‘I do not skate — but then nor do I ski, and that doesn’t stop me deriving great spiritual comfort from the Palace hotel in Gstaad’
Like many people in the metropolis, I find that life in the capital of the world is at times overwhelming. Also like many, I find that I am travelling more frequently. And alas, in common with most people I know, I am not as much of a churchgoer as I once was. But there is no denying that I miss the ritual of organised religious observance, and the odd funeral, memorial or carol service is no real substitute. If you are a regular church worshipper, now is the time to turn the page as, while I have the greatest affection for the Church of England, you might find what I am about to say rather offensive… but I have found that some of that elusive peace of mind resides in the rituals of hotel life.
This realisation dawned upon me this summer as I stayed in the Alfonso XIII in Seville and I got used to the rhythm of life there: the heat, the pulling across of the awnings that shield the central courtyard from the sun during the hottest part of the day and the pulling-back of the same awnings when the fiercest part of the day is past.
It is not a big thing, but I imagine it happens every day during the summer and I took a strange comfort from knowing that this banal activity was taking place at more or less the same time every day, even when I was back in the damp island to the north that I call home.
But before I left it also struck me at the Marbella Club: every summer’s day (and summer lasts a long time in Marbella) for almost 60 years at this hour, something more or less the same has been happening on that very spot: the sun beginning to descend, the Concha mountain standing serenely as backdrop… if I did not know better I would have said that I was experiencing a moment of spiritual epiphany. It does not matter if I am actually going for dinner or not, I am just glad that it is all taking place as and when it should, just as it has in the past and will in the future.
It came again when, back in Marbella for a day or two, I sat down to my last grilled sardines of the year at the Marbella Club chiringuito, a charming beach restaurant that closed for the year that September day. I was able to banish the sadness attendant on such definitive evidence of the end of summer with the words ‘See you next year’. A short but powerful prayer, pregnant with that implicit understanding that it will all be the same again next year, and the year after that.
The thing is, hotels are living organs of continuity. Not all hotels of course boast this palliative effect — it takes years for that patina of repetitive action to build in intensity — but when it does it can be powerful in that it somehow links one to something greater than oneself.
We’ll always have Paris
This year I will miss one of my favourite hivernal happenings: the transformation of the inner courtyard of the Plaza Athénée in Paris into a an ice rink, because the hotel will be closing for a refurb and enlargement. Likewise, I am sure that when the Plaza is put back together again its rituals will resume as if uninterrupted: Havanas on the little cigar terrace on the Avenue Montaigne in the summer and ice skating in the courtyard in winter.
Of course I do not skate — but then nor do I ski, and that doesn’t stop me deriving great spiritual comfort from the Palace hotel in Gstaad, which marks its 100th anniversary this year and where I imagine many Spear’s readers will be taking up residence when the first flakes of winter snow begin to settle. Like the Marbella Club it is family-owned and run, and I get the same sense of quiet satisfaction watching the staff putting out the bottles of champagne on the tables in the lobby, with its high-backed armchairs, in advance of the nocturnal parade of standing-room-only glamour.
The men, the women, the watches, the jewellery, the blazer buttons and the vintages of the champagne will of course all change, but the overall impression for each hotel is that they remain the same, rendered immutable and impervious to the ravages of time thanks to the theatrical magic of hotelkeeping.
And I suppose it is things that do not change, or at least things that change so imperceptibly that we can barely perceive them altering, that dull intimations of one’s own mortality. It is quite strange to think that one of the greatest suppliers of permanence in my life at the moment is the axiomatically transient environment of the hotel.