On the banks of the Danube, a confusion of styles and genres

A close look at…
Budapest | Hotel Gellért

Few hotels of my investigations are as convoluted as Budapest’s famous ‘Hotel Gellért’, which happens to be Hungary’s most widely known hotel. Renowned for its exceptional Art Nouveau baths – their images have been published for decades in nearly any mainstream publication about the city – the hotel today seems to serve only as a rather humble supplement to the lavish historic spa complex with its central ‘effervescent’ indoor swimming pool and outdoor sun terraces that surround Europe’s very first wave pool. Although designed as a coherent ensemble in a capital where hot springs abound and bathing is part of everyday life, the ‘Gellért’ was inaugurated in 1918. Destined to become one of the continent’s most fashionable resorts that even offered a private seaplane shuttle service to Vienna, its luxurious hedonism was rather short-lived. In the aftermath of WWII, only the facade of the hotel was left intact while the famous baths escaped the turmoil nearly unscathed. Beneath the imposing beauty of the building’s Secessionist facade lies an apparent stylistic quandary that becomes less startling if one realizes that today’s ‘Gellért’ is essentially a modern hotel that was subsequently rebuilt within its historic shell in 1962 and 1973 when it became, once again, Hungary’s premier hotel.

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From Belle Époque to Art Déco in 30 yards

A brief look at…
Brussels | Hotel Metropole

The ‘Metropole’ is the dowager of historic grand hotels in Belgium’s capital city. With 286 rooms it is also by far the largest in this category. Famous for the almost overwhelming Belle Époque splendor of the hotel’s ground floor spaces, the property has become a local sight in its own right, a picture-perfect relic of bygone times in today’s fast-paced world. But despite the turn-of-the-century allure of the lobby, reception and restaurant, the ‘Metropole’ is actually an unexpected, hybrid assembly of buildings and decorative styles that span from 1890 to 1925 and on to 1932. Resulting in an often-confusing network of hallways and that give evidence of the hotel’s expansion over time, it is quite easy to overlook many decorative treasures from the Roaring Twenties.

Facing uncertain outcome since it has been officially closed since April 1 of 2013, it was the initial success of the landmark ‘Café Metropole’ overlooking Brussels’s busiest square that provided the base for the hotel’s existence. Subsequently established in a neighboring building that originally housed a bank, the ‘Hotel Metropole’ opened its doors in 1895. To this day, the hushed atmosphere of the iconic reception room with its front desk, stained-glass windows and chandeliers is the legacy of its former use as the antechamber for discrete financial transactions. The atypical aspect of the public rooms in the ‘Metropole’ is further carried into the central, elongated lobby – a gallery, in reality – where the famous, still functioning, cage elevator is one of the hotel’s most cherished and photographed features. Servicing the oldest part of the hotel, it masks the main stair hall in the original part of the building that actually begins two stories above. But the most surprising aspect is the geometric aspect of the secondary staircase, truly an Art Deco masterpiece and a radical breach with the ostentation that was fashionable three decades earlier.

Not considering the noble materials of the décor, the ‘Metropole’ is perhaps one of the most utilitarian European grand hotels, lacking the symmetry and spatial sequences, which one might expect. In that sense, it is an interesting, early example of spatial conversion and adaptation of uses – a fact carefully concealed by its apparent, well-preserved opulence.

Hotel Metropole
Place de Brouckère 31
1000 Bruxelles
Belgium

Shades of White and Blue with a sparkle of Green

A close look at…
Sorrento | Grand Hotel Parco dei Principi

In a resort town that still exudes very much the flair of the 19th century and where even postwar properties adopt the safe route of rather traditional décor, the encounter with a hotel that is clearly a modern design icon is a remarkable occurrence. Perched on the high cliffs that make Sorrento the natural balcony for one of the Mediterranean’s most enchanting views, the ‘Parco dei Principi’ is a stunning total design concept that was imagined by Gio Ponti, one of Italy’s most talented artists of the 20th century.

Incorporated into the ‘Villa Poggia Siracusa’, a private property dating back to 1792, the hotel appears as striking today than it must have in 1962 when the hotel was inaugurated. Although the classical villa and its beautiful grounds have remained intact, their distinction is unquestionably superseded by Ponti’s arresting design and the all-embracing color scheme of white and blue that both have molded the new identity of this historic site.

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Tea with Mussolini

A brief look at…
Brescia | Hotel Vittoria

Intact Art Deco ensembles are a design rarity. In the hotel world, especially few properties have managed to maintain the geometric elegance of this style through the past decades (however, exceptions like ‘Claridge’s’ in London still exist and have even made it their hallmark). In Italy, where Art Deco is often referred to as Stile Liberty, existing examples take a decidedly political turn. Subject of controversy to this day, many Italian cities underwent a radical urban ‘renewal’ that began by the end of the 1920s and reflected a monumentality which vaguely hinted on precedents from ancient Rome. Deemed fit to symbolize the values of the ‘new Italy’ by the government of the time, examples abound in nearly every town from South to North, and are typically illustrated by public buildings like railway stations, post offices and courthouses.

Home to the ‘Beretta’ gun manufacture since the 16th century, Brescia is an industrial city in Northern Italy that is surprisingly charming – and often overlooked. Here, in the middle of its baroque historic city center, a monumental urban ensemble unveils the urbanist aspirations of Italy’s Fascist government: an array of elegant, marble-clad civic buildings that enclose a representative forum. While similar projects were planned all over the country, Brescia’s ‘Piazza della Vittoria’, however, remains the singular exhibit in the chapter of Italy’s Fascist architecture that comprises also a luxury hotel. Opened in 1931, the 65-room Albergo Vittoria has survived nearly unchanged in the style of the time.

Piazza della Vittoria

Although part of this coherent urban ensemble in a broader sense, the hotel is almost completely hidden behind the buildings in the ‘front row’. Located on a quiet shopping street with its characteristic arcades, the hotel’s marble facade and its lack of ornamentation is striking. Apart from the circular sculptural ornaments that frame the letters of the hotel’s name, the building’s openings mirror the admittedly subdued aesthetics of the neighboring piazza. Marble also abounds within the building itself, making it a rather somber, yet extraordinary example of 1930s design that nevertheless reflects a very ‘Italian’ savoir faire. The ubiquitous revolving door reveals an elegant succession of ground floor spaces that still feature their original detailing and which find their spatial culmination in an extravagant, almost square ballroom on the second floor.

But despite these qualities, hotels like the ‘Vittoria’ remain a tightrope.
The lack of full appreciation for the artistic value of this peculiar décor and the muddle of judgement that is naturally associated with the period during which it was realized, set up a real challenge. In other words, how to successfully carry a rather solemn sophistication into the 21st century…

Hotel Vittoria
Via X Giornate, 20
25121 Brescia
Italy

Side by side, Grand Hotel and Palace Hotel form a unique five-star property of the 21st century

In and Out…
Lausanne | Hotel Beau-Rivage Palace

The scale of Swiss cities and their proximity to the mountains have made certain hotels in these locations truly ‘urban resorts’ of the first hour: marked by the distinctive regional flavor of their splendid surroundings – your choice of German, French or Italian – the cities of Zurich, Lausanne and Lugano are home to beautiful historic hotels that appeal to business and leisure travelers in equal ways. While Zurich’s ‘Dolder Grand’ stirred up quite a few emotions after its recent ‘reinvention’ by Sir Norman Foster, Lausanne’s lakeside ‘Beau-Rivage’ has consistently maintained the reputation as one of Europe’s most famous hotels since it opened its doors 1861.

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A back door to the Opera

A close look at…
Rome | Hotel Quirinale

Crossing a beautiful hotel lobby and pushing a door at the end of a gallery that reveals itself the discreet rear entrance to a major European opera house is an exceptional oddity. But exactly that made Domenico Costanzi’s ambitious project so outstanding when he built, side by side, a performance venue and the very first grand hotel of the new, unified Kingdom of Italy in 1865. Entrepreneur, builder and already hotel manager of several Roman establishments, he envisioned the proximity of the two buildings in the newly established neighborhoods around Termini railway station an obvious and very desirable asset. After subsequent additions that established the current hotel, a dedicated corridor was created, linking opera house and hotel during performances ever since.

Although Rome’s ‘Teatro dell’Opera’ has (still) not reached the significance and prestige of its Milanese and Neapolitan equivalents, it nevertheless remains the leading stage in the Italian capital and thus a checkpoint for the Who’s Who in the music world: few hotels can look back onto such illustrious historic or contemporary artists that encompass Giuseppe Verdi, Maria Callas and Riccardo Muti who all made the ‘Quirinale’ the natural choice and convenient base during their appearances in the Eternal City.

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From Show Business to Royalty

A close look at…
Brussels | Hotel Le Plaza

Together with the ‘Metropole’ (1895) and the ‘Astoria’ (1909), the ‘Plaza’ forms the trilogy
of historic grand hotels in Brussels. Inaugurated in 1930 in the sober, streamlined style that characterizes the period, the hotel’s facade bears a certain resemblance to the ‘George V’ in Paris to which it is often, albeit superficially, compared to.
The evident dividing line, however, is drawn by the extraordinary architectural asset of its Belgian counterpart: a massive performance venue with 1,300 seats, incorporated as an independently functioning, yet integral part of the project* that would draw the Who’s Who of the entertainment industry to both parts of the house.

Situated on the main North-South thoroughfare of the historic center, the program of the ‘Plaza’ was, at the time, entirely in sync with its location when it was the sophisticated urban pleasure ground of the capital. But after a closure of nearly two decades, the hotel reopened in 1996, arguably saved by a sound building structure and an original layout which only needed minor spatial modifications. Today officially affiliated with the Royal House of Belgium, the hotels has been courageously relaunched as a bastion of fine living in a central neighborhood that, though not unappealing, definitely lost the glow of earlier times.

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Splendid Isolation and a View to Die For

A close look at…
Sorrento | Grand Hotel Excelsior Vittoria

Vedi Napoli e poi muori! – See Naples and Die…
Even in secure distance from the urban conundrum of Naples, the high cliffs of Sorrento deploy a vista so beautiful that they can only invoke in extremis proverbs or romantic-sentimental songs. Neither seem out-of-place in one of Italy’s last family owned historic Grand Hotels where the spirit of the 19th century Grand Tour and their sophisticated travelers – crowned and uncrowned – is (still) omnipresent.

But regardless of the hotel’s dignified elegance, its extensive grounds and private park grant a feeling of remoteness that is perhaps its most captivating, if not truly decadent luxury. Consequently, Splendid Isolation – deprived of the term’s original conception regarding British foreign policy back at the time – can easily be applied to the ‘Excelsior Vittoria’ nowadays:  in an often crowded town where the combination of space, privacy and views is rather the exception than the rule, the hotel captures the essence of the turn of the century by means of a meticulously preserved and updated historical décor that could very well be the set for a James Ivory movie.

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Some upgrades

Status

The Hotel Investigator has now incorporated some upgrades which are referenced under a respective tab in the main menu:

Galleries now complement my ‘close look’ posts whenever possible by 27 additional views and comments that convey each property through my eyes;
Maps allow for a better geographical overview of my investigations and provide the exact location of each locale discussed in the blog.