The Taste With Vir: the difference between Indian and European palaces
One of the claims to fame of Indian tourism is the palace hotel. This is one of the reasons well-heeled foreign tourists come to India. They stay at the Lake Palace in Udaipur, one of the most spectacular hotels in the world. Or at the Rambagh Palace in Jaipur, a beautiful sprawling property.
Part of the charm of staying at these hotels is that guests can recreate the era of the Maharajas. Rambagh Palace features in A Princess Remembers by Gayatri Devi. This is where she lived with her glamorous husband, the late Maharaja Sawai Man Singh (“Jai”). At Umaid Bhawan in Jodhpur, the Maharaja is still in residence (in a separate wing of the hotel). And since around 1992, Rajasthan has been dotted with hotels that were once castles, forts and palaces, all owned by princes and thakurs. They don’t have the glamor of grand palaces. But they offer a link with the time of the princes.
All of this leads Indians to believe that we are the only country to offer a historic palace experience.
Well, we are. And we are not.
We had maharajas until 1969 (when Indira Gandhi stripped them of their titles), so the connection to royal families is relatively recent and often exaggerated. For example, in Udaipur, the Lake Palace is owned by Arvind Singh, a member of the royal family. But even other hotels that have nothing to do with Arvind’s sprawling property empire, play a connection to Udaipur’s royal family to remind guests of Maharaja-era associations.
The problem is that while our palaces have royal ties (and usually royal ownership), they aren’t particularly historic. The British-designed Rambagh was built in the 1920s and is less a Rajput palace and more a Rajasthani version of Downton Abbey. Umaid Bhawan in Jodhpur was commissioned by Maharaja Umaid Singh in 1929 and not completed until the 1940s. Falaknuma Palace in Hyderabad was never a palace, but a 20th century residence which was used as a guest house by the Nizam. The style is typically European. The Lake Palace has a history. But it was originally a small structure that doubled in size with new construction when the Taj group took over in the 1970s.
(Also read | The Taste With Vir: Visiting Australia? Don’t go there just for the food)
So, as magnificent places to stay, Indian palaces are unmatched. But no, they are not particularly historical. They were built or rebuilt in the 20th century and the overwhelming influence in many palaces comes from the British raj or European country houses.
In fact, there are much older (and extremely luxurious) historic hotels in Europe. Some are part of real palaces. (You can now stay at a hotel that’s part of the Versailles complex, once home to the Sun King of France.) And others are residences of nobles dating back to the Middle Ages or, at the very least, dating back centuries.
It took me a while to get used to the idea of European palaces, but now I am actively looking for medieval palaces (or palazzos as the Italians call them) or converted medieval monasteries. They are as expensive, compared to the rates of hotels in their country, as the palaces in India. But if you like history, architecture and art, they are simply magnificent.
In my experience, Italy has the best European-style palaces. A few years ago I stayed at the Gritti Palace, generally considered one of the two best hotels in Venice (the Cipriani, on an island close to the city, is the other) and I was surprised, no only by the level of understated luxury, but also by its history and art and architecture.
It was the private residence of the Doge (sort of elected king) of Venice in the 16th century and became a hotel in 1895. Throughout my stay I was aware that the canal-facing room I was staying in had at less than 500 years old. (To put it into context, the palace was built 250 years before the Battle of Plassey, before the start of the British Raj, at a time when many Rajput states did not exist.)
I was lucky last week to come across another wonderfully historic hotel, Palazzo San Domenico in Taormina, Sicily. Like many Italian palaces, it has a complicated history.
In 1435, before the creation of the country we now call Italy (and even before the future Mughal Emperor Babar was born), the property was built as a fortress by a powerful noble called Baron Damiano Rosso. Later, after finding God, Rosso donated the fortress to a wealthy order of Dominican monks. They ran it as one of the most luxurious monasteries in the region, buying great art, drinking great wine, and enjoying great food. All went well until Giuseppe Garibaldi unified (or created, depending on your point of view) Italy at the end of the 19th century. The Garibaldi regime took over all the (very rich) monasteries. But the Dominican monks argued that there was a clause in Rosso’s will (by which the original bequest was made centuries ago), which said that if the Dominicans lost control of the property, it would revert owned by the Rosso family.
After a long battle, the descendants of the Rossos recovered the property and in 1896 they began to transform it into a hotel. For over a century it was Sicily’s most glamorous hotel, hosting the world’s jet set and Hollywood celebrities such as Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor as well as heads of state: it hosted a G summit -7 in 2017.
Eventually it started to look a little tired, so the Four Seasons took over, closed the hotel and lovingly restored the property (in a way that preserved its history) so that it was once again the one of the great historic hotels in the world.
A major difference between European palaces and ours is that while Indian hotels play up the luxurious lifestyle of the Maharajas, European hotels take luxury for granted. Rather, they focus on the story. At Palazzo San Domenico, I was reminded at every turn that there were centuries of history in the hotel.
The cloisters, where monks gathered for contemplation, have been refreshed but retain a calm and reverent air. The beautiful garden that stretches down to the sea has been replanted with 50 varieties of citrus fruits (the smell fills the air even before you see the garden) but you can easily imagine what it was like when the fortress of origin looked fiercely towards the sea. There is still the old chapel (it was a monastery, after all) with its bell tower. And the art, mostly serious museum-quality work, is inspired by the monastery’s collection of paintings (not all religiously themed). There’s also a reverence for antique furniture that Indian hotels simply don’t have: There’s almost no historical furniture in our hotels. An entire room in Palazzo San Domenico is dominated by a centuries-old double-sided desk where the monks used to sit. There are chairs that date back hundreds of years.
So, if Italians (and other Europeans) can do it, why can’t we? Why do our palaces only celebrate the hedonistic lifestyle of the Maharajas with so little attention to art and history?
Some of them, I guess, are unavoidable. Our palaces do not have centuries of history behind them. Most of the palaces are located in structures so new that even the Taj Mahal Hotel in Mumbai is much older. Many Maharajas (if not most) became obedient vassals of the British and only sought to imitate them. Hence the English gardens, Palladian architecture and country house style of many of our palaces. They weren’t designed to do much more than satisfy the maharajas in the style their British masters had accustomed them to. Even the Lake Palace, parts of which are genuinely old, was not built as a residence but as a small pleasure palace where the Maharaja could enjoy himself.
Which is a shame. Any hotel with a historical connection shouldn’t be so one-dimensional. On this point at least, the Europeans are right.
And I often wonder: don’t we have historic buildings that we can turn into hotels that showcase art and history? Surely we must have some who can do more than just offer a taste of princely luxury?