Staying in hotels in the Alps: An introduction
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We all know city hotels, country hotels, maybe spa hotels, airport hotels, small hotels, chain hotels.. but what are hotels like in the European Alps?
Country by country
The Alps of course are vast and varied, especially so if we include the cities that surround the Alps. Zurich and Milan, Grenoble and Vienna! Hotel culture varies too. Our very favourite must be Austria, in what must be general terms.
Some cultures celebrate the traditional yet manage to keep it looking modern. Austria is one, at once rustic and tidy, perhaps the height of this style within the Alps when measured against even Switzerland. We find a lot of wood panelling in the dining rooms, lobbies and halls, well-constructed and maintained. Beside the panelling will be a new elevator in gleaming steel. A big element of Austrian hospitality is the stube or lounge where we eat breakfast and might gather in the evening. Tables will be large, circular, as if every party is 8 people, but usually generously provided so that singles and couples feel happy to take one table. The generosity and warmth as a whole adds up to a comfy experience.
When the German experience is traditional and Bavarian then it matches the Austrian experience, and we see this a lot in Garmisch-Partenkirchen and in Munich. Whether old or modern the German hotel tends to be quite neat and tidy, quite generous in terms of room sizes and breakfast provision, an altogether comfy and cosy time.
Switzerland as a crossroads of Europe, a little of everything, a place with less of a singular style, sometimes lacking any style (one might say) but nevertheless a favourite of ours to visit, is harder to pin down on its hotels. There are some surprisingly practical and unsympathetic hotels, some quite old and resolutely unmodernised for decades, where brown woven fabric and carpet tiles dominate. It will almost always be well-maintained and stylish in one way. It's usually quite interesting and modest. Swiss fittings like their buildings are built to last. In Switzerland there is certainly plenty of the traditional Austrian style of skilled decorative woodwork. We also see lots of new hotels, polished, offering super comfort without reference to the widespread rustic Swiss heritage. (We love Switzerland.)
Italy is so large and we find it harder to offer a single characterisation. In the Alpine areas we see wood, stone and plaster that combines to the Italian-Alpine style, and it can be done with great care and attention. In cities and generally, Italian hotel style is elaborate in a small-scale way, golden, glitzy, what we might think of in the UK as like a stately home.
French hotels encompass the Alpine style just as Austrian ones do, in the Alps and if the hotel has gone for this style. It can be modern and fitted out with plenty of wood and Alpine fabric, almost like a mountain hut, or it can be a 1970s hangover that is lovely and relaxed. There might be an eclectic mix of furnishings that might come together into a style, and this could be an approach from a practical motivation. This is found in French-speaking Switzerland as well. Plenty of hotels have gone all-out for modern refits.
Slovenian hotels include some very up-to-the-minute and large edifices that cater for large parties, down to their big dinner services and their neat, uniform rooms. There are earlier examples in a more Eastern style, again catering for numbers in a practical way. In the Alpine areas West of Bled we find the local farming influence in the hotel style, lots of wood, flowers and super warmth.
When is a hotel a hotel?
What is the relation among the terms hotel, guesthouse (gasthof) and auberge?
A hotel is a hotel as we know it everywhere and can be enormous and purpose-built or, common in Austria and Switzerland, one of the large residential buildings in the village that happens to be in use as a hotel.
A guesthouse (gasthof) is less formal, perhaps smaller. An auberge (or pension is a term used in France for a less formal hotel, or small hotel, one more likely to have shared bathrooms and a simpler breakfast service.
Much the normal arrangement is for your room to have its own bathroom, inside, for your own use ('ensuite'). Sometimes in older buildings some rooms will have bathrooms down the hall but for your sole use ('private but not ensuite') or even a bathroom shared by more than one room. Some buildings are historic, cannot reasonably be renovated to add ensuite bathrooms, and the experience is worth it; we advise our clients whenever we suggest a room that isn't ensuite.
One night in the Alps, Zermatt in fact, sticks in the mind because we were underwhelmend by the room but had our minds blown by the breakfast. We learnt to reserve judgement. This one was more varied than any we'd tried, pots and pots of seeds, nuts, extras for our cereal.. lots of pastries and breads and cheeses and fruit.
Across the Alps the base of a breakfast will be bread and coffee, and this applies to the most constrained breakfast service of all, the mountain huts. With bread comes butter, jams and then, almost always, some forms of cheese and meat. The hotel decides how elaborate to make the choices of jams, cheeses and meats. Some hotels go all-out and delve into local valleys' produce.
It is normal for there to be one large loaf on the go at once, cut by each person while holding the loaf with a cloth, and separate baskets of individual rolls. In Austria the semmel roll, spiral in form, is everywhere and very good for breakfast portions.
Over the years we have seen more and more coffee machines in use, which causes queuing if it's busy but which for the hotel takes a staff member out of the equation. Much better is to be asked at your table what you'd like, sometimes your main personal transaction of the morning. your coffee might come in a smart silver pot with a separate jug of milk. Tea is not as a Brit would know it, in the Alps, but there is usually a wide choice including fruit teas.
Perhaps at this point the Italian hotel breakfast has shown the greatest creative difference with much greater presence of biscuits and cakes.
Typically there will be plain yoghurt and a fruity yoghurt, or pots to choose from. It is possible to see breakfast as several small courses. The yoghurt often goes with the fruit on offer. There can be quite a range of fruit juice at some hotels.
If a hotel is trying for the upper levels of variety, and most Austrian ones do, then these basics will be just the start: there will be a form of cooked breakfast that imitates the British cooked breakfast with eggs, bacon, sausages, peraps roast potatoes and tomatoes. It is less common to see a fish dish other than perhaps some cold smoked salmon. One thing we've seen is an emphasis on an egg, largely by itself but cooked how you like, to give some homely oomph to an otherwise modest breakfast. A decision for a hotel is whether to offer hot things and a wide spread or whether to stick largely to a cold breakfast.
In any case, the arrangement is a buffet and once you've found a seat you go up as many times as you like. One can be fairly quick or one can languish with a book for 2 hours. A joy of the buffet is that there is not really one point at which you have finished and might think it's time to head off.
When dinner is included in a hotel it's referred to as demi-pension, half-pension or half-board, which is a funny term that makes sense once we factor in lunch.. lunch would be the full pension, but why would we have lunch in our hotel if we're walking in the day? Breakfast is a given and so to include dinner, or not, is the distinction. Not all hotels have a restaurant set up to run a dinner service, and indeed not all hotels wish to.
One special experience in the Alps is the nicely-run Austrian 4-star hotel that includes dinner, and here the dinner will be 3 or 4 courses to include a massive salad bar, soup, a main meal which will be large, and then dessert. The experience is paced well and can be quite relaxing, as choice is limited and you find yourself installed for the evening. You will then be given the same table for breakfast.
In some resorts like Zermatt, Weidach in Leutasch and generally the German side of the Alps, we find on a typical street a mix of restaurants-in-hotels an restaurants in their own right, and pubs, and takeaways, though these last two are less common than in the UK. As a very general rule when traveling we like to stay in one place and look forward to breakfast there, but to look widely in town for the best place for dinner.
When booking hotels for Alpine Exploratory trips, therefore, we prioritise the best hotels as hotels and we advise on places to find dinner. If we limited ourselves to those hotels that also offered dinner then we would miss out on the best hotels.
Let's say something about a particular side to the European hotel range, the 'wellness' or spa hotel. What does it mean? We find wellness hotels, as a term, in Austria in particular, a little in Switzerland. It means a pool, a spa, and an even more lavish breakfast. The focus of the hotel will be on exercise options for guests, who are assumed to be staying for multiple nights as opposed to one night and passing through. Therefore the wellness hotel is of lower extra benefit, perhaps, to a hiker on a through-hike, but can still offer huge comfort and some diversions. Often time does allow, and we can build in rest days to your schedule - please just ask us. The market as a whole, and parts of the Tyrol which cater to Germany as well as Austria are adept at this, is well developed for such fitness breaks.
One distinction that we keep in mind when staying in hotels, and we stay in a lot of hotels, is that between the historical architectural character of the building, on the one hand, and comfort and modernity of fittings on the other. Old versus new. Immediately we realise that this is one of many distinctions in play at once, of course. On the ground we find those hotels that have been fitted out to a very high standard of craftsmanship in the 1970s or 1980s, say, and which choose to keep that style and work within the confines. They might not look modern. Other hotels had misguided 1980s refurbishments that soon showed their age and fell by the wayside to 2000s or 2010s revamps, and many of these are quite special in terms of Alpine feel mixed with facilities. The odd timepiece to a high standard is an interesting thing, and over the course of a week or two on trek, one can experience a mix of approaches.
A separate consideration is the organisation and welcome of the team running the hotel, and this is our chief concern. Does the hotel feel welcoming.. are we expected, wanted and looked after, and will our clients feel at home too? Who else stays there; who is the hotel used to, and if it isn't busy at the time we stay (often June and September, quieter months) how will it feel when it's full?
Since Alpine Exploratory began in 2015 and we introduced our first routes, which were the Tour du Mont Blanc and the Julian Alps Hut-to-Hut, we have come to know some magnificent and charming Alpine hotels. They provide temporary homes in the valley for our hikers, who rely on them as they cross from village to village, relying on them in prospect as well as the actuality.
Would you like to know more?
Please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org to chat about the our various trails and their associated hotels, indeed to turn it around and chat first about our favourite Alpine hotels. We'll tell you what we've found on our travels.
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