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 From a Bank in Berlin to the Art of Simple Luxury at Rocco Forte's Hotel De Rome

Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer


Only moments before we had entered Room 104 of the Hotel de Rome in the eastern part of Berlin. Accompanied by a guest relations manager, we'd located the safe, connected our laptop to the Internet, learned how to navigate the flat screen television to get to CNN, exclaimed over a book (opened to a page with a personalized welcome greeting) that turned out to be a delicious, strawberry-studded confection, gasped at the expansive luxury of the Roman-style bathroom with the abstract mosaic over the tub and the stunning living/bedroom suite -- a striking juxtaposition of contemporary furnishings against a historic backdrop. All would require further study. But now, left alone, with luggage yet to be unpacked, we gravitated to one of the enormous windows and looked out.

Before us was Bebelplatz, the biggest square in Germany and one of the largest in Europe. At its opposite end, across the aptly named boulevard Unter den Linden (Under the Linden Trees) stood the famed Humboldt University. To our left was the university library in the process of being transformed into a law school, to our right the State Opera House. Cleaned of the decades of grime that had accumulated during the GDR years, the trio of 19th century neoclassical buildings positively gleamed in the afternoon sunshine.

The plaza itself was bare. Not a tree, not a bench, not a single patch of grass  relieved the monotony of the austere cobblestone pavement. But it was not empty. Small groups of young people with one or two older guides mingled about. At the square's center, a single group stood in a circle. Everyone was looking down.

It was not until that evening that we learned Bebelplatz is the site of the infamous Book Burning of May 1933, some four months after Hitler's ascendancy to power. And the people we had seen were secondary school students and their teachers, typical visitors, come to look down a small, square pane of glass set into the cobblestone pavement at an unadorned and significantly empty bookcase below ground.


This is 21st century Berlin, artistic, trendy, dynamic, but above all re-united and the capital of a democratic Germany where the pleasures of life in the prosperous present are never exercised at the price of forgetting the deeds of a terrible past. Irony abounds here. The second day of our visit, Berlin's version of a Gay Pride Parade -- in all its flagrant flamboyance -- floated down Unter den Linden passing Bebelplatz on its way to the Brandenburg Gate some blocks away. Two days later, half a million spectators would assemble along the dappled boulevard to watch the final football match between Germany and Spain play out on a gigantic screen before the Brandenburg Gate where the following day Chancellor Angela Merkel would welcome the (alas, second-best) team home.      

Could there be a more appropriate locale for a Rocco Forte hotel, infused -- like all RF properties  -- with an Italian élan while, at the same time, grounded in its physical space. "You never forget where you are," says Catharina Daniel, public relations manager, a young woman with a mass of dark hair and an engaging smile. "You never forget what happened here."

Interestingly there had been a Hotel de Rome in the neighborhood from 1775 until 1910, Catharina told us, a worthy predecessor, ultimately reaching five stories in height, boasting an elegant restaurant and ballroom, and the city's first hydraulic lift. The building that would become the current Hotel de Rome opened for business in 1889 as one of the four headquarters of the Dresdner Bank (other headquarters were located in Dresden, Bremen, and London).

Though damaged by bombing towards the end of the Second World War, the bank functioned without interruption until the fall of Germany in 1945.  Under Communist jurisdiction for the next four and a half decades, it served as national banking offices for the German Democratic Republic. "By the time Sir Rocco Forte saw the building some years after unification, it had been long abandoned and was a deserted and lonely place," Catharine said. "But he saw its potential as a hotel and was able to convince the city to go along with his idea."

In 2003, the process of making a 21st-century hotel out of a 19th century bank began. Decades of neglect had dimmed its luster. Under GDR management, whatever decorative elements could be hidden had been covered by coats of plaster. But the building's noble proportions and generous dimensions, its handsome neoclassical edifice, luxurious materials, soaring ceilings, sky-lit courtyards, arched recesses, flowers carved into plaster ceilings and decorative moldings remained. It was against such a background that the hotel would be created.

New uses were determined for former banking facilities. The below-ground vault region became the full-service Spa de Rome with sauna, steam bath, gym, and health and beauty-treatment rooms. Four hundred safe deposit boxes where precious jewels had been stored gave way to a 65-foot swimming pool surrounded by marble pillars and gold mosaics. The cashier's room, where customers once made deposits and took withdrawals beneath a barrel-vaulted glazed roof two-stories-high, hung with ephemeral chandeliers that looked down on a black, gold and white mosaic floor, was transformed into the sort of ballroom where Prince Charming might have danced with Cinderella until the clock struck twelve. The four executive offices on the belle étage (first floor above the ground level) became the desired historic hotel suites with stunning contemporary furnishings and fixtures, sybaritic baths, and all manner of technological comforts -- not however at the sacrifice of original coffered ceilings, quality wood panelling, and stucco décor. Bearing witness to history, holes in the panelling -- debris from a bombing attack on the 18th century Hedwig Cathedral next door -- remain. So do a pair of stairways, one made of granite with wrought-iron handrails, the other marble and steel.

The book with personalized greeting that turned out to be a delicious confection. - click to enlarge

The book with personalized greeting that turned out to be a delicious confection.


Original recessed panel - click to enlarge
Original recessed panel

Chandeliers in ballroom (formerly bank cashier's room) - click to enlarge
Chandeliers in ballroom (formerly bank cashier's room)

Two additional floors were added to the three-story building because, as Catharine explained, more rooms were needed in order for the property to qualify as a five-star hotel, and since it was a protected property, no existing walls could be moved. But the addition is recessed allowing the lines of the original edifice to be undisturbed and making space for the splendid terrace which overlooks the rooftops of Berlin.

It is in the artful blending of the old and the new: the contemporary patterned carpeting interrupted by stretches of original terrazzo or mosaic floors; the contrast of dark woods and sand-colored marble with vibrant accents of red, gold, and blue; the works of contemporary art on walls bordered with pillars and decorative moldings; the seemingly ancient bas relief behind the long, modern check-in desk that the Hotel de Rome is defined.


Original mosaic floor in ballroom - click to enlarge
Original mosaic floor in ballroom

Swath of original mosaic floor in hotel hallway - click to enlarge
Swath of original mosaic floor in hotel hallway

A first impression conveys its sense of high design. Entering the lobby, the front desk is to one's left, the Bebel Bar and hallway to Parioli, the hotel restaurant, is to one's right, and the elevator bank and Opera Court where Afternoon Tea is served is straight ahead. But to proceed in any direction, one comes face-to-face with a flower-filled platform suspended in space like a stationery trapeze hanging from an unseen height and hovering several feet over a black marble table bearing a similar floral display. During our stay in late June, these were masses of white hydrangeas filling white and silver globes and individual stalks of white gladioli and lilies standing in tall, slender vases. It was a visual rendering of the phrase that has come to be embody the Rocco Forte ethos: "the art of simple luxury."

Luxury would seem to be a given in any five-star hotel and yet, at the Hotel de Rome, there is the sense of something more. Thies Sponholz, the tall and impeccable general manager, articulated as much over breakfast in Parioli. "There are 22 five-star hotels in Berlin," he said. "All of them have to meet many standards. Yet, there are huge differences among us. One thing that distinguishes this hotel is our size. We are relatively small, 101 bedrooms and 45 suites; in the restaurant, 120 diners inside, 60 outside. Another is how everything throughout the hotel is pure luxury from the finest linens to the exemplary service, to the artistic design and quality materials, even to the simple things like the shower pressure being the same whether on first or the top floor. Sounds ridiculous, but it is true." 

General Manager Thies Sponholz - click to enlarge
General Manager Thies Sponholz

Sponholz ,who had been working in California when he was offered the opportunity to open the Hotel de Rome ("I didn't hesitate for a second"), continued, "Berlin is a killer market; the competition is great. But we fit a special niche. There is a need for places like this in the industry. Unlike the chains, there are only a limited number of Rocco Forte hotels. Each one is an entity unto itself; each one reflective is of its locale. All share in common themes of the brand, yet each is distinctive. For example, there is an Italian restaurant in all the Rocco Forte properties, but it is the individual chef who decides how to run it."

“The product is the star of the kitchen, not the chef,” Raffaele Cesare Cannizzaro has been known to say. The Hotel de Rome's 41-year-old executive chef (whose credentials include being part of several Michelin-starred teams) gets his superior olive oils from a Sicilian purveyor, his parmesan cheese and ham from Parma, his creamy buffalo mozzarella from a small factory in Napoli, and his fresh produce and quality meats and fish from local markets and suppliers. But it is his vision and expertise that translate these products into the splendid dishes served at Parioli.

His is a cuisine well suited to the dining room's elegant and at the same time informal ambience. Walls are paneled in dark woods while seating is upholstered in plush fabrics of silvery taupe, beige and brown, a striking contrast enhanced by striped patterns on banquettes that reappear as delicate rings around the rims of white dinnerware. Steel-trimmed glass doors line one of the restaurant's walls; in warm weather they stand open allowing for an easy flow to the adjacent courtyard, a lovely space with ivy-covered lattices and narrow garden beds along the walls -- abloom, during our stay, with lavender hydrangeas punctuated by arborvitae shrubs. Every table held a pot of fragrant thyme.

Courtyards are common in Berlin buildings. But the sophisticated Mediterranean-style cuisine at Parioli makes it is easy to imagine you are in the upscale Roman neighborhood for which the restaurant is named. Breads include home-made focaccia and ciabatta with a selection of olive oils for dipping. An amuse bouche can be wedges of tomatoes and green fennel in a balsamic dressing, topped with breadcrumbs and accompanied by buffalo mozzarella. There are delectable ravioli with a choice of fillings that appear to be perfectly crafted miniature pies, fresh fish preparations like the grilled turbot and chanterelle mushrooms (whose season had happily coincided with our visit) in a truffle sauce, or plump and delicate scallops served -- at the diner's request -- with mashed potatoes in a brown gravy.  

Parioli's sommelier Shahab Jalali, a native of Persia who grew up in Bonn, is as effervescent as the Grand Rosé from Gosset in Champagne that he brought us to start our dinner. "My goal is to help our guests celebrate wine," he told us noting the pleasure we took from the sparkling wine. It was a delicate shade of pink, not too dry, and bore the aroma of strawberries and the flavor of raspberries and blackberries.      

Predictably Parioli's wine list leans towards the Italian, and under Shahab's expert guidance ("It is important to inform our guests about different kinds of wines and terroirs," he said), we sampled two light and refreshing Italian Chardonnays: one by the venerable winemaker Alois Lageder from northwest Italy and one by Silvio Jermann of Friaul-Julisch-Venetien in northeast Italy near the Austrian border. "These are classical wines -- perfect with shellfish, oysters, scallops," he said, "not full bodied like Burgundies, more like a Chablis from Burgundy."

But he also had us taste a Grüner Veltliner, from Weingut Lagler, Austria with a fresh floral and spicy aroma and of course a German Riesling which was surprisingly dry with a hint of peach: 2006 Prinz von Hessen, Landgraf von Hessen, of Rheingau, a vineyard famous for Rieslings. "Over the past ten years, German wines are becoming very important, and the quality of Rieslings has improved," said the sommelier.

It was about 9:30 in the evening, and the last bit of daylight of day was giving way to darkness. We had succumbed to a dessert of  almond ice cream beside a rectangle of bitter chocolate atop a granular cake accompanied by Shahab's final recommendation, a delicate port-like dessert wine called Uber Mutt from a 15 year-old winery near the Alsace border, when a handsome, young hotel exec stopped by our table.

Mario Nowak, assistant restaurant manager, was on duty for the weekend, he told us in nearly perfect Oxfordian English (the consequence of a year-long stint working in a hotel in England). "I've been at the hotel since a month before it opened on October 12, 2006, and what impresses me the most is the level of service," he said. "It is unparalleled, equal to something from the era of the Grand Hotels, only not dusty. That is our commitment: to give our guests the feeling that it is no trouble whatsoever to give them whatever they want."

Apparently Mario has been doing as much since his arrival. But Charlotte Schneider had beat him to it five months earlier. The dynamic young woman from Westphalia who is a server in  Parioli told us she had heard about the Rocco Forte brand and applied for a job after she saw a notice on the Internet about the hotel's opening.       "When I arrived, I quickly became part of a team and learned this was not a top-down organization," she said. "The kitchen and dining room were still empty; I saw the tables and chairs come in, the dishes and silver, the pots and pans. But all the while, we were getting together, telling our life stories, expressing our ideas. Everyone was encouraged to give feedback on the set-up of the restaurant, and everyone's opinion was considered."

Predictably such an attitude has gone far in creating the celebratory spirit that characterizes the staff, one marked by an infectious enthusiasm, a ready smile, a willingness -- as Mario had indicated -- to go the extra mile. We discovered as much early on when Katja Hoffmann, from behind her concierge's desk, helped us plan our time in Berlin (not an easy task in a city of 170 museums and enough parks, gardens, and woodlands to claim the title of the greenest city in Germany). She arranged our viewing of the coveted "Babylon: Myth and Truth" exhibition at the Pergamon Museum on Museum Island a few blocks from the hotel and even managed to get us last-minute tickets (with the assistance of Brian McBride, a native of Virginia and newcomer to the job) to a performance of "Fidelio" at the State Opera House -- a special experience as it is the last season of this famed venue before it closes for renovation.  

Public Relations Manager Catharina Daniel - click to enlarge
Public Relations Manager Catharina Daniel
Sommelier Shahab Jalali - click to enlarge
Sommelier Shahab Jalali

Assistant Restaurant Manager Mario Nowak - click to enlarge
Assistant Restaurant Manager Mario Nowak

Behind the concierge's desk: the lovely Katja Hoffmann - click to enlarge
Behind the concierge's desk: the lovely Katja Hoffmann


Server at Parioli: Charlotte Schneider - click to enlarge
Server at Parioli: Charlotte Schneider
Restaurant Manager: Esther Bauer - click to enlarge
Restaurant Manager: Esther Bauer

But merely being in the eastern part of Berlin is a special experience. Although nearly a decade has passed since the Wall came down, there is still a sense of the city's newness, of it having shaken off the dreariness and oppression of the GDR years and come into the freshness of a new day. Shops, cafés, museums and theaters are full. Pedestrians and cyclists crowd the thoroughfares and cranes crowd the skyline as new buildings come up and old venerable structures are renovated.

Old and new in the former East Berlin from the hotel terrace  - click to enlarge
Old and new in the former East Berlin from the hotel terrace

Humboldt University from the hotel terrace - click to enlarge
Humboldt University from the hotel terrace

Renovation of the Old Museum - click to enlarge
Renovation of the Old Museum

Construction site in the former East Berlin - click to enlarge
Construction site in the former East Berlin

Coincidentally 2008 marked the sixtieth anniversary of the Berlin Airlift, an event documented by an exhibit in the I.M. Pei gallery of the German Historical Museum of photojournalist Henry Ries' visual document of that heroic event. The museum is but a couple of blocks from the Hotel de Rome.

It would seem the Hotel de Rome is in the heart of it all, but, of course, "heart" can refer to more than locale. As Thiez Spanholz had noted when talking about his team: "It's hard to find the right people. They have to have to the right kind of personality. Because the heart of a hotel is to be found in the people working there."

Rocco Forte Hotel de Rome
Behrenstrasse 37
10117 Berlin

Phone: +49 (0)30 4606091460
Fax: +49 (0)30 4606092420


Photographs 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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