Style: Old World elegance
Scene: On the banks of the River Rhine in Basel
Seen in the lobby: Roger Federer
THE ENORMOUS twin chandeliers in the lobby at The Grand Hotel Les Trois Rois in Basel mesmerised me ... who cleans them and how, I wondered as I gazed up at the pair, hung one above the other. Peering beyond the dazzling mass of sparkles to the glass ceiling high in the atrium where the hefty chain they were suspended from disappeared into space, they also terrified me a little.
“Yes, they are extremely well-secured madam,” the concierge informed me, reading my mind ... “and there’s a motor in the ceiling which lowers them to ground level once a year for their annual clean which takes about five to six hours for each chandelier,” he said.
“They date back to 1910 and are highest-quality cut crystal.”
“Very illuminating,” I replied trusting he would get the pun. He did.
That’s one of the incredible things about the staff at a five-star hotel like Les Trois Rois. They are trained to read guests’ minds and anticipate their wants, needs and questions before the guest has even had a chance to formulate them.
They even discovered it was my birthday – a state secret – and appeared at the door with a cake-lette and bouteille de vin. It was handled oh so discretely though. No one else found out which saved me a serious shout at the bar.
A lover of history, I was in heaven at Les Trois Rois.
Established in 1681 as a gentlemen’s inn, rebuilt in 1844 as a grand hotel, and renovated and lovingly restored in 2006, Les Trois Rois stands at the exact spot where ships docked at the ‘Salzhaus’ and ‘Salzturm’ (Salt House and Salt Tower) in the Middle Ages to transport the much sought-after product down the Rhine to the world. A 10-metre section of the medieval tower is still visible today in the cellar of the hotel.
The name Les Trois Rois is a reference to the ‘Three Wise Men’ from the Orient, Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar, also known as The Three Kings. However legend suggests the hotel may have been named after three kings who met at the establishment in 1026 to discuss the future of the Kingdom of Burgundy.
Gilded statues of the kings preside over the main entrance to the hotel as they have done since 1754, and they appear again on a landing on the way up the stairs to the library with its exquisite stained glass windows and handmade wallpaper. Prior to 1930, it was a chapel with an English-speaking minister.
The hotel has long been regarded as the most exclusive address in Basel. The guestbook reads like a Who's Who of world history -Napoleon Bonaparte, Queen Elizabeth II, Empress Michiko of Japan, James Joyce, Pablo Picasso, Charles Dickens, Jean Paul Sartre, Richard Wagner, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the Dalai Lama, Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones and Basel local Roger Federer who often stays there along with his family.
The six-storey edifice is the epitome of elegance, grace, old-world charm and sophistication. The entire hotel and all 101 rooms and suites are furnished with precious paintings, antiques . . . and many chandeliers. No two rooms are the same and the suites are sumptuous.
Reading my mind again, when I checked in the receptionist handed me the key to one of the hotel’s special, historic suites, where Dr Theodor Herzl first planned the modern State of Israel.
There’s a bronze plaque of Herzl dated 1897 on the wall beside the doors to the balcony. He’s leaning on the balcony railing, gazing at the Rhine, no doubt contemplating the weighty task ahead.
In the days that followed, I read all about Herzl and other distinguished guests in the beautiful book by my bed, ‘Glimpses of the Past’.
Les Trois Rois illuminated in the evening.
My elegant abode was decorated with antique furniture, mirrors and lamps, luxurious drapes, a parquet floor and another magnificent chandelier. Even the heaters were ornately carved. Paintings on the walls told the story of the hotel through the ages. The tiled bathroom floor was heated but the freestanding claw-foot bath and porcelain vanity were original. The fragrant Swiss-made Feuerstein Essentials toiletries included a lovely lip balm, a particularly thoughtful and welcome touch.
Double doors opened onto a huge balcony directly above the Rhine, a place where I seemed to lose track of time - watching the sun rise and set, the trams trundle across the bridge to nearby Germany, and the swans and river boats glide by.
There’s also a gorgeous suite dedicated to General Napoleon Bonaparte who lodged at the Les Trois Rois in 1797 and was honoured with a glittering state reception.
For the ultimate in luxury, Suite Les Trois Rois offers 250 m² of living space with two bedrooms, three bathrooms, a sitting room with a fireplace, two dining tables, a work space and a roof terrace with a Jacuzzi and panoramic views over the city and the Rhine.
The lounges, bars, restaurants and the Salon du Cigare were resplendent beyond belief, imbued with opulence and impeccable style dating back centuries.
As for gastronomy, three-starred Michelin Chef de Cuisine Peter Knogl and his team at the Cheval Blanc restaurant have earned a place among the 100 best restaurants in the world. Their many awards are proudly displayed for all to see.
Les Trois Rois Brasserie overlooking the Rhine.
Chez Donati, overlooking the Rhine, serves the finest Italian cuisine beneath stunning chandeliers from Murano. On the menu for lunch was mozzarella di bufala con pomodorini followed by melt-in-the mouth roast beef con salsa bernese, pommes allumettes e spinaci freschi and a trolley of delectable and decadent dolci. The pavlova-style dessert with toffee drizzled on the top was assolutamente delizioso. . .
Every Sunday, local gourmets gather at the hotel’s historic ballroom for an elegant brunch beneath an entire canopy of chandeliers. I made a mental note to inquire who cleaned those dazzling illuminators.
Had I been a connoisseur of cigars and whiskey, the cosy Salon du Cigare and bar overlooking the river would have been my late-night haven.
Breakfast at the Brasserie overlooking the curved elbow of the Rhine became a major event for me as opposed to a meal I would normal skip at home. Faced with a what-to-choose dilemma every morning, I heroically began by sampling a little of everything but eventually settled into a happy routine of croissants and French champagne . . . such a bubbly way to start the day.
On the day of my departure, I found it unusually hard to leave Les Trois Rois. I had become immersed in the heritage and history of this truly grand hotel. I lingered on my balcony deep in thought. Soon another guest would be leaning on the railing, gazing at the Rhine. I hoped they would also read about the history of this august establishment and appreciate the privilege of living in the past.
* The Grand Hotel Les Trois Rois is a member of The Leading Hotels of the World.
Blumenrain 8, 4001 Basel, Switzerland
Suite Les Trois Rois or for history buffs, the historic Napoleon Suite.
Most Indulgent Moment: The dessert trolley at Chez Donati . . . and my birthday treat.
Insider Secrets: The huge balcony of suite 117 overlooking the Rhine.
Junior Luxies: Not specifically catered for.
Dress code: Under ‘etiquette’ on Les Trois Rois’ website, there’s advice about choosing a wardrobe with ‘style and elegance’.
Justine Tyerman travelled courtesy of Switzerland Tourism and stayed at The Grand Hotel Les Trois Rois