It’s saying something when a hotel has its own brand of chocolate. And a Swiss hotel at that. But when you’ve reached the pinnacle of hospitality, there’s little more one can add as a guest offering. Staying at the Baur-au-Lac in Zurich is not, simply, about competing with the best in the world, it doesn’t have to. Like all the great, long-established, family-run hotels it becomes a privilege to count oneself as having the opportunity to set foot over their hallowed threshold. And to do it in the run up to Christmas, well, there’s probably few better ways to get festive than spending the weekend in Zurich, bundled up against the mist off the lake, sipping gluhwein at one of the many Christmas markets, and returning to the warmth and comfort of the Baur.
Its position sets it apart. But then if you’d had an opportunity to pick a spot in Zurich to open a hotel some 170 years ago, you couldn’t get any better. It is, as its name suggests, ‘on the lake’, though set back somewhat to accommodate its landscaped garden (although views are limited unless you’re staying in one of the lake view suites) but one can’t fault breakfast from the rotunda in The Pavilion, swans gliding past on the adjacent Schanzegraben canal and the sun lighting up the sky over the alps in the distance.
As grand as it may seem, it’s surprisingly discreet. Neither prominently ‘on the lake’ as its name would suggest, nor occupying a position on a square, hilltop or high street, its facade is really only glimpsed through the landscape garden on the lakeside and its entrance tucked away down the otherwise unremarkable Tallestrasse. But then sophistication rarely screams ostentation. Take the Lalique store a block away, for example.
Position aside, it’s easy to see why it soon became the definitive destination for Europe’s elite. The fabric of the hotel has remained little-changed since its inception; rooms still feature adjoining doors, the walls and windows have given little opportunity for any major reconfigurement which means you’re staying in a room as a guest might have done since the mid-19th century. Johannes Baur’s success allowed him to keep the building at a constant state of perfection, something they still maintain today; an army of in-house staff ensures there’s no sign of wear throughout the building. It’s a standard exemplified by the 5mCHF spent on renovating the lobby lounge alone.
To step through the Baur au Lac is to practically step back in time, to a Europe amid fin de siècle elegance. Beautifully-carved wood panelling, Italian marble floor, ornately-embroidered tapestries and 19th century portraiture adorning the walls, even the lobby gift shop feels a throwback to the period. I feel like I could pick up a newspaper with a headline announcing the news of Franz Ferdinand’s assassination.
There’s little fantasizing to be had, though, when there’s such a rich history to soak up; ensconced in gorgeous art and sublime furnishings in Le Hall, over an aperitif I learn in whose company I’m sitting; Russian Tsarinas, German Emperors, the leading artists of the age, my heart skips a beat when I learn I’m sat where Richard Wagner gave an impromptu rendition, singing himself, of the first act of Valkyrie, with his father-in-law on the piano. Not so remarkable, perhaps, until you learn that his father-in-law was one Franz Liszt. And if we needed any convincing of the irony of history, for all the leading statesmen and leaders of the day who’ve stayed, many of whom likely participating, if not inciting, much of the conflict of the era, it was here that a German Baronness convinced one Alfred Nobel that he should fund a system for celebrating peace.
There is, then, atmosphere in spades at the Baur-au-Lac. But the atmosphere we’re enjoying is festive. Zurich is a terrific spot for Christmas markets. Often overlooked in favour of German destinations, it feels like our secret. Chief among Zurich’s markets is the Wienachtsdorf, the ‘Christmas Village’, on the lake (naturally) in front of the opera house. This being Swiss, it bears all the hallmarks of the classic German tradition, but with an air of sophistication. Glühwein and bratwurst aside, browsing the 100-plus stalls is more reminiscent of a saunter down the Kings Road than a bundle in Borough Market.
It’s a delightful way to get into the spirit of things, and certainly ahead of dinner at Chalet au Lac. If it wasn’t getting festive enough, with carol concerts and Christmas menus, this December the terrace at the hotel has been converted into a Swiss chalet. A cup of ‘fire tongs’ punch sets off proceedings before a three-course menu to upstage any self-respecting alpine eaterie. If Zurich can pimp Christmas markets, then the Chalet au Lac just upped the ante on the Swiss classics. Pates and charcuteries aside, starters include a lamb’s lettuce mimosa, the fondue turns Chinois, raclette is given the five star treatment and their pears poached in cinnamon and star anise are dressed with the hotel’s own 1844 chocolate (what else?).
Returning to our room, there are precious few hours left in Zurich before the return to Blighty, and the onslaught of Christmas proper. We take a moment to savour our surroundings; cosy, yet spacious, it’s that immaculate, that pristine, that I’m almost reluctant to touch anything. With the possible exception of the mini-bar – it’s complimentary, a rarity in any hotel – but the fire tongs still beat in my chest. Rather, we settle our little one in her cot (itself given a ‘turn-down’ service) and I draw the curtains, the water in the canal below shimmering in the lamplight, closing out a fabulous, festive weekend in Zurich.
For more information on the Baur-au-Lac, including details of Christmas and New Year offers, packages and their VIP service, visit www.bauraulac.ch.