Mountain village celebrates rags-to-riches tale

The village of Niederwald in the Goms Valley, canton Valais, has been celebrating the 150th anniversary of the birth of a Swiss who made hotel history worldwide - Cesar Ritz (pictured).

This content was published on February 24, 2000 minutes

The village of Niederwald in the Goms Valley, canton Valais, has been celebrating the 150th anniversary of the birth of a Swiss who made hotel history worldwide - Cesar Ritz (pictured).

Ritz - the thirteenth member of a family of Alpine farmers - seemed to lack any talent when growing up in Switzerland but he went abroad to make his name as the undisputed "king of hoteliers and hotelier of kings".

Ritz is to be found in countless dictionaries and reference books, above all with mention of his humble but untiring dedication to providing one commodity for the people he served - luxury.

"I would say that the words he cherished the most were excellence, perfection and welcome. Above all, he wanted every hotel guest to feel at home, if not even more than at home," said Monique Ritz, Cesar's daughter-in-law, who as the last of the family line, attended the official celebrations.

Cesar Ritz was born into a family that was talented but not rich. His father was the local mayor, with other family members before him having found local fame by making church altars in the cantons of Valais and Graubünden.

The young Cesar was no natural talent and studies at a college in the Valais cantonal capital, Sion, brought no real progress. Described as a "lazybones", he was sent to work as an apprentice wine-waiter in Brig. After a year his boss, a hotelier named Josef Escher, was obviously not impressed.

"You'll never make it. You need a special flair in the hotel business and, allow me to say, you don't have it," Escher said.

Despite this setback at the tender age of 17, Ritz read about the World Fair in Paris and, digging deep into his savings, bought a railway ticket to try his luck in the French capital.

It would be fitting to think that life changed immediately for him, but the learning process proved slow and difficult. He polished floors and shoes at the Hotel Fidélité before eventual promotion to room waiter. But an affair, apparently with a Russian baroness, led to his dismissal.

However, Ritz tried again, this time at the most elegant of hotels in the city, "Le Voisin". It was there that he began to learn the trade properly from A to Z. Discretion and good manners were obligatory in the world of the French élite - Sarah Bernhardt, George Sand, Théophile Gautier and others, and he began to appreciate the meaning of service with style.

The greatest opportunity for Ritz to make his mark came when Swiss hotelier and architect Max Pfyffer entrusted him to become manager of the "National" grand hotel in Lucerne in 1877.

Ritz spared no effort and paid enormous attention to the desires of his noble customers when it came to interior decoration, personal style, heating and comfort (including baths, which were then a luxury), as well as to the finest cuisine.

For 11 years, Ritz managed the "National" during the Summer months and moved to a hotel in Menton for the Winter season. From a "lazybones", Ritz became a master of his trade whose advice was sought in all major European cities.

Towards the end of the century, Ritz managed the "Savoy" and "Carlton" in London. He gave his name to a number of hotels, the most renowned being the "Ritz" in Paris that opened in June 1898 on the Place Vendôme as the world's first truly luxury hotel.

It soon became a favourite haunt of the pre-jet set. The author, Scott Fitzgerald, the Prince of Wales (later Edward VII), the Astors and Barbara Hutton, the world's richest woman, were among the regular guests.

The "Ritz" hotel in London, considered an architectural masterpiece, was opened in 1906 and it soon attracted members of the royal family and the English aristocracy.

In 1904, Cesar Ritz was struck by an illness that left him incapacitated until his death in 1918. The uncrowned king of hoteliers, Ritz is buried in the village in which he was born.

By Rob Brookes

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