Hotels with histories

02 March 2006
Hotels with histories

Reminders of a building's grisly or notorious past can make it a certain failure - or a surprise tourist draw. Linda Fox looks at the history of three properties that have put new life on old bones

Malmaison Oxford
The Malmaison Oxford has skeletons in its closet. The hotel is housed in a former prison, part of Oxford Castle, which shut its cells for the final time in 1996. But a little over four years ago, when the site was being regenerated, archaeologists unearthed 59 human skeletons. The bones date from the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries and are probably the remains of public executions.

Oxford Castle is steeped in centuries of history beginning with the Norman Conquest, and the thought of its dark past and historical significance is already proving a draw for many of the Malmaison's guests.

According to chief executive Robert Cook, the 94-bedroom property is attracting a following of what he calls "inquisitive guests", lured more by the thought of what the property used to be than what it is now. He jokes about guests lying on top of dead bodies but claims as many as 30% of his weekend guests are there to soak up some of the castle's past.

"There is no question we are attracting people because it is steeped in historical value," Cook says. "They ask for one of the cell rooms and, if we don't have one, they book one for the next time."

One reason guests are so fascinated by the hotel is probably that its designers kept as many of the original prison features as possible. Each bedroom and en suite bathroom has been formed out of three former prison cells and the gangways, prison doors and vaulted ceilings are all original.

Cook says: "We worked alongside English Heritage and Oxford Preservation to keep as much of the history and look of the building as we could. When you shut your door at night, it's the same prison door."

He admits the hotel has its own unique atmosphere as a result. "When you walk into the hotel," he says, "it's through the old entrance of the castle and you can feel that. When you walk up the first set of steps, especially if you're the only person there and it's late, it is a little bit scary."

Cook should know, because he stayed there for three weeks in the run-up to the opening of Malmaison Oxford in November 2005.

A further reason for the interest in the new hotel could also be the press coverage surrounding its development over the past three years. Stories about William the Conqueror, public executions and prison inmates are enough to pique most people's interest.

And if that weren't enough, closer to the present, the hotel housed infamous train robber Ronnie Biggs for a while, as well as countless petty criminals from the surrounding county.

Malmaison managed to capitalise on some of the press interest by drafting in the former prison governor to tell what it was really like. Cook says: "From a press point of view, it was a great way of saying how it used to be, and the governor's view was that we had changed very little."

Hotel employees were also schooled in the building's past during their induction period, although many are local to Oxford and were already aware of its history.

The amount of publicity the creation of the hotel got also meant that locals had plenty of opportunity to voice their feelings about the regeneration of the site, and the majority are pleased with the result. "It's a huge uplift compared with what was there before," Cook says. "The idea was to create a vibrant space, and locals were happy that it was happening. Now they see it live, they are very for it. It has been very positive."

Any qualms about losing a piece of history have been quashed by plans for a museum depicting prison life. Besides which, the castle, the prison and its dark past continue to attract curious tourists, with regular guided tours on offer to take people around the inmates' former exercise yard, which is now part of the hotel grounds.

Villa Feltrinelli, Lake Garda, Italy
The Villa Feltrinelli on the shores of Italy's Lake Garda has a very different story to tell from that of the Malmaison Oxford, although people don't seem to talk about it.

Villa Feltrinelli, in the village of Gargnano, is now a luxury hotel, but it was once a residence of former Italian dictator Benito Mussolini. According to the proprietor, US hotelier Bob Burns, Hitler's Nazi regime placed the by-then faltering Italian leader and his ministers in 13 villas around Lake Garda in 1943. "They established the New Republic of Salo," Burns says, "but Mussolini was here for only about two years and was really under house arrest. He hated it here."

Burns claims that Mussolini walked from Villa Feltrinelli to Gargnano every day to meet his ministers. He also rode his bicycle in the grounds.

However, unlike Hitler's own mountain retreat at Berchtesgaden in Germany, which is now a luxury Inter-Continental resort (and which, some press reports claim, attracts neo-nazis), these elements of Feltrinelli's history are long gone.

When Burns bought the dilapidated villa in 1996, Mussolini's granddaughter and a handful of locals were the only objectors. "Its history is long forgotten and we hardly even hear about it," he says, "but his granddaughter wanted to turn it into a museum."

Burns has researched the period and there was even a film made about the villa, but Burns claims it clings to nothing of its past. Despite this, locals were curious to see what had been done to Feltrinelli during the renovation, so Burns invited them all to a party when work was completed in mid-2001.

"About 2,000 people turned up," he recalls. "Some asked where Mussolini slept, but he most likely spent most of his time with his mistress somewhere else. Locals were happy. It was a derelict site with barbed wire all around it. Now we're a big employer, and we have brought to the region a lot of tourists who are high spenders."

But the tourists, who fly in on their private jets, are there for the luxurious surroundings rather than the links with Italy's fascist leader. They often seem surprised to see boat excursions along the shore beside the villa, with tour guides pointing up to the villa and to its tower, which housed an anti-aircraft gun to protect Mussolini from Allied air attack.

And so far, the only person with any link to the Mussolini era to stay at the villa has been a military buff who had something to do with trying to capture the dictator during his last days in 1945.

Raffles Hotels, Cambodia
In Cambodia's Phnom Penh, there are still too many constant reminders of the Pol Pot regime and memories of the Killing Fields to make it as easy to move on as it has been for the villagers of Gargnano.

Thousands of people visit the city every year and the fields, a few kilometres outside Phnom Penh, and the Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocide within the city, are usually on their list of places to see. The museum was a torture camp, prison and execution centre during the time of Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge. Government figures show that the numbers of tourists to Cambodia have increased by more than 40% since 1998, and at least 30% of them visit the Killing Fields.

"In Phnom Penh," says Riaz Mahmood, "there are a lot of people who still come to see the killing fields and museum. Everybody who visits Phnom Penh would visit the palace and other tourist attractions, and a large percentage would see the torture chambers and the museum." Mahmood is the general manager of Raffles Hotels Cambodia, and his brief includes Le Royal, also in Phnom Penh, and sister property Le Grand, at Siem Reap.

During the Pol Pot regime, from 1975 to 1979, Phnom Penh residents were forcibly removed and there was a period of mass genocide. Mahmood stresses, however, that people do not come to stay at Le Royal purely because they are drawn to the city's dark past. "It would be wrong to say they come to the hotel for that," he says. "If they do, it is a very, very small minority - less than 0.1%. It is part of the whole trip, and there are two or three places that have been kept as a memorial to those events."

He believes that the attraction to the Killing Fields is, in part, because most people know that such circumstances will not come back. "They think they might as well have a look," he says. "It's curiosity."

Despite this curiosity on the part of tourists, and their own ever-present memories of the regime in the form of the museum, locals make the most of the money that tourism brings in while doing their best to move on. "Phnom Penh is vibrant," Mahmood says. "It is bursting at the seams with commercial activity. The locals are very happy because tourism is bringing in a lot of money, jobs and employment."

Rather than living in the past, locals concentrate on the future, education, jobs and their children's prospects. "They don't want to relive the past," Mahmood says. "Everybody here wants to move on and get on with their lives, and make sure these things don't happen in the future."

He adds that it is not difficult to marry the luxury of the hotel - which, according to different sources, housed Pol Pot's advisers or a Khmer Rouge battalion during the regime - with what went on because no one talks about it any more.

Despite this, there is no denying that many tourists drawn to the area have a fascination for the horrific events that wiped out 21% of Cambodia's population.

Renewing New York
The New York tourism authority, NYC & Company, has for some time been trying to boost the downtown area of the city and, seen in a positive light, the Ground Zero site has helped in that aim. "NYC is trying to push a lot of tourism to that region and encourage hotels to be built and people to visit," a spokesman says. "People are surprised about what the area offers, and they go there to visit Ground Zero anyway."

The 800-bedroom New York Marriott Hotel World Trade Center was destroyed in the 11 September terrorist attacks and it is not yet known whether the regenerated site will include a hotel.

But actor Robert DeNiro is investing $43m in an 83-bedroom Downtown Hotel in the TriBeCa quarter, due to open some time this year.

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