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Behind the scenes at the Beau Rivage

Beau Rivage Keystone

When the Beau-Rivage Palace opened in 1861, it catered for wealthy tourists who passed their summers in Switzerland. The titled, the rich and the famous have flocked here ever since, leaving their signatures in the leather-bound guest books.

Doorman, Alberto Grigolin retired last month after 42 years service. He says things were very different when he began his career in the fifties. “The clientele has changed. Those were the days when the Orient Express ran from London to Istanbul and stopped in Lausanne. We collected the baggage from the station.

“People didn’t travel by plane like they do now. They tended to go by train and by boat. There was one lady who came from Monte Carlo and travelled with 30 trunks. She stayed with us for three months. It was another age.”

Blue blood has given way to the world’s new power brokers. About 40 per cent of the hotel’s trade is generated by its business and conference facilities. But even businessmen and women need to eat. In the elegance of La Rotonde restaurant, nothing fazes the ever-watchful maitre d’hotel, Didier Szpijel, and impossible is not a word that enters his vocabulary.

“Pleasure is our goal. That’s what being a five-star hotel is all about. We always try to satisfy the wishes of our clients. If a guest wants strawberries in winter, the house endeavours, as far as is humanly possible, to obtain them.”

The happiness of the client is imperative and 99 per cent of the time – perhaps one per cent escapes us – we can please the clientele.”

If guests are suitably pampered, Alberto says it was hardly a dog’s life for their pets either: “I remember when I first started here, the dogs got their own special menu – hors d’oeuvre, meat course, salad, dessert. There was a separate kitchen and the chef who made the meals for the staff also prepared the dogs’ food.”

I remember a Frenchwoman with two Russian greyhounds. They got through a kilogram of red meat in an evening. That’s all they ate.”

I wander into the Sandoz ballroom, deserted save for a solitary figure, on his makeshift scaffolding, rubbing away at the ceiling, restoring the frescoes as he’s done for the past three and a half years whenever the room is unoccupied.

Craftsman, Francesco Gurnari is passionate about his work: “It’s a privilege. You’re rubbing away and suddenly an eye stares out at you or a finger emerges. You’re the first person to see it for fifty years.

“There are times when I’ve been scratching away for hours on end, thinking there’s nothing there. Then suddenly you reveal a fresh patch of colour and it assumes a definite shape. Then it’s time to celebrate after hours of effort and the motivation returns.”

When the hotel opened in the 19th century, there was no running water, heating or lifts. Today, there’s definitely running water – and following the latest 100 million franc renovation, you can splash about in your double jacuzzi with gold fittings enjoying views over Lake Geneva and the Alps.

The presidential suite, which will set you back 5,000 francs a night, is furnished with tapestries and rare Persian rugs.

The men and women who make all this run efficiently are a well-drilled army of employees from around the world. Of the 300 members of staff, some 70 per cent come from outside Switzerland – Portuguese chambermaids, Italian craftsmen, French chefs.

In the ten-acre park with its sculptures and monumental set-piece flowerbeds, I bump into head gardener, Jean-Claude Ringioni. Some 15,000 plants a year are grown on site.

He says he doesn’t find it easy to achieve such harmony. “When a painter works on a picture, if he’s not happy, he can scrap it totally and start again. But once we’ve planted, you can’t pull everything up and redo it. So you’ve got to imagine what you want beforehand to really create something superb.”

And there are a couple of other things we have to take into account. The flowerbeds have to appeal to people who are walking in the park but they also have to look good from the windows and balconies of the hotel, from the second and third floors. So you have to imagine what it will look like from a different perspective.”

Down by the tennis courts are a few dozen headstones. It’s not the guests who have passed away on vacation but rather their dogs. It’s reputedly the only hotel dog cemetery in Europe.

Alberto’s many functions in 42 years of service have included the role of gravedigger. “I personally buried the last dog there. Twenty-five years ago, it was. A cocker Spaniel which belonged to a German countess.”

We ordered the marble headstone, bought a coffin and did the burial. It’s not allowed anymore. You’ve got to cremate them and the management isn’t too keen.”

I end my trip to the Beau-Rivage Palace in the fitness centre, where Jacques Beytrison, masseur, reflexologist and practitioner in Chinese medicine, reflects on the service the hotel provides.

“Everyone’s looking after the guests but here it’s a relationship that’s different again. We take over all responsibility. When they arrive in this department, they can totally forget their cares. We remove the stresses and anxieties of everyday life. It’s the little extra that makes them feel immediately at ease. We’re the icing on the cake, if you like.”

by Vincent Landon

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR