Storied Swiss hotels reflect legacy of magnificent buildings
- Switzerland is famed for its diverse and well-preserved architecture, providing visitors with a taste of history
With turreted castles, imposing fortresses and elegant chateaux perched on mountaintops overlooking medieval towns, much of modern-day Switzerland could pass for an age-old fairy tale. The country is famed for the impressive architecture that spans its length and breadth – from the entire old town of the Swiss capital Bern, a Unesco World Heritage Site, to the country’s oldest city Chur, where medieval buildings line cobbled streets and a Roman settlement from 15BC still welcomes visitors.
Switzerland’s foreign policy, famously rooted in neutrality, has left the country physically unscathed by the ravages of war in recent centuries and this has played a big part in its astonishing architectural preservation. Visitors don’t have to search hard to enjoy world-class examples of everything from Romanesque, Gothic and baroque design, through to the angular modernism pioneered by Le Corbusier.
Throughout history, landlocked Switzerland has been heavily influenced by the architecture and design of its European neighbours. The grand Greco-Roman stylings of the neoclassical movement that flourished across the continent in the early 18th and 19th centuries inspired wealthy Swiss merchants to build lavish colonnaded mansions to showcase their success. Several such magnificent manors can be visited today, like Manoir de Ban, built near Corsier-sur-Vevey on the shores of Lake Geneva in 1840, which was Charlie Chaplin’s home for 25 years.
A stay at one, or both, of these hotels is undoubtedly among the most enjoyable ways to admire such grand architecture up close, in the way it was intended. Opened in 1844 by Johannes Baur, the legendary Baur au Lac emanates the confidence of an establishment that has been favoured by the elite for 175 years. Situated in a private park in the heart of Zurich, with views over the Alps and Lake Zurich, it started as a large villa but underwent constant expansion until 1898, when it reached its present size.
Previous guests include Richard Wagner, who premiered the first act of Die Walküre (The Valkyrie) in the hotel, the Russian Tsarina Alexandra Feodorovna, Haile Selassie and Alfred Nobel with his secretary Bertha von Suttner, who convinced Nobel of the need for a peace prize while at the hotel.
The Baur au Lac is now one of the oldest luxury hotels in the world still in the hands of its founding family, the Baur-Krachts. In the early 1990s, the family decided to renovate the hotel – an 18-year project that cost 160 million Swiss francs (HK$1.3 billion).
The project was finally completed in time for the hotel’s 165th anniversary in 2009, further cementing the Baur au Lac’s reputation as Zurich’s most distinguished lodging. Even if a stay isn’t on the cards, visitors passing through Zurich should take the chance to soak up the atmosphere in Le Hall (the lobby lounge), which was revamped in 2014 by French architect and designer Pierre-Yves Rochon. Rochon recaptured the lobby’s grand scale and popularity as a meeting point by restoring the glass-dome roof, adding elegant seating areas, sourcing historical paintings, and adding an art deco fireplace.
Among the Baur au Lac’s contemporaries is the Beau-Rivage Palace Hotel, which opened in Lausanne in 1861, majestically sited on the banks of Lake Geneva and surrounded by four hectares of private gardens. One of the first luxury hotels in Lausanne, and still the best-known, this family-owned establishment has been home-from-home for royalty, world leaders and celebrities for almost 160 years. The Beau-Rivage Palace remains infamously tight-lipped about its clientele, although figures such as Coco Chanel, Nelson Mandela, Mary Pickford and Noel Coward are known to have stayed here.
The hotel is now comprised of two connected buildings – the older, neoclassical Rivage Wing and the Palace Wing, built in 1908 in the more ornate belle-époque style. These two wings still boast many of their original features, including impressive columns, magnificent chandeliers and marble floors.
Between 2012 and 2014, fresh from his work refurbishing Baur au Lac, Pierre-Yves Rochon oversaw a renovation of 39 rooms and suites in the Palace Wing, and the opening of 60 additional new rooms.
His clever use of mirrors to reflect the light from Lake Geneva, coupled with a pastel colour scheme inspired by the lake, imparts calmness and serenity, while emphasising the vistas around which the hotel was constructed. (Many of the stunning bathrooms also offer unobstructed lake views.)
The most impressive room in the hotel is undoubtedly the Sandoz Ballroom, which dates from 1908 and is a showstopping feat of design. Cascading chandeliers frame a stained glass cupola, and the room is decorated with detailed frescoes, stucco and mouldings.
This palatial ballroom, large enough to accommodate 600 people, was host to the Treaty of Lausanne peace negotiations after the first world war, and – an event of equal magnitude in a different measure – the wedding of English rock star Phil Collins in 1999.
In the early 1990s, the hotel and ballroom underwent a renovation project that included restoration of the murals, cupola, paintings and ceiling in the Sandoz Ballroom.
Such is the importance of the building to Swiss heritage, that teams of specialised craftspeople and architectural historians were summoned to ensure that the work was done to the highest conservation standards and to preserve its grandeur for generations of guests to come.
Short of hosting an event in the ballroom, visitors can valiantly uphold the hotel’s rich tradition of genteel decadence with a glass of fine wine or a French-style afternoon tea taken on La Terrasse, a panoramic terrace overlooking the lake.
The beautiful, historical buildings that are found throughout Switzerland collectively tell a detailed and important story about its past. But its grand dames, preserved and lovingly refurbished over the years, arguably go a step further – these are living embodiments of the evolution of legendary Swiss hospitality. And that is all the more reason to lay back and relax while you take it all in.