Astir Palace re­sort com­mem­o­rates the end of an era

Lim­ited-edi­tion cof­fee-ta­ble book tells the fas­ci­nat­ing his­tory of the lux­ury com­plex that es­tab­lished the ‘Athe­nian Riviera’ in the 1960s

Kathimerini English - - Focus - BY TASSOULA EPTAKILI *

A rip­ple of ex­cite­ment swept through the calm as Brigitte Bar­dot stepped onto the beach wear­ing a tiny bikini, high-heeled san­dals and an enor­mous sun hat.

States­man Con­stan­tine Kara­man­lis had a fa­vorite ca­bana and in the evenings would or­der a whisky fol­lowed by a meal of one boiled egg, a plate of steamed zuc­chini and grilled fish.

So­cial­ist leader An­dreas Pa­pan­dreou pre­ferred lighter dishes that could be pre­pared quickly, and screen icon Melina Mer­couri had a fond­ness for fresh ap­ple with caramelized al­monds and mas­tic-fla­vored ice cream.

Frank Si­na­tra break­fasted on Egyp­tian pis­ta­chios and co­conut milk and one night had to sneak out the back to avoid a throng of pa­parazzi at the en­trance.

Ship­ping mag­nate Yian­nis Lat­sis liked to hand­pick the to­ma­toes that would go into his salad and Egyp­tian Pres­i­dent An­war Sa­dat took home the recipe for egg­plant dip.

King Saud of Saudi Ara­bia would hand out gold watches in­stead of tips and re­serve the en­tire floor of the Naf­sika Ho­tel for him­self and his harem, once also or­der­ing a truck­load of flow­ers to be brought in to dec­o­rate his pri­vate suite.

Rus­sian bal­let star Ru­dolf Nureyev could be seen bo­ogy­ing into the wee hours at the 9 Muses dis­cotheque, while Tony Cur­tis was turned away at the door of the Club House one night and only al­lowed en­try to the restau­rant af­ter putting on a tie.

These are but some of the sto­ries of some of the fa­mous per­son­al­i­ties to have graced the Astir Palace re­sort in the south­ern Athe­nian sub­urb of Vou­liag­meni. There is sim­ply not enough space to list them all: Richard Nixon, Mikhail Gor­bachev, Fran­cois Mit­ter­rand, Hel­mut Sch­midt, Nel­son Man­dela, Jimmy Carter, Ari Onas­sis, Jackie Kennedy, Paloma Pi­casso, Princess So­raya of Iran, John Wayne, Telly Savalas, Sean Con­nery, An­thony Quinn, Ronald­inho, Lady Gaga and, most re­cently, Barack Obama. Busi­ness­men, politi­cians, fa­mous per­son­al­i­ties of the arts and let­ters, ath­letes, Hol­ly­wood stars and star­lets all en­joyed a so­journ at the “Athens Riviera” be­cause Astir Palace was the place to be, a land­mark and sym­bol of Greek hos­pi­tal­ity: a pri­vate 30-hectare penin­sula just a short drive from the city cen­ter, an oa­sis of pine trees and bloom­ing flowerbeds, crys­tal bathing waters and gor­geous views, with ser­vices to cater to the most dis­cern­ing vis­i­tor.

The fas­ci­nat­ing his­tory of Astir Palace (which opened in 1958 and evolved into a ma­jor city re­sort in the 60s that played a key role the Greek tourism boom) is en­com­passed in a won­der­ful cof­fee-ta­ble book filled with in­sights and rare pho­to­graphs, of which just 1,000 col­lec­tors’ copies were re­cently printed for Astir Palace Vou­liag­meni SA, funded by Na­tional Bank.

“We were aim­ing for 160 pages but reached 266 so we could in­clude as many pho­to­graphs and as much in­for­ma­tion as pos­si­ble. The project took two-and-a-half years to pro­duce,” says Yian­nis Lag­o­nas, pub­lisher and owner of the firm Plus More 360°.

“The goal was a ret­ro­spec­tive of Astir Palace’s his­tory be­fore it em­barks on a new era. It is a tes­ta­ment not just for the new own­ers, but also for the fu­ture gen­er­a­tions,” says Lag­o­nas, re­fer­ring to the lux­ury re­sort’s re­cent sale by the Greek state to an Arab-Turk con­sor­tium.

“We have to thank Ka­te­rina Florou for her huge con­tri­bu­tion, as she had a valu­able ar­chive that we were able to use. The texts were writ­ten by Em­manuella Niko­laidou based on archival ma­te­rial and the tes­ti­monies of for­mer staff,” ex­plains the pub­lisher.

The nar­ra­tives pro­vided by for­mer CEOs, man­agers and other staff, from beach su­per­vi­sors to chefs and servers, are in­deed fas­ci­nat­ing, but for the pub­lisher, the most in­ter­est­ing chap­ter of the re­sort’s his­tory is the 1970s.

“Astir Palace was unique at the time, a par­a­digm that spear­headed the drive to de­velop Greek tourism,” says Lag­o­nas.

The lux­u­ri­ous edi­tion, with a black cover bear­ing only the logo “A” and the word “Legacy,” goes back to the start of the re­sort’s his­tory in the late 20th cen­tury. The area of Vou­liag­meni at the time be­longed to a monastery, which started build­ing small ren­tal units around the lake, al­ready renowned for the cu­ra­tive prop­er­ties of its waters. By 1930, the monastery had built 30 rooms and grad­u­ally started adding cafes and restau­rants in the vicin­ity, at­tract­ing the in­ter­est of in­vestors look­ing to build ho­tels and en­ter­tain­ment venues. The ad­vent of World War II, how­ever, put all de­vel­op­ment plans on hold.

As Greece started to re­cover from the af­ter­math of the war, the state de­cided to fo­cus more sys­tem­at­i­cally on tourism. The Greek Na­tional Tourism Or­ga­ni­za­tion (GNTO), which had been founded in 1929 but had re­mained largely in­ac­tive un­til then, was as­signed a more proac­tive role, par­tic­u­larly thanks to Athens’s first di­rect air link to a Euro­pean cap­i­tal in 1950, which saw the air­port at Elliniko on the south­ern coast wel­com­ing the city’s first for­eign guests.

The merger in 1953 of Na­tional Bank with Bank of Athens re­sulted in the coun­try’s first pow­er­ful credit in­stitu- tion and the head of Na­tional Bank soon saw the south­ern coast’s po­ten­tial as a prime in­vest­ment op­por­tu­nity.

The ASTIR com­pany was founded in 1954 and four years later Par­lia­ment ap­proved the penin­sula’s de­vel­op­ment, com­mis­sion­ing the plan to ar­chi­tects Em­manouil Vourekas, Perik­lis Sakel­lar­ios, Prokopis Vasileiadis and a then young Con­stanti­nos Dekaval­las.

They de­signed a com­plex that max­i­mized the plot’s nat­u­ral ad­van­tages and rec­om­mended a full re­vamp of the un­der­uti­lized beach­front.

The “Peo­ple’s Vou­liag­meni Plage” was in­au­gu­rated in Au­gust 1960 and soon be­came a fa­vorite among Greece’s grow­ing mid­dle class and celebrity cul­ture. The first 76 bun­ga­lows, or ca­banas, opened in 1961 and the first water-ski­ing cen­ter in 1966, a real nov­elty for Greece at the time. Another eight bun­ga­lows were added in 1969, while the ho­tels Arion, Naf­sika and Aphrodite were in­au­gu­rated in 1967, 1979 and 1984 re­spec­tively. The lat­ter has been out of op­er­a­tion for sev­eral years.

Astir Palace is now poised to en­ter a new chap­ter of its his­tory, with its new own­ers (Jermyn Street Real Es­tate Fund IV LP and Apollo In­vest­ment, which in­cludes the state in­vest­ment funds of Abu Dhabi and Kuwait, Arab in­vestors and Turkey’s Do­gus Group) plan­ning to un­veil the re­vamped re­sort in the spring of 2018.

The 230-mil­lion-euro project in­cludes, among oth­ers, a com­plete over­haul of the two ho­tels and the bun­ga­lows, a leisure/sports park on the south­ern tip of the penin­sula, a larger ma­rina and the re­place­ment of the Aphrodite Ho­tel with 13 lux­ury vil­las.

The sale of Astir Palace marks the end of a stel­lar chap­ter in Greece’s tourism de­vel­op­ment, one that helped the coun­try be­come a world-class des­ti­na­tion, and now we can only hope that its fu­ture will live up to its past. * This ar­ti­cle first ap­peared in K, Kathimerini’s Sun­day sup­ple­ment.

Guests re­lax in 1961

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