Matild Palace, a Luxury Collection Hotel has opened in Budapest with restaurants and bars to follow this autumn, the culmination of a five-year project to convert a neglected UNESCO World Heritage Site into one of Europe’s grandest hotels. The transformation was led by Maria Vafiadis, Founder & Managing Director of MKV Design, in collaboration with local architects, Péter Cajka and Puhl Antal.
The significance of the building to Budapest cannot be understated. When the decision was taken to construct the original Elisabeth Bridge over the River Danube in the 1880s, Princess Klotilde of Saxe-Coburg and Archduchess of Austria purchased adjacent land to create a gateway to the new bridge and a landmark for the city. Her vision was to build two grand palaces and in 1902, one of these, Matild Palace, was completed as a retail and apartment property resplendent in Zsolnay ceramics, Gyula Jungfer wrought iron and Miksa Róth stained glass. Later, the Belvarosi Café was added which became a famous haunt for artists and musicians during Budapest’s “Silver Age” between the wars.
Now, MKV has woven together a narrative rich in sense of place, which embraces the architectural, crafts, social and cultural inheritance of Budapest while creating a hotel that is relevant, beautiful and comfortable for 21st Century travellers. It is a narrative in which the Duchess features, returning to Budapest to revive the palace by transforming it into a luxury hotel where friends are invited to stay, dine and bathe, artists gather and she herself decides to make her residence.
At street level, the existing interior has been restored. Typifying buildings of its era, a passageway with full-height ornamental gates and a high vaulted ceiling is carved through the building, offering access to the café on one side and reception, lounge and dining areas on the other. Over-scaled pendants made of individual porcelain pieces showcase the next chapter of the local Zsolnay tile tradition and crafted items of furniture and elegant plantings hint at what is to come.
Much as the Duchess may herself have chosen, the interiors blend hints of Baroque, Romanesque and Art Nouveau, and they delight in the Hungarian heritage of metalwork, embroidery and tile-making and in the tones of aquamarine which grace the city’s old rooftops. And, just as the Duchess commissioned Budapest’s first lift for the original Matild Palace, her latter-day statement piece is a modern, custom-designed reception desk in beaten brass. The lobby lounge with its sumptuous furnishings flows from reception. Envisaged as the Duchess’s showcase for her adoring public, the double-height space features a floor-to-ceiling collection of images of Budapest printed onto metal, in the centre of which an oil on canvas portrait of Princess Klotilde resides. The huge central chandelier could be replica of one of her family jewels.
The Belvarosi Café has been reinvented as Matild Café and Cabaret, a contemporary destination with all the glamour of its predecessor. This is a coffeehouse and social hub to be seen in, which tourists to the city will bookmark as a ‘must-visit’. A long-buried stage in the central atrium was excavated and renovated and will once again play host to musicians and cabaret; the mezzanine gallery which flows around this, will be the perfect place for people-gazing. The timber-clad walls, architectural features on the ceiling and café chandeliers have all been retained and restored to their former beauty while table lamps have been introduced to provide a sense of cosy intimacy on chilly winter days.
On the opposite side of the passageway, the ground floor has been re-planned to accommodate Spago Budapest by Wolfgang Puck, a contemporary dining experience. Both the restaurant and the café spill onto new outdoor dining terraces, marking the first ‘gastro street’ in Budapest.
From the days of the Roman Empire, Budapest’s reputation for thermal bathing was second to none, and numerous bathhouses remain in the city today. Naturally, Matild Palace was destined to have its own spa inspired by the bathing culture and re-interpreted into an exquisite sanctuary where the graceful forms of the swans which inhabit the River Danube infuse the design. Doors resemble their soft white plumes of feathers and an ornate metalwork screen depicts their dance; the ethereal relaxation room hints of traditional bathhouses or a deep-water pool into which swans may dive.
MKV completely re-configured the first floor upwards to create 111 guestrooms and 19 suites. The rooms are grand and elegant with four-metre high ceilings and large windows offering unforgettable views of the city. Yet, they are also cosy spaces where every last detail has been thought through. The envelope of the rooms is timeless and pared back with simple painted walls and elegant panelling, allowing the story to unfold in specially designed features and luxurious fabrics. There are magnificent Belle Époche flourishes complementing the architecture of the building, embroidery and fine metalwork reflecting Hungary’s traditional crafts heritage, and a thoughtful colour palette of teal, green, gold and copper reflecting the hues of the iconic Budapest roofscape. Materials include faux shagreen, large verre églomisé mirrors, marble-topped tables, crystal lamps and Hungarian-style fishbone parquet flooring complemented by soft rugs. With an emphasis on detail and craftsmanship, magnificent full-height headboards are upholstered in embossed leather onto which an elaborate art-deco pattern has been stitched in a design inspired by The Adventures of Sinbad, a Hungarian classic published in 1911 and authored by one of the writers who used to frequent the palace. Traditional-style embroidered ribbons edge the curtains.
The bathrooms also take guests to a new level of luxury with their bespoke bathtubs and rain showers. Designed as a private spa, their wet areas are clad in turquoise glass mosaic interleaved with gold – a nod to Budapest’s famous Gellért Baths. Richly veined Calacatta Oro marble to the walls, floors and vanities and bronze fittings complete the jewel-like character of their interiors.
The Duchess loved to gather artists around her and the fifth floor is designed to be their very special pad. Tucked into the eaves and with inspirational views of the city through floor-to-ceiling windows, these rooms are skilfully curated to evoke a sense of creative fun, from the casual platform sofas to lounge on to the eclectic, original Hungarian art on the walls and vintage-style rugs.
The Maria Klotilde Royal Suite has been imagined as the princess’s private apartment, designed to reflect her personality and social standing. The open plan living room is perfect for entertaining guests amidst her artefacts, original artworks and furniture pieces – a collection that feels as if it has been brought together over the years. The colour palette belongs to Budapest with tones of teal, green, gold and copper. Modern and traditional furniture spans the opulent chamber along with chandeliers, handmade glass pieces, antiques sourced in Budapest and a magnificent parquet floor. Everything is custom designed and the original artwork is by acclaimed Hungarian artists. The bathroom is simply one-of-a-kind. Book matched Calacatta Oro marble clads the space from top to toe, combined with a specially commissioned gold mosaic design to the walls, a huge free-standing tub and classic bronze fittings.
The three-storey Crown Tower Suite is also especially noteworthy. Created within one of Matild Palace’s turrets, it is the first suite in Hungary to come with a 48-metre-high viewing level offering a 360- degree panorama.
The Duchess has one more secret – an eponymously named rooftop bar, a place so precious it might be reserved for her most favoured friends, and because it is a “secret”, the design here can be at its most precocious. The ambience is that of a private club where fantastic things can happen. A glowing onyx bar displays its liquor “library”, tables are held aloft by brass peacocks and even a couple of giraffe sculptures join the host of extraordinary objects. The ambience is dark and moody with plush fabrics and marble finishes glinting under ceiling pendants. A large terrace where guests can sit within the Baroque skyline completes the magic.
“Reimagining Matild Palace as one of the finest hotels in central Europe was an extraordinary experience,” says Maria Vafiadis, Founder & Managing Director of MKV Design. “We were fortunate in a client who was passionate about the project, a hotel brand that was a strong partner for our aspirations, the property’s location in a city which loves its palaces, and historical context. While clearly a new hotel, Matild Palace feels as if she’s been there forever.”