This is not a cliché.

December 2017

01 December 2017

Once the Grand Hotel, now just big hotels

The flying women, new to the skies in the twenties, were the symbol of liberty and independence
How has it been possible to pass from the Grand Hotels of yesteryear to the bland big hotels of nowadays? Is this the type of tourism we want? 
It is as if I am travelling back in time: I am staying in one of the Grand Hotels from the twenties, in one of those fascinating palace style buildings which symbolise a mood of romance and intrigue – stories of people who met, love stories which blossomed, an aristocracy also in full bloom, able to permit themselves an excess of luxury. Monsieur Cesar Ritz was the first to really succeed in pushing the boundaries of an indulgent hotel concept. And then it was to develop in Italy with supremely recognisable liberty style as portrayed in the examples of Chini, ‘Gran Hotel’ at Rimini and Sorrento, at Santa Margherita Ligure and at Villa d’Este, not to forget Venice and Rome. Today they remain as outstanding buildings, surrounded however by a drab urban reality.
And here I am at Montecatini, Terme del Tettuccio. How much wonder there is here in a semi-open enclosed space: in the twenties the spa towns were reinvented following a concept much to do with Roman times. On entering one is met by statues representing Water, Medicine, Health and Hygiene. The principal feature however remains the sculpted fountains with diverse figures tempting the visitor to focus on wellbeing and the benefits of the health-giving waters. It is not difficult to close one’s eyes and imagine those times of almost a century ago and picture the well-to-do folk pampering themselves and making the most of the magical waters available to them. The ladies of course were principal protagonists, enjoying a hard-earned emancipation. It was not by chance that the flying women, new to the skies, remained throughout those years the symbol of liberty and independence. They had asked me here to speak about tourism; on the table a bottle of water, its label indicating it to be of Brescian origin and a sad plastic beaker to accompany it “Excuse me, but would it be possible to have a glass of Montecatini water”?
I reflected to myself that Montecatini, one of the most fascinating places I have ever visited, had lost confidence in itself and its means. It seemed that a speculative approach was coming home to roost and the consequences of ill-judgement were beginning to bite hard. Here, there are more than 200 accommodation opportunities, but many hotels are up for sale and the price of rooms is of a budget market resort. How is such possible? The spa towns of Italy were famous throughout the world. Nowadays it is sufficient to look at Chianciano Terme as an emblematic example, it full of almost shed-like structures, a memory of a glorious past truly fading. What has remained of the hospitality of time ago is the question I ask myself.
Fast forward to a consideration of the big hotels of today and I find myself in a place I know only too well – the Las Vegas of Südtirol: Val Ridanna, Val Venosta, Val Pusteria, Val Passiria, and so on and so forth to mention and include all the valleys of South Tyrol. Here, in terms of dimensions and choice the offer is vast, vaster than vast indeed. I am lodged on the first floor of a big hotel. Looking out at the barracks across the way the kids are playing happily on the pedal boat on the artificial lake; many are the tourists lying poolside around the eight pools, others are queuing to take serious advantage of the rich buffet. The plates of those at the tables are fuller than full, higher than high, and they remain almost as full and as high when the followers of the all inclusive solutions slowly leave their table, fuller than full are they and exhausted from the intake. Yes, there is more to add. Here in the Las Vegas of Südtirol the spa needs to be a thousand metre square construction and the brochures all speak of professionalism of the highest standards. I do not doubt that the 20 masseurs here will be more than busy for the next three days. I take a place at the table and I order a plate of speck. What is served amounts to some raw meat slices with the smell of having been hung out to dry. I look at it enquiringly. Of course I had my dark glasses on and my cap pulled down low, because as you can imagine here in Südtirol Alto Adige everybody gets to know about everybody else. I played the fool and asked the waiter: “Excuse me, but this speck comes from pigs from where?” “What a question”, came the reply: “Südtirol”! Well, I beg to doubt the response for only the “Südtiroler Bauernspeck” brand – speck from the farm -guarantees that the pigs have been reared here in South Tyrol, and the rest is just idle chat.
A question which comes spontaneously to mind and which I would lime to put to those who read me: how has it been possible to pass from the tradition of the Grand Hotels to that of hotels which are simply big? Is this the type of tourism we really want? Is it only by searching a macro style that we will be able to feel ourselves not too micro?
If it were I to decide I would put a limit to the big hotels, sorry for any offence I might cause to the great consumers who presently frequent them, and I would also hope that our Südtirol should think about where it wants to go in the near future and so as not to find itself in years to come as part of a giant Disneyland or, worse still, having two hundred hotels disused and up for sale. If it were I to decide I would put a limit to the numbers of tourists able to sojourn in South Tyrol, and I would invite the Minister of Tourism to rethink the parameters of categorisation of guest houses and hotels. If it were I to decide I would promote a more authentic style of tourism and I would support them financially, perhaps even awarding them World Heritage status. Doing so we could really re-give life and future to Italy with its “Spa towns” and highlight all these marvelous structures, small and authentic, which really represent the excellence of Italy – think for example of the pizzeria and great restaurants which are the true symbols of Italian hospitality and which make it the most beautiful country in the world. Following such a way we could fly high again, just as the female flyers did in the glorious twenties, a time of true liberty and independence.

michil costa