In his first contribution to All Things Considered, Matthew Loukes reports on a recent visit to Pension Briol - a hotel we've been keen on visiting for some time...
It’s not hard to find representations where modernism and 20th century design are seen as being all about synthetic materials, science and hard surfaces. Concrete, glass and steel, allied to some vaguely expressed but sinister ideas of monochrome socialism and uniformity. ‘Egg boxes’, scoff the readers of mid-market newspapers, while stepping into their grey cars that are only distinguishable from one another by the badge on the front. A visit to Pension Briol; some four thousand feet up the rocks that separate (but hardly divide) Italy, Austria and Germany ought to put paid to that lazy notion. The building itself remains defiantly modern (even though it went up in 1928) but emphasises wood as much as stone, grass as much as concrete and looks far less out of place on the side of a mountain than something mock Tudor does beside our own unlovely A3 trunk road.
One can get close to Briol by road, from Innsbruck or Munich, by rail from Verona or, as we did, from the hilariously over-done yet impressive Milan train station – a place that would look ostentatious in Las Vegas. But whichever way you choose, you can only get close. The last lap is done on foot and takes an hour or more, or by jeep which is faster if on the hair-raising side of things tearing up roads made from mud and adrenalin. The first sight of the building is both dramatic and charmingly homely. A line of bright white washing flaps in front of a yellow and dark wood facade; both sitting in front of an alpine scene that would have Julie Andrews clearing her throat. As soon as we step out of the car, we’re grinning stupidly, eyeing the wooden terrace, the furniture and the paint on the window frames. I can tell this place is special because my partner nudges me in the ribs. “Look at those chairs!” (continues below)
Hubert Lanzinger designed pretty much everything about Pension Briol, from the cutlery and crockery (still in use today) to the furniture, which looks like the sort of stuff Marcel Breuer might have done when there was no tubular steel handy. The owners smiled indulgently while we took photos of light switches, door handles and window catches. Johanna, descendant of the original owner, and her wonderfully named husband , Urban, are pleased to find enthusiasts but this is a working hotel and there are guests to book in, towels to wash and chemotherapy-strength schnapps to hand out. I stand on the terrace with a buzz that’s part alcohol and part wonder. Behind me is a mountain range of great beauty and majesty. That’s all very well, but in front of me are a solid wood supporting column and a coffee pot that are breaking my heart.
In the rooms the theme of modernity allied to more or less natural materials continues. The beds are wooden and screech like turkeys when you sit on them (or do anything else). I find it hard to put down a backpack made from a by-product of the oil refining business. It just feels out of place. Part of me wishes I’d come with a leather suitcase, a hawthorn walking stick and socks made from goat’s wool. There aren’t any private bathrooms just a white tin jug and bowl for a quick splash. The shared facilities are the one part of the place that has been modernised and are beyond reproach. Sneaking a look into the other rooms on our floor (there are maybe five on each floor) the layouts are a little different but all the details are the same, from the bedside lamps to the designs on the shutters. Turns out that I don’t really mind homogeneity; as long as it meets my taste. (continues below)
Mealtimes at Briol revealed that although the place is nominally in Italy, this area of the South Tyrol is more German than anything else. The food is a combination of noodle and strudel that doffs a feathered cap towards Italy without ever letting the calorie content fall below the belt-busting. And since the deal is for full or half board everyone gets together for dinner when a cow-bell is rung and the people-watching can start in earnest. During the day there’s an outside pool that’s not infinity but a pretty long time nevertheless and a series of trails that range from an easy stroll to Air Ambulance material. Each of the tracks brings you across mountain meadows covered in wild flowers that make one realise that designers and artists will always have something to aim for. (continues below)
My expectation was that Pension Briol would attract an arty crowd. The severe spectacles, no hair and Moleskine notebooks brigade. But I was on my own. Mostly the guests were families with kids, dogs or both. The main feeling was of a slightly upmarket resort with an emphasis on healthy outdoor activity and heartiness. That’s not to say people ignored the surroundings; anyone that I asked agreed there was something very special going on. They just didn’t make a fuss about it. On my last day I chatted to a couple of older women from Germany who looked like Bohemians in retirement. They enthused about the design and the feeling of preserved history but also passed on the news that Lanzinger went on to do some work in the war era that he may have come to regret. Like Milan train station – and I guess many parts of Germany and Italy – there are reminders of a dreadful past amid things of great beauty. That’s true of Britain too, when one thinks of it a little more.
Pension Briol, Barbiano, Val d'Isarco, Italy. www.briol.it
Matthew Loukes is a London based Crime Writer. His novel ESTRELLA DAMN is available from the usual outlets. A new novel GOOSE FLESH comes out in mid November 2009. More information from www.soulbaypress.com