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All Aboard to The Lapa Palace, Lisbon
and Reid's Place, Madeira

“The Orient Express” –what mystery the name conjures up.  Murder in the shadow of the pyramids. Journeys by rail along the timeless routes of caravans. Romantic intrigues behind the doors of private compartments as the locomotive rumbles along the Silk Road, across the steppes of Asia, through the deserts of Mongolia. It’s no longer regularly scheduled transportation, but then the Orient Express always was a destination in itself as much as a means of getting there.  And as destination it still exists in a collection of unique properties all over the world.

In Lisbon there's the Lapa Palace which actually began life as a palace commissioned by the Count of Valencas in 1870. Located in the Lapa Quarter where the nobility traditionally lived, the pink stucco structure fronted by an entrance court of elaborate tile-work remained in private (and noble) hands for 112 years when the last count finally sold it to the Orient Express group in 1989.  Three years later, with the addition of a seventh floor and a transformed interior it was still every bit a palace. But now it was also Lisbon's most beautiful hotel.

 The Lapa Palace sits on top of the one of the city's seven hills commanding panoramic views of the Tagus River with its version of the Golden Gate, named the Bridge of the 25th of April after the  peaceful revolution that restored democracy to Portugal in 1974, and on the far side, its version of  Christ the Redeemer modeled after the original in Rio de Janeiro. It also overlooks a cityscape of red-tiled roofs and belvederes, broad boulevards and plazas as well as its own ten acres of gorgeous gardens in a continuous state of bloom with winding pathways, ornamental fountains, waterfalls, and a lagoon-like swimming pool.

 There are ninety four guest rooms in the Lapa Palace. Each looks out over the river or the city and is unique in theme and furnishings from Roman-spa to Art Deco moderne with authentic 1930’s furniture. Some of the palace’s original rooms have been retained, and these lend an old world elegance one rarely encounters in contemporary public spaces. What was once the ballroom is now used for private functions. It is a neo-classical gold and apricot space that is, in a word, palatial  -- with marble pillars, tall Romanesque windows, and the original marble fireplace amidst a wealth of ornamental detail.  A ceiling painting, reminiscent of a Goya cartoon, shows a crowd looking down the inside of an open tower. At one time, walls were decorated with painted panels depicting a performance watched by the crowd above.  They were sold when one of the Counts needed money to keep the palace going and were replaced with the mirrors that remain in place today.

At the Lapa Palace, the Portuguese presence is keenly felt. The palace is typical of 19th century Portuguese design. Hallways are hung with original drawings and etchings of Lisbon scenes. Ornamental garden walls and fountains are made of Azulejos, the traditional blue and white Moorish-inspired tile, a theme repeated in the patterned carpeting that lines the corridors of the hotel. So it came as a bit of surprise to discover that the major influence of “Ristorante Hotel Cipriani,” the Lapa Palace’s gastronomic restaurant, is Italian.

Dining Room at the Lapa Palace: “Ristorante Hotel Cipriani”
Dining Room at the Lapa Palace: “Ristorante Hotel Cipriani”
Executive chef Franco Luise is a native of northern Italy. He had worked at hotels in Switzerland, the United States, and Italy, most recently at the Hotel Cipriani in Venice before coming to the Lapa Palace in 1999. Young and hearty, with a booming tenor  voice that made us wonder whether he performed at the Lisbon Opera on the side, Franco operates out of a huge and gleaming white tile kitchen with its fish and meat stations, a pasta corner with an enormous pasta-making machine, a pastry station, and the chef’s own mini-kitchen where he does his planning and also has little private dinners. “But it’s not good to just stay in your office,” he told us. “I have to have the interaction, to work with my people. Alone you can do nothing. 

 “We import a lot from Italy," Franco added. "The flour because it is better and difficult to find here, the two years old parmesan – which a good parmesan must be, the mozzarella (I found an excellent purveyor), the extra virgin olive oil, the truffles -- our black truffles come from the middle of Italy; we bring in  the whites around Christmas time  -- they are hard to find, but the flavor is wonderful with the right dish.

"But I have to say that Italian is just a little word. Italian food is a Mediterranean style of food which means a range of flavors that you will find in the south of France, in Spain, and here in Portugal too.  This is a real Mediterranean restaurant." 

We had the opportunity to experience Franco's talents at the Ristorante Hotel Cipriani which sits across the lobby beyond a garden-like entrance. Decorated in shades of peach, green and gold with tablecloths of damask moiré and banquettes in vivid tropical prints, the elegant room projects a mood of serenity which is enhanced by the performance of classical guitar music.  Franco Luise in his private kitchen at the Lapa Palace
Franco Luise in his private kitchen at the Lapa Palace

Our impeccably served and perfectly prepared dinner consisted of  an appetizer of warm artichoke and mozzarella swirled together so it looked like a tropical plant; a salad prepared tableside where we selected from a multitude of fresh greens, melons, fresh and sun dried tomatoes and a range of olive oils and vinegars; cold lobster with wonderful black truffles; grilled sea bass with very young, barely cooked asparagus; and veal with freshly-made pasta in a novel basil-lemon sauce. 

At Franco’s suggestion, we drank a white Encivado 1998, (domain Quinta dos Carvalhais) from the Douro region of northern Portugal which is aged in oak and has a delightful woodsy flavor.  And for desert, we gave in to his urging and tried the tiramissou. The layers of biscuit, cream, mascapone and eggs were richly irresistible, and to them Franco had added a chocolate spiral. It was an example of this dynamic young chef’s credo: experiment with traditional Italian dishes; take the standard concepts but expand and modernize.

            In his role as executive chef, Franco seemed to us emblematic of the opening up of Portugal to the larger European scene.  In a similar way the same way, the hotel’s general manager Luis Pinheiro seemed to us emblematic of the Portuguese experience over the last 25 years.  Born in 1964 in Mozambique to a Portuguese father and South African mother, Luis was ten years old when Portugal’s dictatorship and its role as a colonial power ended.  At that point in time, while his banker father remained in Mozambique to assist the nation through its transition to independence, the rest of the family moved to South Africa.

They lived in a hotel for the first year, and it was there that the already enterprising Luis found his niche. “I enjoyed hanging around the hotel,” he told us. “They put me in charge of opening and closing the fridges at the bottom of the bar which were difficult to handle.”

By the time Luis finished school, he knew his future would be in the hotel business. He worked at the Carlton Hotel in Johannesburg for a decade and backpacked with the woman who became his wife through Europe for a year before accepting a managerial position at Cape Town’s oldest and most distinguished property: the Mount Nelson Hotel. “I was there for the peaceful shifting of political power,” Luis said. “I had the pleasure of spending time with Nelson Mandela, overseeing his 75th birthday party, coordinating his daughter’s wedding."

Ultimately, however, the Portuguese connection exerted its pull when Luis – by now an experienced hotelier – accepted an offer to be general manager at Reid’s Palace in Madeira, the south Atlantic island that has been part of Portugal since its discovery in 1420.  When after a few years, the opportunity to take over at the Lapa Palace arose, he moved on. Today, raising his family in Lisbon, Luis has in a sense come home.

General Manager Luis Pinhiero at home at the Lapa Palace in Lisbon
General Manager Luis Pinhiero at home at the Lapa Palace in Lisbon
Interestingly the Mount Nelson and Reid’s Palace are also part of the Orient Express collection. We have yet to visit Cape Town, but we’ve been in Madeira and can vouch that Reid’s Palace possesses the Orient Express mystique. Perched on a promontory 150 feet above the sea, the statuesque hotel certainly looks palatial, and in its roster of royal guests can make easy claim to a regal status. But going back to 1891 when it first opened, it has always been a hotel  and the realization of a dream. 

William Reid was fourteen years old in 1836 when he arrived on Madeira with five pounds in his pocket having been sent there on the advice of a doctor who felt the island’s near perfect climate would be beneficial to the sickly boy. By the time he was in his mid twenties, Reid was operating profitable enterprises in Madeira’s two major industries: exporting its world-famous wine and leasing guest houses to mostly British visitors. Sensing the island’s potential as a vacation destination, he built and ran several of Madeira’s earliest hotels before turning to the construction of his dream hotel in the best location on the island. It would be the grandest of them all.

 Sadly, Reid died before it opened, but Reid’s Palace has enjoyed more than a century of an eventful and prosperous life with no sign of diminishment. It is a magnificent place both in setting and facilities with ten acres of glorious terraced gardens that descend in dramatic fashion to the sea amidst tennis courts, swimming pools, reclusive walkways, and at the very bottom a natural pool carved out of the rocky banks. 

From the start, the hotel attracted, to put it mildly, an interesting range of guests. There were the Habsburgs: Elizabeth, the Empress of Austria, who came to Reid’s to forget her grief over her son’s murder of his mistress and subsequent suicide, and some years later her grand nephew Karl I who arrived after abdicating the thrones of Austria and Hungary. Another abidcator at Reid’s was ex-King Umberto, the last of Italy’s royal rulers. The non-royal but famously talented George Bernard Shaw learned to tango while at Reid’s; John Huston and Gregory Peck went whaling during the time they stayed at the hotel for the shooting of “Moby Dick.”   Night falls over the gardens of Reid’s Palace beside the sea
Night falls over the gardens of Reid’s Palace beside the sea

There were the ignominious guests like deposed dictator Fulgencio Batista who, after being ousted from Cuba by Fidel Castro, took over the entire third floor of the hotel for himself, his wife, five children and a retinue of advisors and servants, and the infamous Dr. John Bodkin Adams who celebrated being acquitted for the murder of his patient Edith Morell with a holiday at Reid’s Palace, using the legacy she left him to pay the bill.

And there have been the illustrious guests like David Lloyd George who was prime minister of England during World War I, poet Rainer Maria Rilke, Guglielmo Marconi who invented wireless, novelist John dos Passos, actor Ralph Richardson, the New Zealand soprano Kiri te Kanawa, and perhaps most renowned of all --- Winston Churchill whose name was given to the first floor suite he and Clemmie occupied during their 1950 stay.

 Wandering through the expansive interior of Reid’s Palace, from the stately Edwardian dining room to the clubby bridge room to the comfortable lounges with their chintz-covered sofas in shades of pink and green, one gets the sense of being thrust back to the time when the claim “the sun never sets on the British empire” was a truism.  The political structure of Madeira may be Portuguese, its location may be off the coast of Africa, but the feel at Reid’s Palace is that of an England of an earlier day.

 With the exception of Les Faunes, the hotels’ premier restaurant, which is twenty-first century international, cool and contemporary.  Named for the Latin rural god, a Pan-like, horn-playing creature with pointed ears and goat’s hoofs, it projects a whimsical, airy mood in an atmosphere of subdued elegance.  We were seated on the lower level of the bi-level room at a table overlooking the gardens and sea beyond, and watching night fall while the moon rose over the Bay of Funchal was so enchanting, it  took some doing to look away and turn to the menu. But LesFaunes’ menu is well worth perusing.  It is the inspiration of Olivier Chaleil, the French-born executive chef who did his apprenticeship with Marc Meneau in the three-star Michelin L’Esperance, and became enamoured of Chinese cuisine while working at the Ritz Hotel in Taipei. All these influences come to bear at Les Faunes where French and Madeirian preparations are staples but Far Eastern influences abound as well.

Confident we were in good hands, we decided to go for the atypical. For appetizers, light and refreshing smoked salmon with salmon cakes in green cabbage and cucumber sabayon for one, and eggplant with mozzarella cheese served in a gazpacho sauce and dressed with truffle oil for the other. Naturally, the soup lover had to try the cream of celery soup with salmon caviar which he pronounced divine. Next, true to form, we went for “Les Poissons”  -- two superb choices: pan fried turbot with Belgian endives and truffles, and red mullets – an Iberian favorite, we’ve discovered – baked and served on a potato pancake with basil flavored spinach.

While we were waiting for the main course, the room’s lights suddenly flickered and two attractive young couples in evening attire appeared by the grand piano at the entrance. They proceeded to perform a kind of floor show of songs from American musicals, strolling among the tables as they sang with engaging ease, breaking the well-known numbers into little solos and duets. We were captivated especially after a rendition of Irving Berlin’s “You’re Just in Love” whose  counterpoint they handled with confident aplomb. This utterly charming performance was the idea – we were to discover – of Kathryn Wilson who is Reid’s Palace director of sales and marketing. 

When Kathryn was offered this position several years ago, she was a British ex-patriot living in Marbella ready for a new career challenge. Uncharacteristically she had visited a fortune teller who told her a wonderful opportunity from an unknown place was going to come her way.  As far as Kathryn is concerned, her coming to Madeira and Reid’s Palace is serendipitous, one of those out-of-the-ordinary things that sometimes just happen.  “You’re not sick, you’re just in love,” sing the engaging foursome at Les Faunes
“You’re not sick, you’re just in love,” sing the engaging foursome at Les Faunes

And that state of mind has guided her into the inauguration of out-of-the-ordinary events at Reid’s Palace.  In addition to the dinner shows, she’s begun an annual Burn’s Night, in honor of Scotland’s favorite bard and Reid Palace’s founder, where Scottish bagpipes, steaming haggis, and kilts comprise an evening’s entertaining. Kathryn confessed she has hopes of luring Sean Connery to the next Burn’s night. 

Kathryn Wilson – her coming to Reid’s Palace has been serendipitous
Kathryn Wilson – her coming to Reid’s Palace has been serendipitous
But perhaps her favorite event is the series that takes place over two November weekends in connection with Murder Inc. That’s not the Brooklyn-based gangster group of the 1940’s, but a British company that arranges Agatha Christie-style weekends at country houses. What happens is a group of writers and actors stage a “whodunit” involving guests in an evening of tantalizing mystery. How apropos, how full circle. The Orient Express lives on.

The Lapa  Palace
Rua do Pau de Bandeira
Lisbon Portugal

Phone: 351-21-394-94-94

Reid’s Palace
Funchal, Madeira, Portugal

Phone: 351-291-71-71-71

Photos by Harvey Frommer

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About the Authors:  Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer are a wife and husband team who successfully bridge the worlds of popular culture and traditional scholarship. Co-authors of the critically acclaimed interactive oral histories It Happened in the Catskills, It Happened in Brooklyn, Growing Up Jewish in America, It Happened on Broadway, It Happened in Manhattan, It Happened in Miami. They teach what they practice as professors at Dartmouth College.

They are also travel writers who specialize in luxury properties and fine dining as well as cultural history and Jewish history and heritage in the United States, Europe, and the Caribbean. More about these authors.

You can contact the Frommers at: 

Email: myrna.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU
Email: harvey.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU

This Article is Copyright © 1995 - 2012 by Harvey and Myrna Frommer.  All rights reserved worldwide.

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