At Home In the World - Europe

Prague, Czech Republic

Past Imperfect
In a vintage hotel, Ben Chapman encounters the echoes of history

The Alcron Hotel, now a Radisson SAS property, is just off Wenceslas Square, in the heart of the commercial district of Prague (that rustically romantic capital of the Czech Republic). I was lucky enough to stay there for five days, courtesy of the new management, and learned something of its remarkable history.

Its original name is taken from a heroic sailing ship of Greek mythology. Originally opened in 1932 as the Alcron Hotel, the property was founded by Alois Krofta, who can be thought of as "The Donald" of early Czechoslovakia. Back in the Twenties, following the establishment of Czechoslovakia in 1918, Prague emerged as an economic center for the republic, but business travelers and groups visiting the nascent municipality were disappointed by a lack of local lodging options. So Krofta, who had already cemented a reputation as the city's premiere real estate developer, decided to give Prague its first world-class hotel.

And so, the Alcron was born. Luxurious and modern for its time, the art-deco masterpiece became a sensation almost overnight. Unfortunately, just a year after it opened, the Nazis took over the region—and the management of the hotel. Krofta remained the official owner of the Alcron, but he was forced to follow the directives of his German occupiers, and the hotel became primarily the domain of SS officers and their lackeys, a group which nonetheless included luminaries such as the famous German actor Hans Albers.

By the time the Nazis finally succumbed to the Allies in 1945, the Alcron was badly neglected and in need of repair. Its tarnished beauty would not receive the care it deserved under the Socialists that ruled Czechoslovakia until the Velvet Revolution of 1989, when overwhelming popular sentiment precipitated the fall of the Communist regime.

But with the end of Communist rule, the Czech Republic plunged into an economic quagmire, from which it did not emerge until the mid-1990s. In 1995, an investment company called Crown WSF Co. bought the Alcron and along with the Radisson began the long process of reviving the hotel to its former glory. The Art Deco renovation project turned into a treasure hunt since many of its fixtures had ended up in local antique shops, and when original pieces could not be located, historically accurate replicas were created, all under the supervision of the Greek interior designer Maria Katarou-Vafiadis. The hard work paid off in 1998 when the hotel reopened; the following year it won an accolade in the refurbishment category of the HotelSpec European Hotel Design & Development Awards.

Today the hotel once again is the jewel of Prague, a top choice for visiting celebrities, business travelers, and groups. Its interior spaces have been scrupulously restored with glittering chandeliers, rich Italian marble, and shining fixtures throughout the hotel. The Alcron features 211 exceptional sleeping rooms and suites, a splendid ballroom with room for 200, along with eight salons and boardrooms for groups of up to 40.

Austria and Germany

Swan Song
Joy Anderson sails off into the blue—Danube, that is

Three Decembers ago I traveled with a small group to Munich, Dresden, and Berlin. In between tours of meeting venues, we were encouraged to go out and soak up the special atmosphere of the cities' traditional Christkindlmarkte, or Christmas markets. I left Germany dazzled by so much holiday magic, and determined to go back for more as soon as possible. So when I heard that Viking River Cruises offered Christmas market cruises on the Danube between Vienna and Nuremberg, I lost no time in booking.

Upon arrival I stayed, acclimating for two nights, at le Meridien Vienna, one of the brand's stylish Art + Tech hotels. Ideally located on the Ringstrasse and an easy walk to Vienna's manifold attractions, the property also featured 11,840 square feet of meeting space.

Boarding the Viking Pride, I learned that just about all of my fellow passengers were American and British, so the official shipboard language was English. The ship has 75 double, outside cabins, a restaurant, a large lounge, a bar, and a sun deck that I understand is quite delightful when the weather is warm. The staff was cordial and efficient, the accommodations shipshape, and the food very good indeed (though I confess, I frequently chose to sample the local cuisine while in port).

For me, the cruise offered a wonderful combination of the familiar and the unknown. Had I not embarked, I know I would never have seen Melk Abbey, a masterpiece of baroque architecture, extravagantly embellished with gold and marble and frescoed ceilings. Nor would I have experienced the intimate Christmas market in the castle courtyard of the princely Thurn und Taxis family in the charming city of Regensburg.

I knew that Salzburg—of Sound of Music fame—which I'd previously visited and loved as a summer destination, would be equally enchanting during the Christmas season and was not disappointed. I was particularly keen to see Nuremberg's Christkindlmarkt–Germany's largest. But first we stopped at the site of the Nazi-era Nuremberg rallies—much more disturbing than I'd expected—and saw the complex where the war trials were held. In the medieval city, the market crowds were daunting, but a candlelight carol concert in the cathedral and a festive dinner at a communal table with a convivial group of strangers—so German!—transformed my mood and I left with pleasant memories.

I had asked Lyn Casey, Viking Pride's cruise manager, about groups meeting on board. "Everything's possible," she said. "Groups can do their own excursions and there's really total flexibility." There are at least two full-ship charters every season, but smaller groups can book blocks of cabins as well.

Viking Pride's itinerary varies throughout the year: April in the Netherlands for tulip time; after that, she (and three of her identical sisters) cruise from Amsterdam to the Black Sea along the Rhine, Moselle, and Danube. Christmas market cruises round out the year's cruise calendar. During the winter months the ships are docked at Frankfurt, Dusseldorf, and Cologne to provide accommodation to delegates at international trade fairs.

I flew home from Munich, having been treated like a queen at the regal Bayerischer Hof—a hotel with the perfect location and a new, spectacular spa.

Berlin, Germany

Light Up the Night

Ben again— this time, making the club scene in the former Soviet bloc

Berlin is uber-hip. This much became clear to me as I struggled to find the hidden light switch in my hotel room at the Radisson SAS Hotel Berlin. Luckily, I was able to find and slip my card key into a small rectangle of brushed aluminum on the wall before I tripped over my luggage in the dark.

That new, ultra-stylish property, where I stayed last year while visiting the city, is in the heart of what they're calling the "new" Berlin (across from Museum Island, near where West Berlin used to meet East Berlin before the wall came down in 1989). The hotel, which opened in March 2004, has a modern, clean design, with an open lobby eight stories high and glass elevators that whisk sharp-dressed guests to their rooms. The world's largest indoor aquarium, an 82-foot tall cylindrical fish tank that holds 250,000 gallons of climate-controlled salt water and about 2,500 exotic fish, resides in the lobby; for a small fee, the curious can take a special elevator up through the center of its massive tube, which gleams in the cold light of the Radisson's lobby like some kind of science-fiction fantasy brought to life. (The hotel employs two full-time scuba divers who are responsible for cleaning the tank and feeding the fish.) The Radisson SAS' five conference rooms also look like they belong on the Starship Enterprise, and its 427 guest rooms, with their hidden light switches, are shrines to cleverness.

That night, I went dancing with my friend Brooke, who lives in Berlin. Brooke works in Berlin's trendy nightclubs as a DJ (when she's not traveling the world with rock bands); she told me that a lot of American pop musicians have moved there in recent months, lured by the cheap rents, central location for touring Europe, and lively nightlife and arts scene.

The first place we went to was an indie rock club called Wild at Heart, in an old garage under the U-Bahn train tracks, just down the street from the Radisson. With peeling paint, concrete floors, and some American punk bands playing that night, it was good noisy fun and a nice post- apocalyptic setting for my first experience with absinthe (which, unfortunately, I can't remember much about). From there it was on to the underground dance club, Brot und Butter (Bread and Butter), this time in a decrepit but grand old building that had once been a government office in East Berlin. The techno music was loud and the club was packed with a young international crowd of enthusiastic dancers.

Besides night clubs, Berlin has a really happening dining scene. From traditional eateries like Silberterasse, located on the top floor of a huge upscale mall called the KaDeWe; to trendy fusion joints like HEat (within the Radisson) that mix and match world cuisines; to far more cutting edge stuff, the place is a foodie's paradise. One famously edgy place is Nocti Vagus, where patrons eat in total darkness to better appreciate their food. This is probably the only restaurant in the world that advertises the fact that its waiters are blind—no joke. Another odd eatery is Sehnsucht, where the chef and owner prepare meals specifically designed for anorexics. The 50-seat cantina is the brainchild of a former anorexic, employs a bulimic waitress and has an anorexic chef presiding over a nutritionist-designed menu that deliberately distances dishes from the ingredients they contain. Could you get Americans to play with their food so creatively? I doubt it.