The Swiss Historic Hotels network
By Gery de Pierpont
Enhance your historic experience in 50 authentic period establishments
Did you know that in Europe there are several historic accommodation associations, often grouped together by region or country? Each has its own raison d’être, selection procedures, and its own way of showcasing its members.
We would like to make these collaborative networks known to a public with a passion for history and cultural heritage. Firstly, to acknowledge certain pioneering or original approaches, and to highlight these high value-added tourist services; and of course, to offer our readers a wider perspective on ‘rooms with a view on the past’ than those already presented on intoHistory.
Claude Buchs, the owner of the Bella Tola and St Luc Hotel, is one of the founders and former president of the Swiss Historic Hotels network. He has agreed to share with us the purpose and the values of this group, well known for its commitment and associative dynamism.
The Bella Tola Hotel was one of the first members of the Swiss Historic Hotels network. How did this movement start?
Our organization’s spiritual father is Dr Roland Flückiger-Seiler, the president of the Swiss Tourism Heritage by Hotelarchiv Schweiz foundation, and the author of many works on historic hotels in Switzerland. He launched the ‘Historic hotel of the year’, with the aim of encouraging hoteliers to preserve our heritage. An initiative supported by the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), Switzerland, since 1995.
In 2004, the hotelier honoured by this prize, decided to form an association of all the historic accommodation establishments that had been similarly awarded, such as our hotel the Bella Tola Hotel. I too, had always had this idea at the back of my mind, as we realized that there was a growing interest in hotels that offer something over and above luxurious comfort and first-class service. Peter Kühler – who had already successfully set up several hotel combines – was commissioned to establish the association.
At the beginning, it wasn’t easy to convince hoteliers to join this new group, which had yet to prove itself. However, thanks to our close collaboration with Swiss Tourism for all aspects of our marketing, membership rapidly increased. Having such a strong partner played a determining role in this development, which met the real expectations of hotels and tourist clientele alike.
The Swiss Historic Hotels network is one of the most dynamic in Europe. To what do you attribute its success?
I think its success is because we have remained strict in our selection criteria for each hotel. Our experts attach great importance to the historical dimension of the candidate hotels – the interior as well as exterior. There are too many hotel groups that relax their criteria in order to increase membership; with the result that the client is disappointed and loses all confidence in the guide.
Central to our concerns is a guest’s experience. A client wants to feel the past, and live a special kind of adventure. Today, you can find luxury fairly easily, but very often, there is no soul. Perfection can engender a sort of emptiness.
Our hotels are all very different and the number of guests who want to discover these establishments is growing rapidly. At each hotel, whether in town, in the country or in the mountains, guests can live their own experience according to the style, age, type, and size of the lodging.
In our network, the historic experience is more important than the category (unrepresentative of its ability to evoke history). A simple mountain inn can evoke the past just as effectively as an old palace. I have always been impressed by our loyal clientele who hold very modest establishments in as much esteem as four or five-star hotels. The value of a stay is measured by different standards.
What achievement are you most proud of since the network’s creation?
That we have succeeded in enlisting 50 members, which enables us to offer a very wide range of historic establishments. However, the results achieved since 2004, are above all, the fruit of a very active volunteer committee. The greatest success was the publication of the book ‘Zeitreisen’ in German and ‘Time Travel‘ in English, an idea conceived by our association’s president, Felix Dietrich of the Hôtel Waldhaus in Sils Maria. The book is not only dedicated to each one of our establishments, but allows one to discover another side to Switzerland. We engaged two writers and a photographer to realize this project.
There are different ways for an old establishment to cling to history. What are the network’s main categories of historic hotels?
First of all, there are the mountain hotels, which date back to the middle of the 19th century, a time when tourism was being developed – encouraged mainly by an English clientele. Hotel Ofenhorn at Binn, the Monte Rosa Hotel at Zermatt, Hotel Bellevue des Alpes at Kleine Scheidegg, and Hotel Bella Tola at St Luc are some fine examples.
Palaces in the Grisons also made their appearance at this time. There is the Waldhaus Hotel in Sils-Maria, one of the best preserved historic establishments and still run by the same family, or Badrutt’s Palace Hotel in St Moritz.
Lakeside hotels in Switzerland also sprung up during this period. The English came to us to discover the Alps or to sojourn near water. The Grand Hotel Giessbach overlooking Lake Brienz, or Hotel Masson in Montreux are typical of this growth in tourism.
Then we have a small group of country hotel-inns, whose restaurants play an essential role. Two superbly renovated establishments – the Gasthof zum Hirschen at Oberstammheim and the Hotel Gasthof Hirschen at Eglisau – exemplify this category.
There are also a few town hotels. Hotel Wilden Mann in Lucerne and Hotel Stern in Coire are two fine examples. Lastly, we have just accepted two hotels from the Bauhaus period (1913–32) an interesting architectural trend exemplified by the Hotel Monte Verita in Ascona and Hotel Bella Lui in Crans-Montana.
What kind of history is imparted in old Swiss hotels?
It is often anecdotal and linked to the personalities who have stayed there. But what really interests our guests, is to discover more about a certain period, the way of life in a bygone era, or the way in which the first tourists stayed at a hotel. When one learns that 19th-century English tourists took three days to get to St Luc – on foot, they would climb the 25 kilometres and the slope of 3,600 feet that separated the hotel from the plain – and that the ‘ladies’ were carried 9,000 feet in sedan chairs to the Bella Tola summit, one gets a good idea of how life was. It is like reading a history book.
The face of tourism has evolved dramatically in the 21st century. What would you wish for future years?
I sense a danger in profitability at any price. Many large hotel projects are taking place in the Alps and it seems to me that the real requirements of our guests are being put to one side – to be considered as human beings, not just numbers, or client consumers. People on holiday want to experience strong emotions, to meet others from another culture, and to discover different environments.
Many areas in Europe have been disfigured by the over-rapid development of wholesale tourism. I think it is important to preserve and maintain our architectural richness, which as time passes, will become increasingly valuable.
How would you advise someone passionate about the spirit of the past to prepare for his or her stay in Switzerland?
Take the time to visit the Swiss Historic Hotels website, not just for commercial reasons, but because the hotels have been assessed by heritage experts.
Some hotels, such as the Grand Hôtel Giessbach, the Waldhaus à Sils-Maria, or the Hotel Bellevue des Alpes at Kleine Scheidegg, are better preserved than others.
Five itineraries have been created in order to discover Switzerland via its historic hotels.
The Historic hotel of the year also gives prominence to establishments that have been particularly well preserved.
And what about you? Have you already stayed in a hotel from the Swiss Historic Hotels group? Which would you recommend for a winter or a summer stay?
Find out more
- Swiss Historic Hotels, ‘the past with a future’
- ‘A Night in the Past at Swiss Historic Hotels‘ – Financial Times May 29, 2015
- Old photographs and postcards of the period – from the Swiss Tourism Heritage site.
- An outing in a train and a boat of the times – to celebrate the Association’s 10th anniversary: