. In total the hotel commissioned 177 canvasses from her, one for each room. According to Demi they were designed so that they could also be pieced together to create one giant work of art.

The hotel has a glorious new rooftop restaurant called Mappemonde with great views over Athens with Mount Lycabettus to the north and the Acropolis to the west --and of course of the Grand Bretagne just in front (no longer with the white geranium window boxes that Chester viewed that fateful night). You can even see the Greek island of Aegina out in the Saronic Sea.

The Athens Capital Hotel – MGallery Collection may occupy the same building as the King’s Palace Hotel but it is a world away from the under the radar bolt-hole at which Chester and Colette McFarland hid away in 1964 with such tragic consequences.

Adrian Mourby

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