Built with family fortunes, they received illustrious guests and still exude pre-war splendor. Three ‘heritage hotels’ that make you forget your faded life for a while.
Before we catapult you even deeper in time, let’s go back to April 2020. Between the corona graphs, the newspapers headlined surprising news: after 125 years and seven generations, the Brussels Hotel Métropole closed. For the fast scroller, no more than the umpteenth downstairs catering business, were it not for the fact that it was the last five-star hotel from the Belle Époque in our country.
A monument that in its heyday also included a shopping arcade, a movie theater, a disco, a brewery, an Indian lounge and an Italian conference bar. This is where Marie Curie and Albert Einstein came together for the first Solvay conference and Toots Thielemans made his jazz debut. Irrelevant, according to the virus that eventually pushed the pearl of the De Brouckèreplein into the deeperic.
Illustrious guests and lobby guys in red suits: it didn’t just exist in Wes Anderson’s universe.
Fortunately, the Métropole was not the only grand hotel in Belgium. Although we mainly know the concept from British costume dramas or the Spanish Netflix series of the same name, the 19th century also brought a boom of elegant family hotels in our country, shrouded in great luxury.
Flourishing with the arrival of the steam train, the first major world expos and the growing class of nouveaux riches, they almost became a fad, their postcards an eagerly framed status symbol. Illustrious guests, lobby boys in red suits, and a dozen chambermaids dedicated to polishing the silverware for hours on end: it didn’t just exist in Wes Anderson’s universe.
In recent decades, most of the historic family hotels in Belgium have lost out against functional chains and price fighters. Others survived, but saw the paneling wear out and the stained-glass windows clouded – faded glory, in short.
Only a few withstood the test of time. As silent witnesses to the past, the survivors survived two world wars, mass tourism, a financial crisis and (for the time being) the corona disaster.
Moreover, these beacons of nostalgia are more than ever a safe haven in these times of uncertainty. A grip for anyone who suddenly realized how important memories are. And who wants to contribute to the preservation of one last piece of great hotel history, before it is too late – as with the Métropole.
1. Grand Hotel Belle Vue, De Haan
Whoever says belle époque in Belgium, says De Haan. This seaside resort benefited from the emerging coastal tourism in an unprecedented way. The puppet master was King Leopold II, who in 1889, shortly after the construction of the first coastal tram between Ostend and Blankenberge, gave the order to build a residential area between the dunes.
The most notable guest at the Grand Hotel Belle Vue was Albert Einstein.
In line with fashion, Anglo-Norman architecture was maintained, although the king absolutely did not want square, English gardens: the dune slopes had to be preserved.
That explains the naturally triangular plot of the Grand Hotel Belle Vue. In 1912, the challenge to build a stately hotel on it went to the architect Alexis Dumont, who would later design the Ravenstein gallery and the Citroën garage in Brussels. He built three bell-shaped towers in cottage style, with curving balconies and a large terrace under the continuous canopy.
Especially the English who had made a fortune in colonial India found their way to the hotel, as can be read in the book ‘Nostalgie aan zee’ by Hadewijch Ceulemans. With large trunks and an army of nannies, they arrived by steam tram in the (still preserved) Art Nouveau station of De Haan.
No sea view, but a location close to the railway was important at the time: after a five-minute walk, the guests were in their room, accompanied by porters in red caps.
Notorious names in the guestbook include writer Stefan Zweig and composer Marcel Poot. The most notable customer was the Jewish Albert Einstein, who went into hiding in De Haan in 1933 from the emerging Nazi regime.
He was reportedly devoted to the terrace of the Belle Vue, where he invariably ordered a coffee and a kramiek (a kind of currant bread). In the long run, other bathers deliberately left their regular table at the door, the sunniest of the entire terrace, free for the scientist.
Until 2006 the hotel was owned by the Baeten family. The last scion eventually decided and sold it. With a substantial capital injection, the new owners restored the building to its old state. For example, the wooden facade was renovated, the glassware renewed and the turrets were restored. At the same time, it was given a solid rejuvenation treatment, in the form of a wellness area, a seasonal bistro and some luxury suites with jacuzzi.
This grand dame fared better than that other Grand Hotel Belle Vue, in Westende. It was designed by the renowned Art Nouveau architect Octave van Rysselberghe and frequented by the royal family. The 120 rooms, two elevators and 16 baths with warm sea water were almost completely destroyed by the two world wars. All the more reason to cherish this survivor.
You can spend the night in the tower suite with jacuzzi from 230 euros, including breakfast. Booking half board costs 35 euros. The hotel will open its doors again from 18 December.
2. Hotel Navarra, Bruges
You can tell almost the entire history of Bruges on the basis of this hotel. Starting with the Spanish occupation around 1600, when the mansion was built for the consul of Navarre, ergo the current hotel name. Austrian rule is illustrated by the guest of honor, Emperor Joseph II, who stayed there in 1781.
After WWI, this hotel was even the headquarters of the Belgian government for a while.
And after the French annexation, the hotel was preparing for the residence of Napoleon I, for whom another staircase of honor was hastily built – a waste of effort, because the French emperor eventually canceled his visit to Bruges. But that marble colossus is still the showpiece of the reception today.
The hotel experienced its golden age in the 19th century. For 118 years, it was run by the Vanden Berghe family, who developed the Grand Hôtel du Commerce into a first-class residence with 60 rooms. Thanks to technical gadgets such as electric light and central heating, it was one of the showpieces of Belgium.
The composer Johann Strauss stayed overnight during his concert tours, as did celebrities such as the poet Henry Longfellow (who wrote the poem ‘The Belfry of Bruges’ there) and George Stephenson, the inventor of the steam locomotive.
Culture trips like this were a real trend among the Victorian upper class, good for many more status points than an expensive dress or a banquet. The historic banquet hall and the wrought iron entrance gate of the Hôtel du Commerce fit perfectly into the picture of the dandy-esque added-value seekers, who flocked to Bruges from England.
They were picked up at the station by a private horse-drawn shuttle, which is the hotel’s great asset. During the exhibition of the Flemish Primitives in 1902, extra cheap train tickets were sold, a promo stunt for the young tourist.
Just as glorious was the role of the hotel during the First World War, when it was successively a base for the Red Cross, a headquarters for German officers and even briefly the official headquarters of the Belgian government after the armistice. After all, it was close to the castle of Loppem, where King Albert I stayed after his exile.
A final transformation came in the early 1950s, when it was bought by the city of Bruges and served as a student residence for the College of Europe. It then went to the current owner, who renovated the building and had it recognized as a historic monument.
The central location, the romantic garden and the wellness facilities make the Hotel Navarra one of the top establishments in Bruges today. If only we would come for the lounge, where ancient photos of the Grand Hôtel du Commerce still proudly adorn the wall.
You can stay in a comfort room from 166 euros, including breakfast. Due to the corona measures, the hotel is temporarily closed.
3. Château de Ronchinne, Namur
Ronchinne Castle may never really have been a grand hotel, but the luxury residence has a long and eventful history. It began in 1909, when Princess Clémentine, the youngest daughter of King Leopold II, took up residence with the exiled French prince Napoleon Victor Bonaparte, great-nephew of the other famous Napoleon Bonaparte.
The Château de Ronchinne does not have the luxury of an elite hotel, but it does have the atmosphere of a noble country retreat.
However, the king vetoed their marriage for fear of a diplomatic row with France. So it is not coincidental that the Romeo and Juliet couple went to live together exactly in the year of Leopold’s death. They had the surrounding domain taken care of by Jules Buyssens, Belgium’s first landscape architect.
In the 1950s, the castle was transformed into the Hôtel du Château de la Poste, specially intended for the staff of the national post.
These were the early years of the congé payé, in which large companies built complete holiday centers for their employees. Thousands of family vacations, weddings and family celebrations took place at the hotel, as did team building avant la lettre.
After those heydays, the mansion was vacant for several years, until it was sold in 2006 to Limited Editions, a hotel group with the Brussels art deco hotel Le Berger in its portfolio.
After three intense renovation years, renovations are still being carried out at the Domaine de Ronchinne. For example, the ‘faisanderies’, where peacocks and pheasants used to roam around, and the ‘maison du jardinier’ were converted into rooms two years ago.
The latest addition is the ‘lavoir’, an open-air spa designed by interior architect Lionel Jadot. He also took care of the restaurant. Finally, there was another vineyard, in which hotel guests can cooperate to their heart’s content. Perhaps not the classic luxury of an elite hotel, but definitely the atmosphere of a noble country retreat.
You can spend the night in a superior room in the castle from 137 euros, including breakfast. The hotel is open and has a take-away formula.