Elegance and History in Europe's Hotels

While rhapsodizing about Europe's upscale hotels is all very well, given the state of the economy, how can travelers handle the choice and the cost of foreign hotels?

Photography by the author

I once drove across Europe in cars of different nationalities for an article in Autoweek and for a couple of glossy magazines. During interviews with the managing directors of the hotels that were members of The Leading Hotels of the World, I learned 2 things. First, why they are called the leading hotels. And second, that I was too much the frugal Scot to stay there on my dime.

I heard comparisons between European and American hotels. To quote the managing director of the Brenner’s Park-Hotel & Spa in Bavaria:

“In Europe an arriving guest is received by the most senior person on duty, usually the general manager. In America, the most junior! So when things go wrong they can be corrected quickly in a European hotel, but not so in an American.”

I thought he said that because he has a large staff in this large, upscale hotel that’s been around for 140 years of German history. Would his remarks be true in a smaller, less historic hotel? Say, for example the Hotel Eisenhut in Rothenburg ob der Tauber whose history is more recent: it opened in 1890 and has only 124 years of history!

“I am on the premises and right here to deal with any issue,” said the late Frau Pirner, the owner. “We confront problems as soon as they happen. That’s much easier than waiting till guests go home and write a complaint.”

I found this to be true in Spain, too. Nancy and I were driving in northeast Spain on another trip and checked in to the little Hotel Diana in Tossa de Mar on the Costa Brava. We were jetlagged and tired, but with a very noisy party was going full swing on the patio, sleep would be impossible. I went down to the desk to ask if something could be done. I found I was speaking to the owner.

“Yes,” she said with a smile. “You are now our guests for the party. Go fetch your wife! You are now our complimentary guests!”

Suddenly the noise was palatable.

Sure, you can get such services in some chain hotels in the United States, but how often? And how often do you find owners on the premises?

Comparisons may be unfair because Europe has so many more upscale small hotels than the United States. And those European hotels are so well established and self-confident they seem to strive to outperform their very reputation.

Consider London, where there is so much to see. The guidebooks written in English encourage you to do too much. You need a friend in London or to use a concierge.

We’ve stayed at Hotel 41. Now called 41, Belgravia, it’s part of the Red Carnation Hotel Collection. The upscale hotel attracted me because I was showing my granddaughter, Hayley, London as her graduation present. It attracted me also because it stands at 41 Buckingham Palace Road and offers afternoon tea, as does its sister, Hotel Rubens, at the Palace next door at number 39.

41, Belgravia allows you to graze all day on complimentary snacks, no small matter because London is terribly expensive. Another frugality is that the hotel is a 3-minute walk from the London Tube and Victoria Station—a convenience if you are flying into London Gatwick Airport.

Allow yourself time if you stay at 41, Belgravia, so you can benefit from the concierge advice as to how you can enjoy this busy, busy city.

But if we find London at times frantic, how do we find rural Ireland? Languid? The Red Carnation hotel group has now bought Ashford Castle, the most luxurious and gorgeous hotel in Ireland. Although it didn’t seem possible the group would need to do anything to improve its new acquisition, it turns out that Ashford is now closed for renovations and will not be open until spring of next year.

Red Carnation has the best hotels in London, the best hotels in South Africa, and—having just added another hotel in Ireland, as if Ashford castle weren’t enough—it would appear to be committing to having all the best hotels in Ireland, too.

You benefit from knowledgeable local advice when you stay in any long-established county inn in Britain, and the East Haugh House in Pitlochry in central Scotland is a good example.

You want to golf, fish, hunt or get married? Ask them. The owners, the McGown family, have been running the hotel for 20 years, which means it runs like a Swiss watch in the same way that you never have a bad meal in an Italian restaurant where Mama is on the premises.

For some travelers the hotel is part of the vacation and damn the expense. We have friends who won’t cruise if they can’t get a cabin with a veranda and who cheerfully pay more for the cruise ship’s signature restaurants even though the regular restaurants on upscale ships are already superior to many land-based restaurants.

So people may come to the Grand Bretagne in Athens. It’s one of the Great Old Dames and first saw life as a mansion in 1842, before it became the official hotel for the restored Olympic Games in 1892.

But the historical fact that knocked me over is that after World War II, Winston Churchill came to Athens to mediate between communists and non-communists. When the British authorities went into the basement to lay additional communication cables, they found explosives in a modern Guy Fawkes gunpowder plot to kill Old Winnie. He was apparently not liked by the Commies.

How can an American hotel match that history?

Travelers who choose a hotel for its history may find themselves inconveniently far from the tourist attractions. Take the Crowne Plaza in Prague for example.

Built during the communist era, the outside is somewhat unattractive, but its interior is beautiful. The staircase was created in advance of a visit from Joseph Stalin with the same number of steps as generals in the Czech army. The idea was that as Stalin mounted the stairs he’d be greeted on each stair by a general saluting him. Stalin died before he could visit.

The Ritz in Madrid and the Ritz in Paris were created in better taste. (Madrid came first as the Madrid manager took care to tell me.) Both Ritz hotels are very expensive and both a bit pleased with themselves. But hey! History and Hemingway and all that.

You don’t need to go for an expensive hotel just to get a great view—just pour over Google Maps and a good guidebook.

The night shot of Amsterdam was taken from the IBIS hotel, one of our favorite European hotel groups. Rooms were just under $100 a night. The railway station (bottom left in the photograph) tells you how convenient the rails are.

Our view of Bergen was taken from the Clarion Hotel Admiral at C. Sundts Gate 95004 Bergen. The manager saw my camera and suggested room 610. The hotel had free coffee, complimentary breakfast, and, if I remember right, was charging $190 a night.

The Thon Hotel in Kirkenes in the very north of Norway was about $260 a night but, like the Bergen Clarion, was part of a Hurtigruten cruise. A bit pricey, but there are not many hotels that comfortable in the frozen North.

Rhapsodizing about upscale hotels is all very well, but given the state of the economy, how do today’s travelers handle the choice and the cost of foreign hotels?

Let’s take Vienna in Austria as an example. This city, the acclaimed site of the New Year’s Eve Ball, has hotels so magnificent that in 1969 when Queen Elizabeth II of Great Britain came on a formal visit, Vienna put her up in the Hotel Imperial as that was more fitting than any of its Royal Palaces.

So, in Vienna, where hotels can be over-the-top, what did we do to find a hotel that met our budget?

First, with a guidebook and a walking map of the city, we familiarized ourselves with the city. Then, we chose areas with the city attractions that interested us and went online. We looked for hotels that were within walking distance of attractions because we don’t always find “City Cards” a bargain.

We made a list.

We felt we could share a toilet especially if a shower was right there en suite. We didn’t mind rooms of small size as visitors don’t really spend much time in a hotel room. We are pleased to find breakfast is included: such convenience saves money and saves time. When we find 2 or 3 hotels, we try to find reviews. It was easier in the old days at the start of, say, TripAdvisor. Now, so many persons contribute reviews, it’s difficult to sort stuff out. We will go to any online guidebook, like Frommer’s, to see if it has a review. It saves time in the city itself if time, even tedious time, is spent before arriving to clarify if we have found what we want.

Before we decide, we see if there’s an additional charm. We found a small boutique hotel occupying the eighth floor of a high-rise near the Danube Canal: Pension Dr. Geissler. It had been run first by the widow of one Dr. Walter Geissler and then his daughter. We found references to several Walter Geisslers: one a German tenor, one a current dentist in California, and one on the staff of a Psychiatric Clinic in Luneberg in 1909. The history was complicated, so we gave up seeking details of its past and went direct to its website—buying direct and not through a booking agency gave, as always, a better price. I recall we paid 72 Euros, about $99.

It was all we needed and, yes, we would go back to the Dr. Geissler again.

Eric Anderson, MD, lives in San Diego. He and his wife, Nancy Anderson, RN, are the resident travel & cruise columnists for Physician's Money Digest. Eric is a retired physician, the one-time president of the NH Academy of Family Practice, and the only physician in the Society of American Travel Writers. He has also written 5 books, the last called The Man Who Cried Orange: Stories from a Doctor's Life.