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Sofitel Winter Palace Luxor
Hotel review, photos and history
Article added on June 5, 2012

A history of the Winter Palace including the Swiss hotelier Charles Baehler
  
The Winter Palace luxury hotel in Luxor opened on January 19, 1907. At that time, the city already had the Karnak, Luxor and Savoy hotels, but the Winter Palace eclipsed them all.

The Winter Palace hotel was built by the architect and part-time general consul of the Netherlands, Leon Stienon, and the Italian construction company G. Garozzo & Sons of Egypt, of which you can admire an early 20th century photo in the hotel lobby. They famously built the Egyptian Museum in Cairo too.

Stienon and Garozzo constructed the hotel for the Upper Egypt Hotels Company, established in 1905 and owned by the Swiss hotelier Charles Bähler (1868-1937), the Greek-Cypriot George Nungovich of Limassol, who had arrived penniless in Egypt in 1870, in collaboration with Ferdinand Pagnon and Thomas Cook & Son, whose company had been offering travels to Egypt since 1869.

Thanks to Thomas Cook as well as the railway built from Cairo to Luxor and Aswan, Upper Egypt had become a tourist destination. The Egyptian royal family and their guests turned Luxor in general and the Winter Palace in particular into a glamorous place to visit, long before the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun, which added of course an unprecedented hype to Upper Egypt's largest city and its antiquities.

At the time, my fellow Swiss, Charles Baehler, was The hotel tycoon in Egypt. According to Nina Nelson in her book Shepheard's Hotel, Charles Baehler won the French National Lottery of 40,000 golden francs twice, which would explain why he could rise so quickly from pretty humble beginnings, as many Swiss hoteliers did.

Born Karl Albert Bähler in Zurich in 1868, Charles Baehler had worked in Egypt since 1889 as an accountant at Shepheard's Hotel. In 1891, he rebuilt the hotel within 6 months. In 1900, he established the Egyptian Hotels Company, which controlled the Gezirah Palace Hotel and the legendary Shepheards. In 1910, he bought hotel Semiramis in Cairo from the Swiss company Bucher-Durrer.

Charles Baehler was not only the founder of the Upper Egypt Hotels Company that operated the Cataract Hotel in Aswan and the Winter Palace in Luxor, both currently under management by Sofitel, he also built Baehler Arcade, Baehler Mansions and Baehler Passage in Cairo. Among the other hotels opened under the direction of Charles Baehler, let's mention the famous King David Hotel in Jerusalem.



Unprecedented fame: Howard Carter, Tutankhamun and the Winter Palace

Back to the Winter Palace: For its inauguration on January 19, 1907 invited guests were taken on a picnic to the Valley of Kings on the other side of the Nile. followed by a dinner reception at the hotel. The Egyptian Gazette commented the event. Within a week, the Winter Palace hotel was fully booked. Among the first guests were the Bishop of Madras, the Comte de Bruges, the French Egyptologist Gaston Maspero, the American Excavator Theodore Davis and Prince Djemil Toussoun, the grandson of the former ruler or Wāli of Egypt and Sudan, Said Pasha (1822-1863).

As director of the Egyptian Service of the Antiquities, Gaston Maspero hired the 17 year old Howard Carter as a staff member for the Cairo Museum. In 1907, the French Egyptologist recommended Howard Carter to Lord Carnarvon as the expert to head the Englishman's expedition to the Valley of Kings.

During the First World War, the Winter Palace served as a convalescent home to the injured British soldiers. As early as 1917, before, the end of the war, many archeologists were back at the hotel. On November 4, 1922 Howard Carter discovered the sealed entrance to the tomb of Tutankhamun. He immediately cabled Lord Carnarvon to come back from England. Photographs of the end of 1922 show the Lord on the Winter Palace terrace as well as in the Valley of Kings. By Christmas, the city of Luxor was full of curious journalists and tourists who eagerly awaited the great moment, which only came on February 17, 1923 with the opening of the tomb, which revealed treasures unseen before. It took Howard Carter until 1932 to bring all objects from Luxor to the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, where they remain on display until today.

Both Howard Carter and Lord Carnarvon were frequent guests at the Winter Palace in 1922 and 1923. I found an overnight stay by Mr. Carter at the hotel as late as of 1933. Lord Carnarvon was less lucky: On March 6, 1923 an insect - supposedly a mosquito - bit him in the face. While shaving, he scraped the pimple that had formed. The scratch became infected. The Lord took ill. He traveled up to Cairo for better medical help, but it was too late. He died on April 5, which gave rise to numerous, phony tales and movies of the “curse of the Pharaoh”.



General Manager Anton Badrutt

In 1923, the Swiss hotelier Anton Badrutt (1888-1967) was General Manager of the Winter Palace when the hotel was besieged by the foreign press, arguably the most famous address in the world, at the time. He was a friend of the otherwise dour and difficult Howard Carter.

Anton Badrutt was the son of Caspar Badrutt (1848-1904), owner of the excellent Palace Hotel in St. Moritz. He was instrumental in making winter tourism with tobogganing and bobsleigh a success story. He was the grandson of Johannes Badrutt (1819-1889), who had turned a modest pension in what is today's Kulm Hotel. Anton Badrutt managed the Winter Palace in Luxor for 15 years and returned to Switzerland in 1935, where he took up the management of the Kulm Hotel in St. Moritz.

The Winter Palace from King Farouk to the present-day Sofitel Winter Palace Luxor

The Winter Palace was the winter residence for Egypt's King Farouk, hence the name of today's hotel. I had a look at the King Farouk Room 327, which contains the actual furniture from the bedroom of the king's apartments at the Winter Palace, including a commode, a dressing table, a cupboard and a bed, all made in Paris.

Among the oldest features in the rooms is the original Alabaster sink in the Royal Suite. The smaller, antique carpets in the lobby stem from King Farouk's times and came from East Iran. The wooden cupboards in the lobby are also antiques; they came from Turkey.

The Nasser revolution and wars kept tourists away. In 1975, the hotel was enlarged by the New Winter Palace, a modernist extension, which was luckily demolished in 2008. The current General Manager, Christian Ruge, told me that at its place, a Winter Palace extension with some 80 to 90 rooms and suites, an infinity pool, spa and gym should have been built already. The plans have been shelved mainly because of the 2011-revolution. So far, there is just a giant hole next to the Winter Palace. Works could restart soon. Let's hope for the best. Together with the Mena House in Giza and the Old Cataract in Aswan, the Winter Palace is one the the three most legendary Egyptian hotels.

As for the present day Sofitel Winter Palace Luxor hotel, all rooms feature bathrooms in Salvia marble. As for the main staircase, it is made of Carrara marble from Italy.

The Winter Palace was last fully restored in 1994, with the help of a $11 million investment. Currently, it makes a good impression. Yearly soft renovations take place. In addition to the five-star luxury hotel, a four-star property called Pavilion was built. Its guests have full access to the hotel park, swimming pool and the historic building. They just have their own reception and breakfast restaurant.



Anecdotes and famous guests

The author Agatha Christie had visited Egypt as a debutante in 1910, then again in 1931 and in 1933, in company of her second husband, the archeologist Max Mallowan, and her daughter by her first marriage, Rosalind. The trio was traveling on the SS Karnak, with stops at the Winter Palace in Luxor and the Old Cataract in Aswan.

Since the Winter Palace is state owned, the hotel hosts many official state guests. A look at all photographs testifies to the popularity of the old luxury hotel. Jacqueline Kennedy, the Japanese Crown Prince and Princess (2000), Nicolas Sarkozy and Carla Bruni (2007), Condoleezza Rice (2007), Tony and Cherie Blair are just some of the many politicians, artists and celebrities staying at the Luxor palace. A look at the Golden Book showed me that the great British actress Kate Winslet had just stayed a week before me at the Winter Palace in April 2012. Incidentally, arriving the following month at the Mena House, I found out the she had stayed there too.

Jascha Heifetz in 1927, Somerset Maugham and Rudyard Kipling in 1929, Sir Winston Churchill, Jane Fonda, Henry Kissinger, Richard Gere, John Malkovich, King Juan Carlos of Spain, Prince Charles and Lady Diana, Helmut Kohl and Sheika Mozah of Qatar are just some of the other famous guests staying at the legendary Winter Palace.

Since the Sofitel Winter Palace Luxor is owned by the state-owned Egyptian General Company for Tourism & Hotels (EGOTH), in addition to the the hotel's own, original antiques, the Winter Palace features seven antiques brought from the EGOTH depot in the capital. For instance, in 2009, they brought to Luxor a handmade, wool carpet, with flower ornaments and the gigantic dimensions of 10m to 8m The carpet was a present by Prince Ismail of Egypt and used to be on display at the Cairo Marriott. At the Winter Palace, it emblazes the Lounge, where the Afternoon Tea is served. In addition, the Lounge features the hotel's old August Förster piano.

The Winter Palace garden

Last but not least let's mention the hotel garden. All garden view rooms feature a balcony. That's a great place to read a book. I stayed in a gorgeous Prestige Suite facing the Nile. It combined old-style luxury with state-of-the-art TV sets and internet connections. I also had a look at one of the two Royal Suites with a giant terrace balcony facing the Nile.

Back to the Sofitel Winter Palace Luxor hotel garden: With some 40,000 square meters, the Winter Palace garden is an oasis of peace. It was created as a part of the royal residence. Charming birds, including the Hoopoe with its distinctive crown feathers, give the area a relaxing atmosphere. 50 different species of trees, including a Bombax Cebia, which is 120 years old, offer something for any nature lover. Lantana Chinensis, Washington Filfera, Kigelia Pinnate and Hybhaena Thepaica are just some of the rare trees you can find in the botanical garden.

Literature and further reading

Andrew Humphreys: Grand Hotels of Egypt in the Golden Age of Travel, The American University in Cairo Press, 2011, 215 pages. Order it from Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.comAmazon.de. This book was a valuable source for my article.

L. Gaulis, R. Creux: Pionniers suisses de l'hôtellerie, 1975. Information about Charles Baehler.

F. Ammann: Schweizer Gastgeberfamilien, 1980. Information about Charles Baehler.

“C. A. Baehler Dies; Cairo Hotel Man”, New York Times, September 28, 1937: “Charles A. Baehler, whose fame as one of the world's greatest hotel men is bound up with that of Shepheard's Hotel...” had died that day.

Books about Luxor & Egypt from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.ukAmazon.deAmazon.fr.


The Royal Bar. Towards the other side is the library. Photos © Sofitel Winter Palace Luxor / Serge Detalle.


The historic Winter Palace seen from the Nile. Photos © Sofitel Winter Palace Luxor / Gilles Trillard.


The Winter Palace garden seen from the hotel terrace. Photos © Sofitel Winter Palace Luxor / Emad Mahjoub. - Books about Luxor & Egypt from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.ukAmazon.deAmazon.fr.


The living room in red of the Royal Suite. Photos © Sofitel Winter Palace Luxor / Serge Detalle.


The terrace of the Royal Suite. Photos © Sofitel Winter Palace Luxor / Gilles Trillard. Books about Luxor & Egypt from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.ukAmazon.deAmazon.fr.


The living room of the Royal Suite. Photos © Sofitel Winter Palace Luxor / Gilles Trillard.


The original sink from 1886 in the bathroom of the Royal Suite. Photos © Sofitel Winter Palace Luxor / Emad Mahjoub.


View of the bedroom of my Prestige Suite 253 with Nile view but no balcony. Photos © Sofitel Winter Palace Luxor / Emad Mahjoub.


King Farouk Room: 327 contains the actual furniture from the bedroom of the king's apartments at the Winter Palace, including a commode, a dressing table, a cupboard and a bed, all made in Paris. Photos © Sofitel Winter Palace Luxor / Gilles Trillard. - Books about Luxor & Egypt from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.ukAmazon.deAmazon.fr.


Andrew Humphreys: Grand Hotels of Egypt in the Golden Age of Travel, The American University in Cairo Press, 2011, 215 pages. Order it from Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.comAmazon.de. This book was a valuable source for my article.


The lounge at the Winter Palace. The huge carpet is original, from around 1886 and estimated at some $200,000. Photos © Sofitel Winter Palace Luxor / Gilles Trillard.

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© Copyright www.cosmopolis.ch  Louis Gerber  All rights reserved.