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19th century luxury: the grand hotel

A Zurich museum is devoting its latest exhibition to what until recently was an endangered species in the tourism sector - the traditional grand hotel.

Consisting of just one room, the privately-run Museum of Hotels and Tourism may be one of Switzerland's smallest, but it manages to cover the history of a big subject despite the limited space.

Pictures of old hotels and their guests line the walls, while display cabinets contain letters, guest books, brochures, menus, bills, china and other items dating back to the beginning of tourism. Entitled "Switzerland - A Travellers' Wonderland", the exhibition looks nostalgically at the heyday of luxury hotels.

It is set in a period on the eve of mountain railroad building, shortly before the completion of the Vitznau-Rigi cogwheel railway in 1871 heralded major changes in leisure travel.

"Before then, foreigners came from far afield to marvel at the wonders of Switzerland's lakes and mountains," says Beat Kleiner, joint-owner of the museum. "Reaching many famous locations in the Alps meant a long journey on foot or on horseback. Grand hotels were built on the spot to accommodate them, and they would stay there, sometimes for as long as six weeks."

But mountain railways such as the Rigi changed all that, and with the advent of the automobile it was the end of an era for many hotels - and the start of the one-day excursion. "Today's visitors rush in, take a quick look and then leave, rarely staying overnight," said Kleiner.

The casualties included three luxury hotels on the Rigi which closed down through lack of business, and were later demolished. Some on lower ground also disappeared, including two with views across the Rhine Falls.

It was not until the 1970s that the more elegant grand hotels began to be officially preserved as historic buildings, and by then it was too late for some fine examples of hotel architecture whose raison d'être was, after all, business.

But as the exhibition shows, others have survived and even flourished by moving with the times. Their interiors have been adapted to provide conference and health facilities, while still retaining that special elegance and charm of the late 19th century grand hotel.

by Richard Dawson

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