Name drop alert: just over a year ago I met, at a dinner far away from London, Ralph Fiennes, whose performance in Schindler's List I hold to be the best depiction of menace in modern cinema, together with Ben Kingsley in Sexy Beast. I asked him what he was up to. "Shooting," he said. "It's a Wes Anderson film about a hotel in Budapest. It's all about nostalgia and faded glory, rather decent, I think."
I didn't imagine the man who played both Amon Goeth in Spielberg's epic, and Count Almásy in The English Patient – two characters who fall somewhere between morose and morbid – would have it in him to play the camp, hilarious and heroic concierge Monsieur Gustave H in The Grand Budapest Hotel, but Anderson's comedy has already acquired something like cult status. What it captures is the life-affirming romance of a great hotel. The grand scale and auspicious setting; the light touch of luxury; and the instinctive optimist of the traveller. For Anderson, these qualities are amplified best through the prism of nostalgia: in which the Grand Budapest Hotel falls from glory to disrepair.
In Amalfi this summer, I experienced the qualities of the once-great hotel of Anderson's imagination all over again, made real at the Grand Hotel Excelsior, every aspect of which is just as unforgettable. It was built in 1962 by Gaetano Amendola, who went on to be Amalfi's mayor. Today, it is run by his son, Lorenzo. The hotel is carved like a giant yellow whale into the hillside facing what is, rightly, regarded by many as Europe's most beautiful coastline.
There is a pool, into which some revellers, including this one, have been known to jump from ambitious heights; and just beyond it a sizeable terraced area with bar and dinner views across the sea. The ground floor has another large bar with spiral staircase; and one floor below is a canteen that does excellent breakfasts with sugary local delicacies and a memorably yellow and intense tray of scrambled eggs.
Of course, if you've made it this far, you probably want to see the towns. Amalfi is closest (20 minutes away); but Positano, Ravello, and Sorrento are all within driving distance. And a beautiful, if hazardous, drive it is too, along snaking hilltop roads surrounded by flowers.
Each of the 104 rooms has a view of the stunning coastline that make the excellent cable television seem a distraction. They are sparsely decorated, with minimal wall art, bland furnishing, and functional rather than dazzling bathrooms. Each has shutters opening on to a small balcony. The rooms have various degrees of splendour, from Standard through to Superior, Deluxe, Junior suites and Garden suites. The main difference, other than price, is size and location. Garden suites, the best of all, have a split-level bedroom, a 45sq m living space, two bathrooms (one with Jacuzzi), and a large terrace infused by the scent of nearby lemon groves.
Wi-Fi is available in all the rooms, and also in the main reception area, creating the now customary modern ceremony of huddled tourists gazing at their iPhones in silence, barely aware of each other's existence. This seems a shame given the views on offer.
Perhaps the highlight is the beach owned by the hotel. Regular free bus shuttle services take you to a pebbled, private spot where you can swim, get all manner of drinks, and eat delicious and fresh local specialities.
Grand hotels, as Anderson and Fiennes could tell you, come in all shapes and sizes. I've stayed in a few of the modern ones and many are garish, corporate, soulless enclaves that make no bones about squeezing every cent from you. But there are still some that hold true to their local heritage, that galvanise the soul and offer beauty and comfort at bargain price. Of the latter, the Excelsior is the best I've seen.
Grand Hotel Excelsior Via Papa Leone X, Amalfi, Salerno, Italy (00 39 089 830 015; excelsior-hotel.it).
Double rooms start at €180, including breakfast.Reuse content