Boy am I glad my job isn’t being the glass cleaner at the Four Seasons Gresham Palace in Budapest. The hotel’s stunningly sensual Art Nouveau stained glass, crystal chandeliers and even the hand-made glazed tiles on its walls must need constant polishing to keep them so brilliantly shiny.
Fortunately, for all its opulence, this is the Grand Budapest Hotel without the pretension you might associate with a place that dates back to central Europe in the days of archdukes.
The welcome I receive is just as brilliant as the decor. The bellman has already taken my bags from the trunk by the time I get out of my cab, and from there on everyone addresses me by name. It’s obviously a trick they perfect by reading the tags on luggage, but it’s one of many personal touches that make a stay at this hotel more like being a welcomed guest at a family home.
And what a home it is. The lobby is lit by a huge leaded glass dome as well as an elaborate chandelier made of thousands of pieces of frosted glass.
The Gresham Palace’s artistic ceilings and beautifully tiled walls have made this a Budapest showplace for a century and all around me, people are snapping photos.
But far from being a museum of the past, a stay at the palace demonstrates that the hotel built on a foundation of Imperial Hungary’s etiquette, manners and cuisine has received a boost from the energy and friendliness that comes with being managed by Canada-based Four Seasons Hotels.
Every room in this hotel has ceilings at least 15-feet tall and our walls are stenciled with Art Nouveau tracings of vines.
But the view out the windows is even more distracting. After being shown to our fourth-floor suite, my wife and I couldn’t help but open the drapes on a wall of windows to take in the stunning Danube river view.
The hotel is just one of the landmarks of this stretch of the Danube that’s lined with spectacular classical buildings. It stands atop a landscaped hill just above Budapest’s Chain Bridge, which locals say with pride is as recognizable as Paris’ Eiffel Tower.
Conveniently, alongside the bridge is the dock where my Viking River Cruise will begin. I could literally roll my bags from the hotel to the ship if I chose to.
Across the river is Castle Hill with its wedding cake Royal Palace and Matthias Church. Go left out the front door and you’re heading for the pedestrian street that ends at the classic Central Market. Go right and you’re on a riverside promenade that leads to the spectacularly ornate Hungarian Parliament.
After settling in, we could have taken in a classic Old World experience of having afternoon tea in the café served in hand-painted Herend China.
But Budapest is known for its spas, and I needed to only go up a flight of stairs to the Gresham’s spa for a restorative soak to recover from my flight and lounge in one of the plush robes that are specially made for Four Seasons.
Speaking with the staff I found the Gresham wasn’t originally a royal palace, but rather a palace of commerce.
The Gresham Life Assurance Co. was obviously doing a lucrative business when they built this showplace on the grounds of a former imperial palace from the 1820s. Not only did they create a palatial corporate headquarters but also added grand apartments on top for the senior executives on one of the most coveted pieces of real estate along the Danube.
At cocktail time, the Gresham bar’s drinks menu is so extensive that I asked the bartender for suggestions. He was happy to demonstrate mixing the local specialties, including the inevitable paprikash, made with vodka, chili pepper and apricot juice and one made with elderflowers and honey.
If I’d wanted a nightcap, there was also one made with vodka, chocolate and ricotta cream. That’s for another day.
We were heading to the Gresham dining room, a space with coffered ceilings, crystal lamps and floor to ceiling windows that by day is the epitome of European coffee house and by night is a window on the elaborately lit Danube shoreline.
We ordered duck, a house specialty and discovered that the chefs have a technique of roasting the meat first in a vacuum-sealed bag and then searing it. The process is the opposite of what I’ve learned in the past but the result was the tenderest duck we’ve ever experienced.
Ready to settle in, the good night amenities on the pillows are fresh baked, hand-decorated gingerbread cookies. Double sets of terrace doors offer total sound protection and there is thankfully no mechanical noise inside the room either. And the beds feature another Four Seasons specialty: the most comfortable mattresses anywhere.
My verdict: There may be other hotels in Budapest for less, but to experience the charm, style and comfort of Budapest, stay at the Gresham.
I put out a card I found on the door that reads: Psszt….Shhtt.
I really do hope that means “do not disturb.”