I Always think that the great difference between the grand hotels of the East and those of Europe lies in the nature of resort hotels. The great city hotels of Europe (the Ritz in Paris, the Savoy in London, the Imperial in Vienna or the Hassler in Rome) are well matched by the grand hotels of the East: The Oriental in Bangkok, the Peninsula in Hong Kong, or the Taj Mahal Hotel in Bombay.
But there is a Western tradition that we never seem to have reproduced in Asia: The grand hotel in a resort. In Switzerland, for instance, there have always been grand hotels built in holiday spots intended as resorts for vacationers: The Victoria-Jungfrau in Interlaken, the Beau-Rivage in Lausanne, or the Palace Hotel in Luzern.
These hotels were not designed for businessmen travelling on work. The idea was to offer a resort experience for people who wanted a scenic holiday for a week or two when the weather was pleasant. I have never worked out why, but there have never been many such hotels in Asia. Even in India, where the Raj left behind such great properties as Calcutta’s The Grand, Madras’s Connemara and Bangalore’s West End, resort hotels were always slightly second-rate. When people went on holiday, they preferred to stay at clubs or in bungalows. There were few memorable hotels at Indian hill stations (the Savoy in Ooty, perhaps, is an exception) and in any case, most of them are now rundown.
The closest we have come to capturing the grand hotel-in-a-holiday-area is in our conversions of palaces. The Lake Palace in Udaipur must be one of the most beautiful hotels in the world and Umaid Bhavan is an extraordinary jazz-age palace that makes for an unusual hotel.
In Europe, few of the grand hotels are conversions. Most were designed to welcome guests. But every once in a while, you come across a conversion that has been a spectacular success. I was at the Villa d’Este in Lake Como near the city of Milan in Italy last weekend and was astonished to see how well the hotel had merged history with luxury.
The Villa d’Este is one of the world’s most famous hotels. Even if you have not heard of it, you have probably been exposed to the property at some subliminal level. In 1936, when Edward VIII abdicated the throne of Britain, the only photograph in existence of him with Wallis Simpson was one that had been taken at the Villa d’Este, when the couple had gone off on holiday while he was still the Prince of Wales. It was this photograph that was flashed around the world and still appears in documentaries and articles about the Abdication.
Similarly, all books about the famous romance of Greek tycoon Aristotle Onassis and opera singer, Maria Callas, mention that their relationship began at the Villa d’Este and the couple returned to the hotel again and again. When Shimon Peres and Yasser Arafat held a summit meeting, it was at the Villa d’Este that the famous photograph of the two old enemies shaking hands was taken – on the terrace of the property.
And then, there are the literary references. The Villa d’Este crops up in many novels by writers as disparate as Robert Ludlum, Joseph Heller, Barbara Taylor Bradford and John le Carré. Plus, of course, there is the one subliminal image that most middle-class Indians have probably seen. The outdoor shots of the fabulous gardens in the daytime soap opera The Bold and The Beautiful have very little to do with the Forresters and any property they may have owned in America: They were shot at the Villa d’Este.
When a hotel has such a legendary reputation and such a strong place in history, it is reasonable to assume that it must originally have been built as a resort. In fact, as I was to discover, the Villa d’Este has less in common with the grand hotels of Europe than with the palace hotels of India.
It was never intended to be a hotel but started out as a villa, constructed in 1568 for Cardinal Tolomeo Gallio, a powerful figure in the Catholic church who liked the location facing the magnificent Lake Como. It continued as a private property of the Gallio family for two centuries till a dissolute aristocrat called Marquis Bartolomeo Calderara bought it as a residence for his sexy young wife in 1784.
As soon as the Marquis died, the young widow promptly remarried a handsome Napoleonic general but held on to her late husband’s fortune and properties. Because she feared that the general might get bored staring at Lake Como, she built fortresses and towers on the hills overlooking the villa. This was a kind of medieval theme park for the general who would stage imaginary battles with military cadets to entertain himself.
The next chapter in the history of the Villa d’Este began in 1815 when Caroline of Brunswick, the Queen of England and the wife of King George IV, arrived at the property. Caroline had married George, her cousin, believing that she would reign over England. Instead, George grabbed her dowry, paid off his debts, and threw her out.
Caroline arrived at Como and bought the villa from the family of the war-game-loving General. She tried to claim the property as her own ancestral estate and announced that her family descended from a certain Guelfo d’Este, who had left Italy for Germany three centuries before. The property was renamed the Villa d’Este and Caroline lavished so much money on it that she went bankrupt. Eventually, her bankers took it over because she was unable to pay her debts.
In 1868 the property was rented out to the Russian Czarina who came to Lake Como to holiday for two months and stayed for two years. The Czarina’s visit led a group of Italian businessmen to convert the property into a hotel run by a limited company. It was only in 1873 that the Villa d’Este opened as a hotel. The new hotel combined the original villa along with a newer building that is sometimes called the Queen’s Pavilion in honour of Caroline.
Almost from the day it opened as a hotel, Villa d’Este has been a huge success. Partly, it is the location that makes it so special. Set on the shores of Lake Como, the hotel has an unparalleled vista. Plus, it is relatively easy to get to: It takes as long to get to the Villa d’Este from Milan’s Malpensa airport as it does to the centre of Milan.
But mostly, I suspect that the success of the hotel lies in the way in which it balances history and luxury. Too many Indian palace hotels are so proud of their royal heritage that they do not try hard enough to ensure that guests get a truly luxurious experience. At our hotels, rooms can be small and uncomfortable (we are told this is inevitable because the building was not designed as a hotel), the staff and service can be sloppy (old retainers, we are assured, who cannot be fired) and the food can be indifferent.
At the Villa d’Este, on the other hand, they wear their heritage lightly. It is possible to visit the battlements constructed for the general’s war games or to see the amazing mosaic in the garden that is many centuries old. But even if you have no interest in history or in the property’s antecedents, you will always have a good time because the hotel focuses on the luxury experience.
For instance, service is frighteningly efficient – unusual in a European property and extraordinary in Italy. If you phone and ask for someone to collect your laundry or to bring you an adapter for the plug point, the doorbell will ring almost as soon as you have put the phone down. As far as I could tell, the same service was extended to every single guest. There was no VIP culture and even though the place was crawling with millionaires, the rest of us got exactly the same attention from the staff.
This is no mean feat for a hotel that is such a celebrity haunt. In the old days, the Villa d’Este would host the likes of Gary Cooper, Clark Gable, Frank Sinatra and Greta Garbo. Now, regulars include Robert De Niro, Charlie Sheen, Mel Gibson, Mick Jagger, Bruce Springsteen, Paul McCartney and Elton John (who sent his cook to the chef at the hotel to learn how to make the perfect pasta).
Celebrities like the hotel because nobody bothers them. Sometimes this can be a humbling experience. The film director Alfred Hitchcock would come to the Villa d’Este every September for his annual holiday but would be paranoid about photographers invading his privacy. On one occasion, the Villa d’Este hosted a glamorous society wedding and the bridal couple had commissioned photographers to cover the event. Hitchcock saw the photographers and went ballistic.
“I will leave if you don’t throw those paparazzi out,” Hitchcock told the management. He only calmed down when he realised that the photographers were there for the wedding. They had no idea who Alfred Hitchcock was. As far as they were concerned, he was just another guest at the Villa d’Este.
From HT Brunch, June 10
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