Saturday, 27 June 2020
A lockdown ‘virtual
tour’ of a dozen
more favourite hotels
Now that it looks like ‘bridges’ are about to be introduced, allowing safe travel between some EU member states that have similar responses to the Covid-19 pandemic, I am beginning to think that my planned holiday back in Greece at the end of summer may yet be a possibility.
I was saying this morning that there are some hotels that I would stay in just for own sake, and at the top of my list was the Ferrycarrig Hotel in Wexford.
But there are some hotels outside Ireland that I would return to anytime, just because of the hotels themselves. In particular, these include the Hedgehog in Lichfield, Las Casas de la Judería in Seville, and the Pepi Boutique Hotel in Rethymnon.
So, if you’re still planning or dreaming about a summer holiday – this year, or perhaps next year – these are a dozen of my favourite hotels in Britain and Europe.
1, The Hedgehog, Lichfield:
I have stayed in many places in Lichfield over the last five decades or more, from youth hostels to guest houses, pubs, a variety of hotels, and in friends’ homes. But in recent years, I have tended to stay in the Hedgehog Vintage Inn on Stafford Road.
From here, it is just a 15-minutes stroll along Beacon Street into Lichfield Street, and the rural setting of this boutique hotel on the edges of the cathedral city make it conducive for my personal retreats, for time I need for reflection and writing, and for meeting friends. The food and the welcome here are always worth returning for.
This house was built as Lyncroft House in 1797. A few decades later, the house was home to Muzio Clementi (1752-1832), a celebrated composer, piano-maker, conductor and music publisher. Lyncroft House later became the home of the Revd Henry Gylby Lonsdale (1791-1851) when he was Vicar of Saint Mary’s Church, Lichfield, in the 1830s.
The house has been beautifully restored in recent years, and a recent refurbishment was completed in March, just days before the lockdown. I was due to stay here at the end of March, but the lockdown put an end to those plans. The Hedgehog stands in its own grounds, with large gardens and commanding views across Lichfield and the Staffordshire countryside. After a long, three-month lockdown, the Hedgehog is reopening on Saturday 4 July.
2, Las Casas de la Judería, Seville:
Las Casas de la Judería is in the historical centre of Seville and part of the city’s old Jewish Quarter, on the edge of the Barrio Santa Cruz. Inside, the hotel is paradise of its own making, another world away from the city.
This is a collection of 27 different 15th century traditional houses. They appear to have been assembled randomly, but they have been restored to reflect the atmosphere of the surrounding neighbourhood. There are baroque influences, and rustic charms in this self-contained barrio with a variety of buildings, courtyards, alleyways, overhanging balconies, gardens and terraces.
The 40 patios are typical Andalusian courtyards and ooze with vibrant colour, with hanging baskets, fountains, frescoes and classical features. We moved through the hotel, from one courtyard to the next, one garden to the next, through a lair of labyrinthine tunnels, steps and arched passageways, often to the sound of water dripping from a tap or fountain that was heard but not seen.
There are surprises everywhere in these courtyard and tunnels. Fountains, statues and Roman amphoras decorate the winding passageways linking the rooms and shared open spaces. A Roman tunnel connects the rooms with the breakfast room and spas. At times, we criss-crossed the narrow streets and alleyways of Seville itself, yet still found ourselves in the hotel.
The hotel has 178 rooms, individually designed and decorated, each with its own unique touch, filled with history and character, and facing into beautiful cool courtyards filled with plants.
Some of the rooms have names that are reminders of the people said to have lived in these houses down through the centuries: Duke of Bejar, Count of Villamanrique, Casa del Cura … one room is named after Christopher Columbus, who is buried in Seville Cathedral.
Some of the names are a reminder that this was the heart of the Jewish Quarter before the Inquisition … Casa de Mose Bahari … or an intricate Star of David interlaced in the woodwork of a door.
3, Pepi Hotel, Tsouderon Stree, Rethymnon:
I have returned time and again to Rethymnon, a charming old Venetian town on the north coast of Crete since the mid-1980s, so that after 35 years I feel at home in Greece, and Rethymnon has become my home town in Crete.
I have stayed in a variety of paces in Rethymnon, from private apartments, to rooms over bars, crumbling old hotels like the Acheillion and large hotels. For the past five years, I have stayed out in the eastern suburbs of Rethymnon, in the villages of Platanias and Tesmes, and this is the first in many that I have not been able to get to Crete. Should I ever stay in the heart of Rethymnon again, I would want to stay in the Pepi Boutique Hotel in the heart of the old town.
Pepi is just a few minutes away from the harbour, the restaurants, the Fortezza and the historic sites in Rethymnon and less than ten minutes from the long sandy beach. Behind the gardens around the pool, you can see the library behind Aghia Barbara Church, and the minaret of the former Valide Sulana Mosque juts up above the roofs of the shops and houses to the south.
This building was once one of Europe’s oldest public primary schools for boys and girls, known as Athena. The building has been in the same family since the 19th century, when the headmistress of Athena, Amalia retired, the school closed, and the silent, empty building and its overgrown gardens were sold to the grandfather of the present owners, Sifis (Iosif), who started a cotton and silk business.
His son George opened Pepi Studios in 1986 and named it in honour of his wife. Sifis, and Manos, the younger generation of the family, decided to the transform Pepi Studios in 2009, and it became the Pepi Boutique Hotel.
4,The Electra Palace Hotel, Aristotelous Square, Thessaloniki:
Aristotelous Square is the main square in the heart of Thessaloniki, and like the White Tower it is virtually synonymous with the city itself. It is a venue for many cultural and political events, and is lined with hotels, cafés and bars.
The two quarter-circle sides of the square are occupied by two culturally important and imposing buildings: the Electra Palace Hotel, where I stayed once while I was travelling to and from Mount Athos, and the Olympion Theatre cinema, the venue of the annual Thessaloniki International Film Festival.
The square was designed over 100 years ago in 1918 by the French architect, archaeologist and urban planner Ernest Hébrard (1875-1933), who proposed a number of large squares in Thessaloniki, including Aristotelous Square, which he planned to name after Alexander the Great.
His vision was for a monumental axis for Thessaloniki, stretching from Aristotelous Square on the seafront to Venizelou Square and the Roman Forum. He wanted to name this axis after Alexander the Great, and to transform this into a city with boulevards and contemporary roadways, squares and parks.
I have been back to Thessaloniki many times since, and although I have stayed in other hotels, I always appreciate the way Hébrard integrated the Electra Palace Hotel into his plans and vision for a new, vibrant, post-earthquake city.
5, The Macan CaveHotel, Göreme:
I spent Easter week some years ago in Cappadocia in Central Anatolia, an area of ancient Christian, archaeological and geological heritage. This is a region of exceptional natural wonders on central Turkey, known for its ‘fairy chimneys’ and its unique historical and cultural heritage.
I was staying in the Maccan Cave Hotel in Göreme, a cave hotel with traditional décor in the arched rooms and a garden and a rooftop terrace with panoramic city views.
The hotel takes its name from one of the ancient names for Göreme (Greek Κόραμα). In the past, the town has also been known as Korama, Matiana, Maccan or Machan, and Avcilar.
The Göreme National Park was added to the Unesco World Heritage List in 1985, and when the Göreme Valley nearby was designated an important tourist destination and a centre for tourism in Cappadocia, the name of the town was changed to Göreme.
6, Al Capello Rosso Hotel, Bologna:
The Al Cappello Rosso Hotel, where I celebrated some important family occasions at the end of 2017, was first built in 1375 and is one of the oldest hotels in Bologna. It is in the cultural and historical heart of in Bologna, just 50 metres from the Piazza Maggiore, and with wonderful views of the old city.
The hotel is in the central but secluded Via Fusari and boasts an interesting history. The first documents trace this hotel back to 1375, and it welcomed the first ‘foreigners’ passing through the city in the 14th century.
Advertising in the late 19th and early 20th century boasts this ‘ancient and renowned hotel-restaurant Cappello’ offers guests ‘elegant rooms from 1.50 lire, with electric light, telephone, radiators, toilets and showers’ – all modern comforts at the time. The hotel also had a banqueting hall, home cooking, wines from Romagna, Tuscany and Piedmont, and ‘the real lambrusco from Sorbara,’ all at ‘moderate prices.’
The hotel was recently renovated in 2001, and it was an ideal place to explore the monuments, markets, shops, mediaeval streets and hidden corners of Bologna on foot.
7, Palazzetto San Lio, Venice:
I had often visited Venice on day trips, but I stayed there for the first time at the end of 2018, staying at the Palazzetto San Lio in the heart of Venice, between the Rialto Bridge and Saint Mark’s Square. It is at the end Calle del Frutariol in the sestiere or district of Castello, and just a stone’s throw from Rialto and the Grand Canal.
Palazzetto San Lio is a small but splendid Venetian palace built in the 17th and 18th centuries. It is owned by an old Venetian family that for generations has been committed to keeping alive the traditional splendour of the palace and its Venetian style. All the apartments have canal views, and they are furnished with Venetian antique furniture, Murano chandeliers and upholstered walls in the grand Venetian style.
The careful restoration of the building’s exterior last year has given new life to the external façades, while maintaining the original architectural features.
One of the surprises and unexpected joys of staying in the Palazzetto San Lio was an invitation to enjoy our own ‘small private cellar with a selection of our finest wines.’
The family that owns this small palace also owns its own vineyard on the banks of the River Piave, just outside Venice, where they have been producing their own fine DOC wines since 1925.
8, Arcadia Boutique Hotel, Frantiskanska Street, Bratislava:
I spent a few days in Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia, last November, celebrating some landmark dates in the family, and stayed in the Arcadia Boutique Hotel on Frantiskanska Street, in the heart of the old city.
It is close in the old town this afternoon, and the attractions on the doorstep include Saint Martin’s Cathedral, Gothic churches, palaces and castles, the Museum of Jewish Culture, the banks of the River Danube and the other sites that make Bratislava a charming European capital.
During the Third Crusade (1189-1192), it is said, the Emperor Frederick Barbarossa stayed at a building on the site of this hotel. The hotel building claims to date back to 1290, with memories than date back seven or eight centuries, housed in mediaeval buildings that have been transformed into a romantic hotel, but retaining its vaults, old ceilings and winding corridors.
Evidence of a Celtic settlement in the area in the 3rd century BC has been found in the cellar, archaeological research has revealed indications of a Roman settlement at the site, and objects from the 12th and 13th centuries have been found in the hotel grounds. Inside, the building retains fine works in wrought iron from the Renaissance, Baroque and Classicism eras.
The building served as the headquarters of the Hussite movement in Bratislava in 1432. As a legacy from that time, a chalice as the symbol of the Hussites was carved in stone into one of the arcades in the building.
The hotel’s cellar, now used as a wellness area, is the oldest part of the building and has a fine example of Gothic vaults. On the first floor, there are examples of late-Gothic wall ornaments and stone window frames. The arcades in the central courtyard area that now forms the hotel’s lobby area are among the finest examples of Renaissance architecture in Slovakia. The Renaissance-era vaulted ceiling in the cocktail bar is decorated with Baroque ornaments.
9, Varvaras Diamond Hotel, Platanias:
In recent years, during my return visits to Rethymnon, I have stayed in the suburban villages of Platanias and Tsesmes, about 5 km east of this old Venetian harbour city, and close to the long, sandy beach. Although the pandemic cancelled my plans to spend Greek Easter in Crete this year, over the last five years or I have stayed in a variety of apartments and hotels in Platanias and Tsesmes, including Julia Apartments, La Stella, and the Varvaras Diamond Hotel, which is set in a quiet corner on a leafy, flower-filled street that leads to the beach.
All these hotels are close to restaurants, tavernas and shops, yet in a quiet, laid-back area. The Varvaras Diamond Hotel, a family-run hotel owned by the Kantartzis family, was built in 2001 and is surrounded by evergreen trees and gardens with palm trees, colourful plants and flowers.
From my balcony there that Easter two years ago, I was looking out onto lemon trees with the fruits in full bloom. It was late May and early June – the beginning of summer.
During those two weeks, I spent time in a monastery, visited icon workshops, browsed in bookshops, swam in the Mediterranean, rambles around archaeological sites, sought out churches and buildings of architectural and historical interest, looked for old mosques, synagogues, hanging balconies and fountains in the former Muslim and Jewish quarters of Rethymnon and Chania, got lost in the back streets of both cities, found time to read poetry, novels, history and newspapers, enjoyed long lazy lunches in the sun and dinners in the sunset, tried to get up to speed with Greek politics and even brushed up on my rusty and limited knowledge of the Greek language.
10, Syntagma Square, Athens:
I have often visited Athens both for work and for family breaks. Sometimes I have stayed in Air B&B apartments, on other occasions in small but comfortable hotels.
On one occasion I had lunch in the Grande Bretagne Hotel on Syntagma Square – the most famous hotel in Athens. And on another working visit I was booked into the Athens Plaza Hotel, on another corner of Syntagma Square, in a room with stunning panoramic views of Athens and the Acropolis.
On two occasions I have also stayed at the Acropolis View Hotel at No 10 Webster Street, and close to Dionysiou Areopagitou Street, one of the most beautiful pedestrian streets of Athens, and close to the Acropolis rock.
I was close to Filopappou Hill, the Pnyx, the Odeon of Herodes Atticus, and all the other major classical sites in Athens.
11, Penn Club, London:
The Penn Club in Bedford Place … an oasis of tranquillity in Bloomsbury (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
I first stayed in an hotel in Britain in 1965, I have stayed in a variety of places in England, from youth hostels, monasteries and rectories to friends’ homes, Cambridge and Oxford colleges and hotels. I stayed in two different hotels in London in recent months, but my favourite place to stay in London is not an hotel but the Penn Club in the heart of Bloomsbury.
The Penn Club is a quiet place in Bedford Place off Russell Square, and the accommodation is plain rather than simple. At times, I have had a room at the back overlooking the gardens that back onto Museum Street at the side the British Museum.
The club is housed in three inter-linking Georgian terrace houses built in the 1800s. Russell Square, a pleasant green space with shady trees, a café and a beautiful fountain in the centre, is just a few steps from the Penn Club, as are Tavistock Square with its Gandhi memorial and peace monuments, and tiny Bloomsbury Square. The club is also close to London University, the British Museum, the British Library, and Covent Garden and the West End theatres.
The Penn Club was established by Quakers in 1920 with funds left over from the Friends Ambulance Unit, which was active during World War I. The club continues to have connections with Quakers throughout Britain and world-wide, and maintains traditional Quaker values of integrity, equality, tolerance and simplicity, honesty and fairness in all its dealings. The value Quakers place on silence means there is no television in the rooms, and all mobile phones were switched off during breakfast this morning.
12, Hotel Franklin Feel the Sound, Via Rodi, Rome:
When I was last in Rome three years ago, I stayed at the Hotel Franklin Feel the Sound on Via Rodi.
The hotel is in Rome’s elegant Prati district, between the Vatican walls and Piazza Mazzini. I was just a few steps from the Vatican and the Sistine Chapel, which meant I could walk to Saint Peter’s Basilica and Castel Sant’ Angelo in just minutes.
The hotel is part of the Best Western Group, and – as you can imagine, with a name like that – it is a music-themed hotel. The nearby metro stops at Ottaviano and Cipro-Vatican Museums, and Ottaviano is on line A, the same line as the Spanish Steps and Termini Train Station.
Prati is known for its wide, sweeping avenues, elegant buildings, and modern European charm. The grid layout and its elegant ‘Art Nouveau’ and ‘Umbertino’ style give Prati a unique personality, so that it has a distinct personality and a style reminiscent more of a quartier in Paris than a former marshland in Rome.
There are many other hotels and favourite places to stay I could mention, from hotels in the Peloponnese and other Greek islands, to hotels in Turkey, the Middle East and the Far East … including the spectacular Fuji View in Japan that I promised to return to when I was there in 1979.
But that’s another story. Let’s hope we can all travel again, safely and soon.
Some recent ‘virtual tours’:
A dozen hotels in Ireland.
A dozen buildings in Tamworth (Part 1);
A dozen buildings in Tamworth (Part 2);
More than a dozen Comberford family homes;
More than a dozen Comerford and Quemerford family homes;
A dozen Wren churches in London;
Ten former Wren churches in London;
More than a dozen churches in Lichfield;
More than a dozen pubs in Lichfield;
A dozen former pubs in Lichfield;
A dozen churches in Rethymnon;
A dozen restaurants in Rethymnon;
A dozen churches in other parts of Crete;
A dozen monasteries in Crete;
A dozen sites on Mount Athos;
A dozen historic sites in Athens;
A dozen historic sites in Thessaloniki;
A dozen churches in Thessaloniki;
A dozen Jewish sites in Thessaloniki.
A dozen churches in Cambridge;
A dozen college chapels in Cambridge;
A dozen Irish islands;
A dozen churches in Corfu;
A dozen churches in Venice.
A dozen churches in Rome.
A dozen churches in Bologna;
A dozen churches in Tuscany.