MOURBY AU LAC*
The Baur Au Lac, Zurich
Once, very memorably I ate at the Baur au Lac. No-one who has done so will forget the restaurant's huge Lalique chandelier but until recently I’d never stayed, much as the ideal appealed. To say that the Baur au Lac is an institution is a bit like saying Elizabeth II is a queen. This is a hotel that suspects it may be the best in Zurich, but doesn’t broadcast the fact in case it upsets the Baur en Ville up the road.
It was in 1838 that the Austrian entrepreneur Johannes Baur (left) opened his first Zurich hotel and six years later he followed it with the Baur au Lac. At this time a hotel location outside the fortified city, on the Zurichsee was considered eccentric, not to say dangerous. To front directly on to Lake Zurich meant the new Baur was beyond the line of Zurich’s defences. An artillery platform that commanded the lake from the middle of the River Limmat was actually behind the Baur au Lac. It still is today.
Herr Baur’s idea was a peaceful hotel for those who needed rest and wished to holiday incognito. King Ludwig I of Bavaria stayed here as did Empress Elisabeth “Sisi” of Austria. Richard Wagner stayed here too -- though whether he paid his bill is another matter. Wagner liked to make himself at home in the very best hotels but not to spend money on the experience unless he really had to. From the severe portrait of Herr Baur that hangs in Le Hall (the hotel’s main lounge) I’m sure he did though . Johannes Baur has been immortalised in oils with an invoice in his hand, gazing sternly down at each guest as if to say ”Are you sure you had nothing from the minibar?”
The hotel has remained in the Baur family (now the Baur-Krachts) for six generations right up until the present day. Along the way the owners have continued to innovate, building Zurich’s first garage for hotel guests in 1905. Who would have thought then that the motorcar would go on to prove such an essential part of tourism in the twentieth century? And the family continues to beautify too. The Pavillon restaurant, with its many chandeliers has been extending by increments down the garden towards the lake for generations.
A snapshot of famous chef in Auguste Escoffier, who visited the Baur au Lac in 1930.
The staff are both gentle and supremely efficient. I was very impressed how quickly ice arrived in my room and even more impressed when an impeccably dressed young man knocked on the door saying he’d come to fix my internet issues. I hadn’t reported any, but it seems my phone’s failure to log on to the hotel wifi system had been automatically recorded with I.T. and they’d immediately despatched a techno-butler to my room. Now that’s service!
No wonder the Baur au Lac has hosted such discerning talents as Henry Moore, Thomas Mann, Alfred Hitchcock, Walt Disney, and more recently Daniel “James Bond” Craig. Lovers of the man who demands his cocktail be shaken not stirred will be pleased to know that the hotel’s Rive Gauche Bar offers ten special martinis of its own devising and if you prefer gin to Bond’s neat vodkas there are over a dozen different makes behind the bar. In fact I counted 14. However I did not count the 700,000 bottles allegedly stored in the hotel’s wine cellar, including Vins Baur au Lac. I took their word for it.
Much about the Baur au Lac remains unique. The hotel signage is in French even though Zurich is a German-speaking city. There is still a little shop in the lobby selling hotel chocolate , international newspapers and other sundry needs for the international traveller, and nearby there’s a brass letter box in which you can post Lettres. The hotel still employs two in-house florists who have a budget for over 1,000 flowers a day. And the huge garden outside still sports a massive Californian redwood that was planted at the end of the nineteenth century.
Sadly the garden gates with their semi-abstract lion motifs no longer open on to steps that lead down to the Zurichsee as they did in 1856, on the night that Wagner celebrated completing the full score of Die Walkure here. In the twentieth century the city reclaimed land between the hotel garden and the lake and built a commuter route for trams and cars which means the Baur is no longer au lac but prés de. But all credit to the Baur-Kracht family that they didn’t then sell off this phenomenal piece of real estate so that Credit Suisse could build some glamorous new lakeside headquarters. Doing so would have brought in the kind of stratospheric sums of money at which top footballers exchange hands. But the family would have had to deal with the ghost of Johannes Baur stepping down from his portrait like one of the ancestors in Gilbert & Sullivan’s Ruddigore , a prospect guaranteed to deter the most opportunistic of entrepreneurs.