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Alpine “palaces” rank among world’s finest hotels

The Grand Hotel Victoria, today and nearly 100 years ago. Victoria-Jungfrau

When the mother of the Russian emperor arrived at the Three Kings hotel in Basel on June 4, 1857, a total of 90 horses pulled her 18-carriage entourage. It was a fitting arrival at one of Switzerland's finest hotels, in the age of hotel grandeur.

Before long, alpine hotels, too, on some of Switzerland’s high peaks, gained fame for their elegance and their ability to court royal visitors.

The quality of Swiss hotels was recognized internationally. The 1844 edition of Baedeker’s travel guide proclaimed the Swiss hotels the finest in the world. But the best was yet to come.

When Baedeker published its first edition, only a handful of grand hotels or “palaces” had been built, beginning with the Hôtel des Bergues in Geneva in 1834. Its owners boasted that it was the “only hotel with a view of Mont Blanc.”

By the time the Russian emperor’s mother arrived in Basel, the number of establishments had increased four-fold, and entrepreneurs had begun to move beyond city borders, building luxury hotels in alpine villages and in some cases, on mountaintops.

Hat boxes on the Rigi

Long before a railway was built to the summit of Mount Rigi, the grand hotel opened its doors in 1849. The railway followed more than 20 years later.

The hotel pioneers were eager to respond to the demand, which primarily came from well-to-do British tourists, who also backed many of the projects financially.

The wife of the famous Swiss hotelier, Caesar Ritz, said in 1874 that luggage transported up to the Rigi by the newly opened cog railway stretched from floor to ceiling. She said there were “elegant suitcases made of calf leather…hat boxes from Paris…bags from New York and every kind of luggage from Berlin”.

Although Interlaken, the town lying between the lakes of Thun and Brienz, was one of the first to be “discovered” by tourists, it had to wait until 1865 before it could boast its first grand hotel, the Hotel Victoria.

By 1830, about a dozen guesthouses lined the boulevard in Interlaken known as the Höheweg, which still offers an excellent view of the snow-covered Jungfrau massif. Most of the guests were British, leading “Murray’s Handbook for Travellers in Switzerland 1838” to declare Interlaken an “English colony”.

Royals, writers discover Victoria

The Pension Jungfrau and the neighbouring Pension Victoria were among the early guesthouses. In 1857, Edward Ruchti – only 23 years old and fresh from his schooling in Britain and France, returned to his hometown and purchased the Victoria.

A few years later, he commissioned architects to build a new hotel on the grounds, which they accomplished in only nine months. The Hotel Victoria welcomed wealthy guests into neo-Baroque halls and lounges. Crowned heads of state and other European aristocrats registered, as did leading scholars and writers of the day.

Ruchti was so successful with his hotel business, that he was able to acquire the hotel Jungfrau beside it, and by the end of the 19th century, the two buildings had been linked by a dome-shaped middle tract, which has remained the Victoria-Jungfrau’s most recognisable feature.

After emerging intact from the First World War and the Depression, the hotel became the headquarters during the Second World War of the general staff of the Swiss army.

It returned to its former glory when tourism began to flourish again in the 1960s, but in keeping with the fashion of the time, the owners installed wood panelling in the interiors, covering some of the walls and ceiling frescoes dating from the Belle Époque.

It took another 40 years and the start of a new millennium for the current owners to realize the value of the frescoes. Earlier this year, the wood panelling was removed, and the frescoes painstakingly restored.

The paintings recall Interlaken’s golden age, when the crème de la crème of European society took rooms at the Victoria-Jungfrau. One member of society, however, who never arrived was the woman who lent her name to the establishment – Queen Victoria.

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR