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

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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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Shades of White and Blue with a sparkle of Green

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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 Although the classical villa and its beautiful grounds have remained intact, their distinction is unquestionably superseded by Ponti’s arresting design and the all-embracing color scheme of white and blue that both have molded the new identity of this historic site.

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A back door to the Opera

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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

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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

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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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A spa/beach resort that lured the jet-set onto an island of volcanic hot springs

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Lacco Ameno (Ischia) | Albergo della Regina Isabella

Even though the island of Ischia in the Gulf of Naples had been famous for its thermal waters since the 18th century when the towns along its Northern coastline became fashionable spa resorts, it was a Milanese gentleman named Angelo Rizzoli who relaunched one of them: Lacco Ameno, largely fallen into disrepair after a devastating earthquake in 1883. Having become one of the most influential publishers and film producers of the young Italian Republic in the wake of WWII, it was Rizzoli who put Ischia on the map of the international jet-set circuit during the 1950s and 1960s.
In order to rightfully accommodate his illustrious entourage – Taylor, Burton & Co. to name a few – he revived the town’s renowned spa named after Queen Isabella of Naples who, long ago, sought relief in its healing radioactive waters. Adding on to the historical structure, he imagined a resort for ‘friends and family’ that was to become one of the most exclusive, small hotel complexes in the Mediterranean.
Soon after its opening in 1956, the hotel became a sensational novelty: a spa and beach resort in one of Italy’s most emblematic regions – La Dolce Vita* at its finest!

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On the Swiss Riviera, a historic property attempts to balance past and present

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Montreux | Grand Hotel Suisse Majestic

When a Grand Hotel in Switzerland is brought to mind, the almost immediate association is a gracious historic building from the Belle Époque, a multitude of balconies with intricate iron railings, a view that embraces the natural spectacle of the Alps…
The Suisse Majestic is exactly that. Opened in 1870, it bears testimony to a time when wealthy English ‘tourists’ launched a fashion that would later be called ‘tourism’ and that helped to put Switzerland and its reputation in hospitality excellence on the map.
Even today, the area of Montreux advertises itself as the ‘Swiss Riviera’ and obvious indeed are the parallels to its famous French-Italian namesake: a rail line hugging the landscape and providing access that is a performance in itself, the high-rising peaks that protect south-facing locales, a particularly mild micro-climate, the views that open onto a deep blue expanse of water. But unlike the seemingly boundless Mediterranean, it is the mountainous French shore opposite Montreux that provides the ingredients which create a truly breathtaking alpine vista from almost every angle.

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Italy in the late 1950s: a historic inn reinvents itself

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Florence | Grand Hotel Minerva

In 1958, long before being acclaimed Italy’s mastermind of the so-called ‘organic architecture’, a young Carlo Scarpa received the commission by a local family of hoteliers to transform their venerable ‘Albergo della Minerva’ in Piazza Santa Maria Novella.
Assisted by his colleague and fellow architect Edoardo Detti, he designed an entirely new building, leaving only the historical front facade intact. The challenging project foreshadowed one of Scarpa’s main preoccupations in his later works: the integration of the Old and the New into a dramatic overall design concept.
Now called the ‘Grand Hotel Minerva’, the new hotel even featured a rooftop with swimming pool. When it reopened in 1961, its panoramic terrace was (and still is) the climactic exclamation point of a cutting-edge approach which gave way to the renaissance of one of Florence’s oldest hostelries, dating back to the 18th century.

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