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.
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.
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”
|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.
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
"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
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
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.
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."
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
|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
Night falls over the gardens of Reid’s
Palace beside the sea
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
|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.
Rua do Pau de Bandeira
Funchal, Madeira, Portugal
Photos by Harvey Frommer
# # #
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.
about these authors.
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