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5 Grand European Hotels
You'll Never Want to Leave

Posted by Amy Clyde on 12/10/2015
Posted in: Tauck’s Travelogue
Tags: Austria, Europe, Hotels, Ireland, Italy, London, Tauck, Travel, Venice, Vienna

intro_europe_hotels
Certain European luxury hotels are like a book you can’t put down – a world within a world so captivating that when the time comes you have to tear yourself away. I don’t just mean five-star hotels; I’m talking about five-star hotels in a class of their own – so atmospheric and rich with the personality, and fascinating history, of the place you’re visiting that they make you feel like a well-heeled native and a member of a special club. You don’t just stay at these hotels; you experience them. And staying there deepens your experience of your destination.

Our favorites are filled with authentic Old World character, imaginatively reflecting each hotel’s place in history and culture – with all the updates necessary to meet the highest standards of comfort, service, and serious pampering. Here are five of the best for your must-stay list…

1. The Savoy, London
savoy_1One day a London post office received a letter addressed simply to “the Manager of the Greatest Hotel in London.” Apparently unfazed, they delivered it to The Savoy with “Try Savoy Hotel” scribbled on the front of the envelope. And they were right.

The Savoy is a great hotel, one of the greatest, and has been ever since Rupert D’Oyly Carte opened it in 1889 to accommodate the legions of visitors who were flocking to London to see the Gilbert and Sullivan operettas he was producing at his Savoy Theatre next door. (A block from the West End theatre district, the hotel is still a perfect perch for theatre-goers.) Suffice it to say, Sir Winston Churchill once said, "When I die, and if I have a choice, I'd rather have the Savoy staff looking after me in heaven instead of angels."

Since the beginning, The Savoy has been a gathering spot for luminaries in the arts, current events, and commerce – with lots of glamour thrown in for good measure. Monet became the hotel's first artist-in-residence in 1901, and that program continues to this day. George Gershwin gave the British premiere of Rhapsody in Blue at the hotel in 1925. Marilyn Monroe held her first British press conference at The Savoy… with Laurence Olivier and Arthur Miller. It’s that kind of place.

If you want to throw a really splashy party, The Savoy has always been the spot. Case in point: in 1905 an American millionaire had the staff create a mini-Venice by flooding the central courtyard with four feet of water surrounded by Venetian scenery. The partygoers dined in a huge gondola. After dinner, Enrico Caruso sang, and a baby elephant brought in a five-foot birthday cake.

Another memorable dinner was hosted by Woolf Joel, a South African diamond tycoon. Thirteen diners attended – an “unlucky” number – and a guest predicted that whoever left the table first would soon die. The first to leave was Joel… and he was shot dead a few weeks later. After this, The Savoy began to seat a member of its staff at tables of 13 to ward off bad luck until the designer Basil Ionides sculpted a two-foot high Art Deco black cat called Kaspar, who has played the role of the 14th guest ever since. Kaspar receives a full place setting, a napkin tied around his neck, and each course of the meal.

Churchill often took his cabinet to lunch at the hotel, and it became a meeting place for leaders during World War II; Charles de Gaulle was a regular, and the hotel's air-raid shelters were said to be "the smartest in London." For awhile, refusing to be intimidated, by the German onslaught, The Savoy kept its popular dinner dances going. In one attack, the bandleader was injured, and Noel Coward – playwright, performer and secret English spy – took over entertaining the crowd.

savoy_2Today revamped in elegant homage to the hotel’s history, the guest rooms, complete with The Savoy’s famously comfortable beds, are either Edwardian or Art Deco in style. You can still enjoy a dinner dance with the resident orchestra playing music from the 1920s and '30s; feast on one of London’s best afternoon teas; and relax in the hotel’s two incredible bars: the American Bar, which back in the day introduced American-style cocktails to Europe, and the Beaufort Bar, which specializes in champagne and cabaret.

There are also a number of fine dining establishments on the premises, including Simpson's-in-the-Strand, once a favourite restaurant of Charles Dickens, which serves high-class comfort food, like traditional British roasts carved at the table from ornate silver-domed wheeled carts. And if the Jazz Age vibe is more to your liking, there’s a newish seafood restaurant and grill called Kaspar’s – after the cat.
 
2. Ashford Castle, County Mayo, Ireland
ashford_1Everyone should stay overnight in a castle at least once. And when it comes to Ashford Castle, the oldest castle hotel in Ireland and a national icon, once is clearly not enough – but it’s a magnificent start. From the moment you drive through the turreted gate, and take in the castle’s massive historic stone façade, Ashford Castle sweeps you up into a world straight out of a storybook, featuring a Tudor war, the Guinness fortune, and aristocratic country pursuits.

ashford_3First you are greeted by Conan and Garvin, the two resident Irish wolfhounds – and the castle’s gracious staff, 40% of whom have worked at the castle for more than twenty years. After settling in, you must decide which noble hobbies to pursue. Will you learn to hold a raptor at the falconry school, the oldest in Ireland? Does the thought of fly-fishing appeal? Or perhaps you’d rather go in for clay pigeon shooting, archery, horseback riding, or golf. A walk by the lake on the beautifully manicured grounds is always a possibility. If refreshment is in order, you can have tea with a lake view in the drawing room or drinks in the bar built during the Guinness family era to commemorate the visit of the Prince of Wales. If you are accompanied by your sweetheart, know that Dingle, one of the castle owls, has been trained to deliver love letters and engagement rings, should you require his services.

The oldest part of the castle was built in 1228 by Richard Mor de Burgo, the son of a Norman adventurer and an Irish princess, whose descendants ruled the region for some 350 years. Then along came the English Tudors who, in their bid to control Ireland, sent Sir Richard Bingham, Lord President of Connaught, to subdue the locals. It was a fierce struggle, and the English won. Bingham added a fortified enclave to the castle. In the 17th-century, a Royal Grant conveyed the estate to the Browne family, who added a fabulous French-style château and a hunting lodge.

Eventually, in 1852, Sir Benjamin Lee Guinness bought Ashford Castle with his brewery fortune and greatly expanded the estate. He and his son Lord Ardilaun created parklands, farmlands, and gardens covering thousands of acres, and they rebuilt and added to the castle in Victorian Gothic style.

A hotel since 1939, this Irish national treasure has just been refurbished top to bottom, an undertaking that required two years and the efforts of 300 local workers and artisans. Signifying the castle’s importance to Ireland, the prime minister himself attended the unveiling. And the readers of Travel + Leisure just voted Ashford Castle one of the top three hotels in the world!

3. The Gritti Palace, Venice
gritti_1When you walk into the Gritti Palace for the first time, you might be surprised. Intimate and timeless, this elegant palazzo on the Grand Canal doesn’t feel like a hotel; it seems much more like a private home – as it was in the 16th-century for the ruler of Venice Andrea Gritti. Every room is unique, and all are filled with items that look collected over time – precious antiques, paintings, frescoes, objets d’art, hand-crafted Murano glass chandeliers, and luxurious fabrics from the Venetian house of Rubelli. The Gritti clientele is exclusive and considers the palazzo their personal Venice address. When the famous furnishing and design company Donghia undertook the hotel’s recent renovation, the creative director, Chuck Chewning, mindful to keep the air of familiarity that you expect in a home, made sure to return antiques to their original spots on the ground floor.

Hemingway certainly felt at home here; the Gritti was his favourite place in Venice for years. He’s known for having played midnight baseball in the lobby much to the surprise of the staff – and for drinking three bottles of Valpolicella first thing in the day.

gritti_2Hemingway’s escapades aside, the Gritti feels discreetly luxurious – it's an oasis of serenity just five minutes from St. Mark’s Square, in one of the most beautiful spots on the Grand Canal, with a view of the magnificent Santa Maria della Salute church. “There are few things in life more pleasant than to sit on the terrace of the Gritti when the sun, about to set, bathes in lovely colour the Salute,” wrote the novelist Somerset Maugham, another guest who considered the Gritti a second home. “You see that noble building at its best.”

Like Venice itself, the Gritti is a place where romance and history meet modern sophistication. During the Venice Biennale and the annual film festival, the Gritti is a favourite base of operations for the art world and Hollywood celebrities. Perhaps this is because no matter what, the Gritti remains quintessentially Venetian. The Grand Canal, dotted with boats drifting by, is always within sight. The hotel chef uses the techniques of his forefathers to create his Venetian culinary specialties. The hotel’s Bar Longhi features paintings by the celebrated 18th-century Venetian artist Pietro Longhi, and the local elite gather here, entering by a special side door. What a perfect home away from home.

4. Hotel Imperial, Vienna
imperial_1If you’ve ever wondered what it would be like to live in a Habsburg palace, a stay at Hotel Imperial in Vienna answers that question; built in 1863 as the city palace for the Duke of Württemberg and his wife, Marie Therese, who was born a Habsburg, the hotel will instantly remind you of Schönbrunn Palace and the Hofburg.

The interiors are all about Old World extravagance and Neoclassical European style and culture – decorated with historic paintings (some of emperors); grand furniture in vibrant colours; silk wallpaper; glittering chandeliers and ornate mirrors; heavy brocade drapes and plenty of marble. Even the Imperial Torte served in the café is emblazoned with an Imperial eagle.

This is where visiting heads of state stay. Kennedy and Krushchev held their summit here in 1961. (Before Queen Elizabeth II sojourned in the Royal Suite, the staff removed all the furniture because they didn't want people later to be able to say that they had slept in the same bed as the Queen of England; the suite was furnished just for her with items from an official Imperial palace.)

Hotel Imperial became a center of Viennese intellectual and musical life as soon as it became a hotel in 1873. Brahms, Mahler, and Wagner all stayed there regularly; the hotel, on the elegant Ringstrasse, is next door to the Viennese Music Association. But all that came to a halt when Germany seized control of Austria in 1938; one of the hotel’s owners was sent to a concentration camp, and the anti-Nazi general manager of the hotel was imprisoned. But after the war and Allied occupation, the hotel resumed its place at the center of Viennese cultural and political life.

imperial_2In 1998, Vienna’s famous Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal chose to celebrate his 90th birthday at Hotel Imperial. Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, remembers that Wiesenthal was especially moved after the band played a Jewish lullaby: “With tears in his eyes, Simon gazed up at the elaborate crystal chandeliers that lit the room like six million stars in the night sky… and whispered, ‘You see? Even the chandeliers are shaking because this is the first time they have heard such music in this hotel. But the important thing to remember is that Hitler and his pipe dream of a thousand-year Reich is gone… even here in the Imperial, his favourite hotel, Jews are still alive and still singing.’”

5. Four Seasons Hotel Gresham Palace Budapest
four_seasons_2Sitting majestically at the foot of the Chain Bridge on the Pest side of the Danube River, Four Seasons Hotel Gresham Palace Budapest – an Art Nouveau gem, inside and out – is as stunning today as it was in its heyday at the turn of the 20th century. Looking at it, you would never know that fifteen years ago it had fallen into such disrepair that it was barely habitable.

Gresham Palace first opened its wrought iron-glass peacock gates in 1906 as the international headquarters of the London-based Gresham Life Assurance Company. Built to impress, the palace was a showplace for some of the finest Art Nouveau architecture and design in the world. The most celebrated artists and craftsmen of the Hungarian Golden Age filled the building with vaulted ceilings, stained glass, Zsolnay ceramic tiles, marble staircases…

The palace housed the company’s offices in addition to apartments for many of Hungary’s elite and for Gresham Life bankers and their families. The top floor was reserved for the cooks and servants who attended these families living below. On the ground floor, there was a finishing school for daughters of the nobility called English Young Ladies, and one of the most popular coffee houses in the city, where everyone from aristocrats to artists went to see and be seen.

But when World War II came, the façade was destroyed. Russian soldiers took over the palace and burned much of the furniture to keep warm. After the war the building was seized by the Hungarian Communist Government, which divided the property into small apartments and packed up to 10 people to a room.  The building fell into a sad state of neglect.
 
To restore the palace to its former grandeur, Four Seasons Hotels hired teams of historians and craftsmen who employed time-honored techniques harkening back to the turn of the century. The research was extensive – and so was the restoration. It took five years and more than $100 million. And today the Gresham Palace is an Art Nouveau masterpiece and showplace once more.

If you’re drawn to discover one of these fabulous historic hotels on one of Tauck's escorted tours of Europe, we’d love to have you! We stay at The Savoy on “England, Scotland & Wales,” at Ashford Castle on “The Best of Ireland,” at The Gritti Palace on “Bellissima Northern Italy,” at Hotel Imperial Vienna on “Imperial Europe: Budapest, Vienna & Prague,” and at Four Seasons Hotel Gresham Palace Budapest on “The Blue Danube”. For more information on all of our European trips, please click here.
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