We all have a very special place in our hearts; it may be the house where the whole family used to get together for those seemingly endless holidays of long ago; it may be the beach where we started going in our childhood and where we still meet the same friends and acquaintances, summer after summer, spending hours talking of our respective lives during the rest of the year; or it may be the hotel where we have spent the months of August of our youth, as in my case. It may be a coincidence that usually these special places are related to summer and summer holidays, that period when, for a moment, time seems to stand still, only for us to find it is just an illusion and another autumn is knocking on our door, only too soon.
My special place
My special place is a hotel, or rather was a hotel, because it no longer exists – only in my memory.
I can’t remember the first time I stayed at the Savoy, but I know we came all the way from Mozambique to the island of Madeira, the land of our ancestors, and I don’t recall much except for the feeling that it welcomed me in such a warm, cosy way that I immediately felt like home.
We kept coming back, and especially after losing our homeland it was so good to still have that feeling of belonging to a place, that not everything had been lost after all.
As soon as we landed on the island there was this feeling of excitement; the clear blue of the sky and the dark blue of the sea in sharp contrast with the dark brown of the cliffs and the several shades of green of the slopes and valleys; the long winding road to Funchal, the capital, and then, in the distance, we could fathom the unmistakable silhouette of our hotel, a beige building with an L shape; but most characteristic of all were its balconies, with a sort of cornucopia painted in light brown. It was surrounded by luscious gardens, and as you approached you could see the palm trees emerging from the green lawns and the flowers of all colours, creating an exotic atmosphere.
As our taxi approached the large entrance there would be the concierge, with his tall hat, coming to greet us and his huge smile immediately made us feel welcome. Then we’d walk into the magnificent lobby, decorated in gleaming marbles, white leather sofas and a blue and red flowered carpet; all of them contributing to a warm atmosphere. We knew everyone there, and everyone knew us – from the grooms and the people at the reception desk, to the owners who were my grandparents’ friends. We hugged, we shook hands, we kissed – it was so good to be back.
And then inevitably, began those magical holidays: as I opened the door to our room’s balcony, facing the green mountains in the distance, the familiar smell – a mix of earth and flowers and the sea – invaded me and in a minute I had ranged my clothes and was running through the hall, and the terrace, down to the pool Lido, for my first swim in the sea.
The hotel had many stories to tell: some I learned and some I would never know about. Mostly stories of love and deceit; romances that were born on the little rocky island that gave access to the sea, appropriately called “Lovers’ island”; such as that of one of the owners’ daughters who had met a dashing Suede, married him and like a princess in a fairy tale, followed her handsome blond god to his Northern country; every year they came back with their handsome children, the proof that fairy tales can still exist; but there were nightmares too, like the one about the wife of one of her brothers who had abandoned her husband and three children, to elope with another man. But then another twist of life, that most inventive storyteller of all, and the following year he had found happiness in his daughter’s babysitter’s arms, and against all odds they also lived happily ever after.
How many summer loves were born, and ended, in that hotel? How many stolen kisses down by the pool or in the secluded gardens, behind a centennial tree? How many dances up in the night club at the sound of a band playing oldies by Frank Sinatra, Julio Iglesias and such? We fell in love in the arms of our foreign beaus who attend dancing lessons back home – something unheard of in Portugal – and we’d remember those magical nights forever and ever, as soon as the first notes of those songs would play, no matter how far ahead in the future we would be and how many years had gone by; how to forget those lavish buffet dinners, served on the terrace on warm summer nights, that invariably gave us a slight intestinal disarray, so usual that that it was called “Madeira tummy”? So many stories, so many memories, and every year when we entered the great hall, we knew for certain a new story was beginning, a new adventure, that would create a new memory, for the rest of our lives.
My boys still came with me to my favourite hotel a few times. The last, as they were old enough to understand, I told them many old stories; as we walked the corridors to our room I told them about how we came back, silently, late at night so as not to wake anyone up, or when in the morning my brother and I raced each other to see if we made it to breakfast on time, as on no account could we reach the breakfast salon after it had closed its doors.
Not long after that last time, someone told me the hotel was going to be demolished. I could not believe my ears. That beautiful, iconic building, was coming down. In its place the owners wanted to build a six-star hotel, a monster with hundreds of rooms, a megalomaniac project that would completely change to hotel’s neighbourhood and the city’s landscape forever.
A few years after I went back to Funchal for my friend Luisa’s 25thwedding anniversary. There was a blessing ceremony in the chapel she and her husband were married, and it was very close to my hotel – or its former place. As I looked in the vain hope of a miracle, there was nothing, only a huge hole, like a “ground zero”. I was in shock, it seemed impossible that the wonderful building that had stood there for so many decades was now gone, reduced to dust, vanished into thin air. There was absolutely nothing where my hotel had once proudly stood. And I cried, for it broke my heart.
A new beginning
Now I have been to the new, giant building. It looks imposing from the street, but, surprisingly, once you go in you don’t have that feeling anymore. It’s well decorated, without the exaggeration I was expecting. Huge glass walls let us see a swimming pool outside and when we asked if there was a bar where we could have some coffee a young woman from the staff was very helpful and told us about the bar on the last floor, the 16th. She invited us to come up and see the magnificent view, and up we went. And it was true – it reminded me of the view we had from the old hotel’s rooftop where we watched the fireworks on New Year’s Eve, but now we were some seven storeys higher. The whole terrace was surrounded by a transparent rail that allowed you to see the greens of the mountain, the whites and greys of the buildings with the red tilled rooftops and the deep blue of the sea. It was simply breath-taking! Below us the landscape I knew so well, the bay where the three most iconic hotels of Madeira stood – the Reid’s, still there after so many decades; the old Sheraton, then renamed Carlton and finally Pestana; and the old Savoy, in whose place I was now standing, in the new one, renamed Savoy Palace.
I also glimpsed the Savoy gardens, smaller than I remembered but still there, with the green trees and the colourful flowers; the small street that you had to cross to reach them, with the Prince Albert pub where we so often went for a drink, now painted in red, but still there: so much was different, but so much reminded me of the old hotel; in the end much has changed but the place is still the same, something in the air is so familiar that I cannot help wishing I come and stay here for a few days and experience this new Savoy.
But then, I feel the soft summer breeze on my face. I close my eyes and I see, not the new, imposing, curved shapes and transparencies of the new building, but the old hotel that I loved, that welcomed me with its open arms, where I lived some of the happiest moments of my life. In my heart, it has not, will never disappear; I imagine myself opening the green shutters to the balcony and being invaded by the scents, the colours, the breeze. I enter that magical atmosphere and relive every moment that I spent there. After all, in the world of dreams, anything is possible.