Well if it was good enough for Honore Balzac and Johannes Brahms, Maurice Ravel and two famous Franzs, Liszt and Josef not to mention another famous Josef, Pilsudski that is, then surely it would be good enough for me. I am talking about the Hotel George. This venerable lodging, located in the historic heart of Lviv, Ukraine, is the most famous hotel in one of the most famous cities in Eastern Europe. It is well known, both as an architectural monument and also for the famous personages who once strode its halls. Located in Lviv’s historic core, its stately, classical stature has been known to inspire passers-by to gawk in amazement. All this sounds like something out of a tourist brochure, though I did not steal it from one. Instead those first few sentences are pretty much the image of the Hotel George from the outside looking in, but what is the view from the inside looking out. To find out you have to spend a night or perhaps several within those historic walls of the “George” as it is affectionately known. I had that opportunity so I took the chance.
Modernity Or Mystique at “the George”
The first thing one should know in order to properly understand the Hotel George as it stands today, is that half of the rooms have been renovated and half have not. Being budget minded, I procured a room in the un-renovated half. This was as much by accident as by choice. The room came via an internet hotel booking site and was available at an alarmingly low cost, to the tune of fifteen dollars. At many a hotel in Western Europe or the United States, this might pay for breakfast and that would be about it. Incredibly, the rate included not only a room, but also a full breakfast each day. This was a sublimely low cost. There had to be a catch and of course there was. It seemed that my room did not have a toilet or shower. I would have to make my way to those when nature or an urge for cleanliness called.
I must admit that I never saw the renovated rooms at the Hotel George so my opinion is skewed. From what the hotel website shows, the refurbished rooms look both comfortable and fabulous. They are pretty much what one would expect for really nice accommodations in the western world. That is all well and good, but why would any American or west European visit Lviv to experience what they could at home. When people think of a night at the Hotel George, what should come to mind are not flat screen televisions or mints on a pillow, but an old, stately building with a fin de siècle Austro-Hungarian mystique. This is the kind of place that can evoke the end of an era, but never quite the beginning of a new one.
Haute Couture at “the George”
If the Hotel George can put their guests in a position to reimagine Honore Balzac smoking and drinking the night away while playing endless games of cards until dawn, so much the better. Now that would really be something, but the Hotel George really was something. After all, Balzac chose to stay and play there not once, not twice, but thrice. During the 19th and early 20th century, it was the place to stay for a couple of reasons. One was that it offered superlative accommodation. It also gained fame because of its hometown. Without the haute couture of Lviv, the Hotel George would have been nothing more than a large inn, in a provincial city, on the forgotten frontier of far eastern Europe’s fringes.
Straus, Liszt, Brahms and Ravel did not come to Lviv to stay at the Hotel George. Instead, they stayed at “the George” because of concerts that were held in what was once a cultural hub of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Yes it may have been on the fringes of the Habsburg’s domains, but it was also an intellectual and cultural powerhouse for the region. When I scanned the list of famous guests at the Hotel, it was not the names that impressed me, but the fact that they all had a reason for coming here. This was not an easy place for the glitterati of culture, intellect and politics to travel to. Nonetheless, they came and so many of them stayed at the Hotel George.
Spooky Charm – Into the Heart of “the George”
So what was it like? Well for the un-renovated (which I will call myself since that was my experience) it was a bit surreal. The lobby gleamed and sparkles. There was a doorman greeting guests, friendly English speaking staff awaiting arrivals and an air of refinement about the place. Service was very personal and old fashioned in a good way. Wake up calls were not automated, but personalized, with a friendly, heavily accented voice on the other end wishing a cheery good morning. The staff was attentive to an astonishing degree. When I left at 4:30 a.m. to catch the morning express to Budapest, the doorman who had fallen asleep, suddenly awoke at the sound of my footsteps and leapt to attention. I have never seen anyone move so fast, so early in the morning. It was more jarring for me, than it was for him.
As for my room, it was a bit rough around the edges. The plaster was cracked in a few places, but this was really no problem. The lock to the door, looked as though it was installed at the turn of the 20th rather than 21st century. The most memorable aspect of the room was it spaciousness. A ball could have been held in the place. Shiny gold bedspreads offered a bit of gaudy splendor covering the two small beds. The beds looked more like museum pieces than sleep units, as the cavernous surroundings made them stand out. The only drawback was having to get up in the middle of the night to unlock the door and make my way to the bathroom. Stumbling out into a large hallway, covered in a deep red carpet, I made my way down a roomy corridor that felt like the haunt of ghosts rather than guests. There was a spooky charm to the un-renovated section. It was a trip not just down a hotel hallway, but back in time.
The Un-renovated – Glimpses of the Past
I truly hope that half of the Hotel George stays un-renovated. My reasons are selfish, I want to feel the past, I need to feel the past. This was one of the few places I could actually get in touch with a former world and glimpse, if just for a moment, time turned back a hundred years or more. It was here, as I walked through the empty corridors and floated down the wide staircases, that I felt for once and all time that the Hotel George was a place where the past can truly be recaptured.