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Bellevue Palace back in business

The Bellevue is located next to the federal parliament.

Heads of state again have a place to stay when making an official visit to the Swiss capital, Bern.

The Hotel Bellevue Palace - the top address in the city - has reopened after a yearlong SFr40 million facelift.

The renovation is not immediately obvious. The hotel looks as impressive as ever, perched next to the parliament building and overlooking the river Aare with the Bernese Alps in the distance.

But despite its grand exterior and pride of place in Bern's old town, the Bellevue lacked some of the basic amenities taken for granted in good hotels across the world, such as air conditioning.

So it is not surprising that the lion's share of the cost of renovation has been spent on just that, as well as new heating, wiring and plumbing.

But the management of the 90-year-old Bellevue also took advantage of the 12 months when the hotel was closed for renovation to add a few modern touches to the classic style of its rooms.

Conservative

That was no easy task since the Bellevue has long been a bastion of conservatism, in keeping with the sentiments of its owners - the Federal government.

This is where the Swiss government wines, dines and puts up heads of state for the night so it cannot afford to offend.

France's Jacques Chirac and the German president, Johannes Rau, were among the most recent guests.

Churchill

In its time, the hotel has also played host to Winston Churchill, Mikhail Gorbachev and India's Nehru.

The Bellevue is also where dozens of Swiss MPs make their home when parliament is in session. Rumour has it that important government decisions - such as choosing a new cabinet minister - are taken over drinks in the hotel bar.

The interior designer Pia Schmid was given the unviable task of giving the rooms a fresh look while retaining a conservative ambience.

"The greatest challenge was uniting the traditional with the modern," she said at the unveiling ceremony.

Acclaimed for her bold designs at several luxury hotels in Switzerland (see related item), she had to tread lightly when it came to the Bellevue.

"It belongs to the 'Leading Hotels of the World' association, which means greater limitations are put on what changes can be made," Schmid explained. "These 'leading hotels' are very exclusive, and so you have to adhere to very strict guidelines."

Furniture

She decided to reupholster old furniture that had been stashed away in the attic, and chose modern patterns and pastel colours for the linen, carpets and curtains.

The resulting contrast with the antique lamps, desks and chandeliers found in most of the rooms is subtle and shouldn't offend any visiting politician or celebrity.

The new look has also pleased traditionalists who were present at the unveiling. "The spirit of the house has been preserved," said Martin Fröhlich, a historian of architecture.

Historical details

"There has to be a point of departure during any evolution of a building and the time had come for this 90-year-old hotel," Fröhlich added. "The important historical details have been preserved."

The most noticeable change has been to the size of the rooms. Walls were knocked out to create bigger but fewer rooms. The hotel, which boasted 230 rooms before the renovation, now has a cosy 130.

"We have more suites than before," said Beat Jordi, the architect responsible for the planning. "That is what guests want. They don't mind paying more for a larger space."

Forgotten during the high profile unveiling was the bad publicity the Bellevue received a couple of years ago, when it was discovered that its staff were paid miserably.

Melchior Windlin, who has managed the hotel for 16 years, says an agreement was reached with the employee's union to give the staff a "significant" pay rise.

With that dispute and the renovation now out of the way, Windlin is looking forward to again welcoming heads of state.

swissinfo, Dale Bechtel

Key facts

The Renovations cost SFr40 million.
The hotel is owned by the Swiss government.
Along with its 130 rooms, there are ballrooms, restaurants, bars and conference facilities.
Rooms start at SFr350 a night for a single room to SFr2,200 for the
presidential suite.

end of infobox

In brief

Built alongside the federal parliament in 1865, it was torn down and rebuilt on the same site. Its reconstruction was completed in 1913.

It became Switzerland's military headquarters during the years of the First World War.

The Swiss National Bank became owner of hotel in 1976 and it handed it as a gift to the Swiss Confederation 12 years later.

The federal government still owns 99 per cent of the hotel's shares.

end of infobox


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