Justine Tyerman immerses herself in the history of one of Europe's oldest and most splendid hotels

Mattias examines my weighty room key with its blue tassel and exclaims "117! You are very privileged Madam. This is one of our special, historic suites, where Dr Theodor Herzl first planned the State of Israel."

He unlocks the door with a flourish, gesturing towards the bronze plaque of Herzl on the wall dated 1897, and throws open the double doors to a spectacular view of the Rhine River from the huge balcony. The plaque shows Herzl leaning on "my" balcony railing, gazing at the Rhine.

I'm mesmerised by the silent, swirling dark waters, the same scene that captivated another famous guest, Pablo Picasso, in the 1930s. The artist stayed awake on his balcony all night, watching the river and observing the city going to sleep and awakening next day.

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I've just checked into the elegant, five-star Les Trois Rois in Basel, Switzerland, and I'm immediately swept up in the history and heritage of this splendid 336-year-old establishment, one of the oldest hotels in Europe.

My suite is decorated with antique furniture, mirrors and lamps, luxurious drapes, a parquet floor and a magnificent chandelier. Even the heaters are ornately carved.

Paintings on the walls tell the story of the hotel through the ages. The tiled bathroom floor is heated but otherwise it's original with a claw-foot bath and a porcelain vanity on tall legs.

Flags flutter above the entrance to Les Trois Rois. Photo / Justine Tyerman
Flags flutter above the entrance to Les Trois Rois. Photo / Justine Tyerman

I find a beautiful book about Les Trois Rois, Glimpses of the Past, next to the bed and take it outside on the sunny balcony to read. A lover of history, I'm in nirvana.

Established in 1681 as a gentlemen's inn, rebuilt in 1844 as a grand hotel, and renovated and lovingly restored in 2006, Les Trois Rois stands at the exact spot where ships docked at the 'Salzhaus' and 'Salzturm' (salt house and salt tower) in the Middle Ages to transport the much sought-after product down the Rhine to the world. A 10-metre section of the medieval tower is still visible today in the cellar of the hotel.

The name Les Trois Rois is a reference to the Three Wise Men from the Orient, Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar, also known as The Three Kings. However legend suggests the hotel was named after three kings who met at the establishment in 1026 to discuss the future of the Kingdom of Burgundy.

The hotel has long been regarded as the most exclusive address in Basel. The guestbook reads like a Who's Who of world history — Napoleon Bonaparte, Queen Elizabeth II, Empress Michiko of Japan, James Joyce, Pablo Picasso, Charles Dickens, Jean Paul Sartre, Richard Wagner, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the Dalai Lama, Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones. Two floors above me, Roger Federer and his family are in residence, and in one of the glittering salons downstairs, a high society wedding is taking place.

There's a knock at the door and Guillaume arrives with a bottle of fine wine and a little birthday cake with the words "Alles Gute zum Geburtstag" in chocolate icing. He places the gift on the desk beside a red rose in a tall vase, some Swiss chocolates and a hand-written greeting card from the general manager Reto Kocher. As a Kiwi, I'm not accustomed to such service and pampering, and I feel quite overwhelmed.

It's just as well Guillaume disturbs my reading — it's time to explore the rest of my famous abode.

The bedroom in the Herzl suite at Les Trois Rois. Photo / Justine Tyerman
The bedroom in the Herzl suite at Les Trois Rois. Photo / Justine Tyerman

The reception lobby is dominated by two dazzling chandeliers hung one above the other from a glass ceiling at the peak of the atrium. Opposite my room, there's a library with exquisite stained glass windows and handmade wallpaper. Prior to 1930, it was a chapel with an English-speaking minister, designed to keep guests at the hotel until Sunday.

The lounges, bars, restaurants and the Salon du Cigare are resplendent beyond belief, imbued with opulence and impeccable style dating back centuries.

Three-starred Michelin Chef de Cuisine Peter Knogl and his team at the Cheval Blanc restaurant have earned a place among the 100 best restaurants in the world, thanks to their superb creations. I watch the chefs at work through windows in the kitchen that are appropriately framed like artworks. Their many awards are proudly displayed for all to see.

In the days that follow, we dine on delectable Italian cuisine at Chez Donati under Murano chandeliers, and at the Brasserie overlooking the elbow of the Rhine where the river bends. There's even French champagne for breakfast.

The staff at Les Trois Rois delivered birthday cake and wine. Photo / Justine Tyerman
The staff at Les Trois Rois delivered birthday cake and wine. Photo / Justine Tyerman

Local guides introduce us to Basel, Switzerland's capital of art and culture. Located in the northwest of Switzerland, the city shares borders with France and Germany. At the Dreiländereck (the three countries' corner), it's possible, if you have three feet, to put one in each country. This is indeed a bizarre thing for a Kiwi to do.

We walk around the beautiful medieval town and visit the Kunstmuseum Basel to see a fascinating exhibition by Marc Chagall, a Russian-French artist of Belarusian Jewish origin.

When it's time to leave Les Trois Rois, I find myself lingering on the balcony. The sun peeks through autumn clouds which never seem to turn to rain.

Les Trois Rois, as seen from a bridge over the Rhine. Photo / Justine Tyerman
Les Trois Rois, as seen from a bridge over the Rhine. Photo / Justine Tyerman

It's 21 degrees on this late October day. I take 20 last shots of the silvery river. Occasionally a swimmer bobs by with a bright orange or green balloon on his or her back. These are called "wickelfisch", cleverly-designed waterproof bags to put your clothes in, that double as flotation devices. In the summer there are thousands of swimmers in the river . . . and kayakers too. The Rhine is so clean, you can drink it.

Regal swans glide by, disdainful of the seagulls' vulgar shrieks. A ferry sweeps its way across the river on a cable using only the current to power it to the other side. Long slim cruise ships sail past. Trams trundle across the bridge towards Germany.

The sunlight catches the crystal drops of the chandelier, scattering rainbow fragments around my bedroom.

I'm tearful as I close the heavy door, take the antique lift to reception and hand over key 117 to Mattias.

The doorman salutes me as I leave.

IF YOU GO
Staying there: Les Trois Rois is a member of The Leading Hotels of the World.

Getting there: See swiss.com for flight information.

Getting around: Details on Swiss rail passes can be found at myswitzerland.com/rail
Further information: See myswitzerland.com.

Justine Tyerman travelled courtesy of Switzerland Tourism and stayed at Les Trois Rois, Basel.