Around the World in 80 Hotels (3)
In 30 years the author of these lines has researched the history of about 500 of The Most Famous Hotels in the World, and has written over 50 history books about them.
A journey around the world can take – as we have all learnt – 79+1 days, but it can also take you to 80 different hotels. Speed is only a virtue if you are racing. Many believe that your far-travelled Louis Vuitton luggage set or your Palladium and Centurion Cards are the standard-bearers, but trust me: time is the true sign of wealth.
PART 3: ITALY — SPAIN — PORTUGAL — DENMARK — FINLAND — SWEDEN — HUNGARY — UKRAINE
Cesar Ritz (picture) built his hotel in Paris, ran one of the first hotel chains in the world, had his name associated with over one dozen of Europe's best hotels and eventually inspired a chain (Ritz Carlton: his wife practically sold the family name, after his death). His name grew into a synonym for luxury.
Italy, as a classic tourist destination, is home to many grand hotels; from Venice's Danieli to Florence, where I stayed at the Grand Hotel while writing its history for my book Grand Hotel Florence, co-authored by my friend, English historian Thomas Cane. The Uffici gallery wasn’t far away, the Bistecca alla fiorentina en route, and it is the heart of Chianti. What else can one ask for? Austrian artist Peter Baldinger painted the cover of the book.
Further south, to Rome (7 hotels), we first stayed at The Hassler, the modest but nevertheless terribly sophisticated hotel atop the Spanish Steps, where we began to research its history. The book has yet to be written.
Years later I lived with my family at The Exclesior during a beautiful summer. This great hotel in the heart of Fellini’s La Dolce Vita-mile, near the gardens of the Villa Borghese, inspired me to write The Excelsior Rome.
At the fabled Via Veneto, in the eternal city of Rome, stands the Excelsior. The secret hideaway of the famous and the rich and all the others who entertain us. This book is based on years of research, on hundreds of private and archival photographs and personal interviews.
All this wouldn’t have been so easy without the help of my team of excellent Italian researchers and, again, the English historian Thomas Cane. Walter Ferrari was head concierge at the time. I mention him because he was one of the grand masters of the business. But the true star was Gastone Pizzoli, who was at the door of The Excelsior for 36 years. He, and Ferrari, inspired me to a series of photographs. Ferrari, at his desk, in action, and Pizzoli, sitting on the floor in a bed of photographs showing himself with the greatest stars of showbiz, from Grace Kelly to Garry Grant. I climbed a ladder and shot him from the ceiling. The book’s cover was painted by Manfred Markowski. Stunning photographs came from Austrian photographer Wolfgang Kalny.
The following year I chose the Grand Hotel (opened by César Ritz in 1894 — by now an old friend). I have spent a few weeks there, browsed thousands of articles in historic archives, and – yes – written a book about it. In 1931, King Alfonso XIII of Spain had made it his home, where he died 10 years later. In the 1930's the hotel has been the court of the Spanish kings in exile. The dress code in the evening was, without exception, black tie. It was completely unthinkable to appear underdressed. You were, after all, in the presence of a King.
In short: the St. Regis is one of the cultural, social, economical and political revolving points of Italy. And this is its story. To start with let me take you to the last decades of the 19th century, when Italy developed into a tourist destination as we know it today
From The Grand Hotels of Naples to the relatively young holiday resort of Cala di Volpe on the Costa Smeralda, built by the Aga Khan, it's all in the list of The Most Famous Hotels in the World. After a few weeks at the Cala di Volpe we produced the history book of this designer-made hotel. Its refined architecture gives you the impression you live in a small fisher village. In fact, it’s brand new.
The book describes: Once upon a time a prince came to the island of Sardinia in Italy and built the Cala di Volpe.
This is the fairy tale about one of the most famous hotels in the world, from its beginning to the present, from dusk to dawn. Its stars, its stories, the architecture and its interior, about paparazzi and gala nights, film crews and photographers, busy restaurants, splendid yachts and peaceful moments.
Do you know Milan? The metropolis of fashion. The capital of publishing and television. The city where Leonardo da Vinci painted the Last Supper and drew sketches of helicopters in his spare time. The place where the Wiener Schnitzel – yes, with noodles – originates. Let me tell you a few more things I have found: Milano (Italian for Milan) is the capital of Milan province and of the Lombardy region (Lombardia). It is the leading financial centre, the most vital and the most prosperous manufacturing and industrious commercial city of Italy.
And it is home to a charming hotel that we like to call our home in Milan. It is not as grand as the Grand Hotel, but a legend in its own right - and its garden, I tell you, its garden . . .
In Milan, we researched the history of the Diana Majestic, where the largest swimming pool of Northern Italy once stood , and the Grand Hotel, where Giuseppe Verdi breathed his last. The Diana inspired the first ‘designer-book’ in our library. It is, after all, the Milanese hub of fashion, music and photography. It was there that Simply Red and its lead singer Mick Hucknall worked on their ‘Picture Book’, Rosita and Tai Missoni held their first Milanese shows, and the tsar of fashion, Nino Cerrutti himself, lived at the Diana Majestic for decades. I shall never forget the moment, when he apologised to my then 13-years old son Florian (who was with me on that trip): ‘I am sorry that I will not be your dresser, young man’, for having retired.
We travelled to Spain. The Ritz, in Madrid is one of Europe’s last remaining truly charming grand hotels. I have spent weeks there researching its history. What can I say; it is the next-door neighbour of the Prado, the national gallery of Spain housing, Goya, Durer, and Velázquez, and in walking distance of the Thyssen Foundation.
Again understatement is key, The Ritz is the unofficial court of the Spanish Royal family; its lobby, the centre of the Spanish business world. The historic wooden desk of the front office radiates the atmosphere of a hundred years of traditional hotel keeping. We loved our little room under the roof, one of those with a rooftop balcony, overlooking the gardens of the Prado.
At the Southern end of Europe stands, firm as a rock, the Rock Hotel in Gibraltar. From here we travel to Portugal, to The Palace in Estoril on the outskirts of Lisbon. I fondly recall it. An hour flight away, on the lovely flower island of Madeira off the north-western coast of Africa, a certain Mr Reid was kind enough to leave us his Reid's Hotel in 1891. The Irish dramatist George Bernhard Shaw wasn’t the first to enjoy it in 1924, but he left us a note that everybody likes to quote. Shaw learned to tango and autographed a photograph for his dancing instructor with the words: 'To the only man who ever taught me anything'.
We have been there for a month to establish its history. Built to welcome long staying tourists as well as birds of passage from the ocean liners on their way to the outposts of the British Empire (Europe–Cape), Reid's Palace is more beautiful today than ever. It is to-date one of our favourite haunts in Europe.
Reid’s Hotel. The very name conjures up images of elegant dinner dances and tea in style. The holiday retreat of Churchill, the chosen place of the Royals of Europe, from the Empress to the last Emperor of Austria, Kings and Queens of the ruling houses of the world.
Overlooking the Atlantic Ocean from its unique location, Reid’s is much more than a hotel. It is an institution.
This is the entertaining story of one of the most famous hotels in the world. It shows the elegant Reid’s, and it presents a Reid’s which is fun, entertaining and relaxing.
If you'd care to accompany me to the North of the European continent, up to Denmark, we’ll discover The Angleterre in the royal city of Copenhagen, dating back to 1755. It has an eventful history. I still remember the call of its general manager, who wanted to commission me to write its history. ‘Mr Augustin,’ he said, ‘ I am sorry to tell you that this hotel’s company has just ceased to exist.’ That was many years ago; in the meanwhile the hotel has reopened under a new owner and management and is – again – one of the oldest and most famous hotels in the world. Not far from it, we also find one of the first designer hotels of the post war era. Architect Arne Jacobsen had created The Royal there, in 1960. I love the view from the upper floors; all rooms have windows from floor to ceiling. And what a great restaurant they have on the top floor.
Further north we may visit Finland's capital Helsinki (Hotel Kaemp, where composer Jean Sibelius is rumoured to have spent three days and nights drinking) and - across the border, in the former Russian capital St Petersburg - we enjoy a spoon of caviar and Boef Stroganoff at the Grand Hotel Europe, where Peter Tchaikovsky spent his honeymoon. I have written books on both hotels. Kaemp with the assistance of local historian Laura Kolbe, and Grand Hotel Europe with the help of Larissa Gavrova.
The Grand Hotel Europe in St. Petersburg (cover of our book, by Evgeniy Rusinov)
The tsarists regarded it as their playground, the Communists turned it into the 'House of the Soviet Clerk' and perestroika changed it into Russia’s first five-star hotel.
The great master of Russian music, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky spent his honeymoon there, Johann Strauss occupied "comfort room No 26" for 14 days, for Turgenev there was no better place in the whole of St Petersburg, Rasputin dined there, George Bernard Shaw met Maxim Gorky in a private dining room, tenor Enrico Caruso advised soprano Luisa Tetrazzini to go on and to become the "soprano of the world", Dimitri Shostakovitch played a sonata for Sergey Prokofiev in his suite, Elton John performed at the restaurant, President Clinton took a rest for four hours in the Lidval Suite. Jane Fonda cooked her own food there. Queen ElizabethII praised the hotel’s kitchen and - talking about Royals: the Romanovs, Russia's eminent tsars family, is still gathering at the Grand Hotel for family reunions! Where else? This is the story of a beautiful city and the legend of Russia’s oldest grand hotel.
In Sweden's capital Stockholm we treasure the Grand Hotel, opened in 1874, with its exciting water front.
Europe's largest country, Ukraine, was still part of the Russian empire when the Palace Hotel in the capital Kiev (the ‘mother of all Russian cities’) opened its doors in 1912. Today it is the new republic’s celebrated five star hotel, under the name Premier Palace. In 2010 I have launched my book about it.
In 1912, students of architecture flocked to the new corner building at Pushkinska Street and Bibikov (today Shevchenko) Boulevard. It was a pilgrimage to architectural innovation: the façade of the ‘Palast Hôtel’ was a smart compromise between Art Nouveau, Art Deco and something new.
In 1972, Richard Nixon celebrated his last night of a journey through the former Soviet Union with a dinner in Kyiv. He raised his glass to toast his hosts: ‘On this particular evening, which is the last occasion that we will be having dinner on Soviet soil, we think it is very appropriate that it should be here in this mother of all Russian cities, here in Ukraine among a people who are so strong and who represent such a great spirit.’
Like no other hotel in this wonderful city the Premier Palace represents the strong spirit of Ukrainian tradition and modern hotel keeping. This is the story of the most famous hotel of Kyiv.
We visit Budapest. This beautiful city hasn’t been destroyed by the bombs of World War 2, but by neglect of decades of a communist regime. Today it has emerged as a beauty among the grand cities along the river Danube. Her Grand Hotel Royal was closed for a decade before Alfred Pisani and his Corinthia Group from Malta arrived to give it a new lease of life in 2002. I am proud that we were called in before its reopening to establish a well researched history. Our book Grand Hotel Royal Budapest appeared in English and in Hungarian, thanks to my local co-author Sally Noemi.
The Grand Hotel Royal opened in 1896 as the largest hotel on the continent at its time: 350 rooms, numerous restaurants, a palatial Royal ballroom, telephones in every room, electricity supplying the entire building, 'rising rooms', powered by steam engines and reaching all floors. Next door laid a superb spa. In the days of the Austro-Hungarian empire, the ‘Royal’ became the melting pot of the world of yesterday. Here we see Tibor Meskal, one of the Doyens of Hungarian hospitality, teaching a young aspiring colleague in the art of room service.
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PART 4: GREECE — TURKEY — SYRIA — LEBANON — ISRAEL — EGYPT — MOROCCO — TUNISIA — ALGERIA — SOUTH AFRICA
* Andreas Augustin is a writer and traveler. With The Most Famous Hotels in the World he has founded an organisation to safeguard the history and cultural heritage of all legendary hotels around the world.
Hotels are listed independently, following the strict regulations of The Most Famous Hotels in the World. They were chosen by the honorable jury, regardless of their geographical location, their political environment and their commercial success.