A monument to grand ideas

Shaney Hudson relishes life in prestigious surrounds in Amsterdam that once hosted nuns, royalty and newlyweds.

When you arrive at a five-star hotel, you don't expect to start helping move furniture. But here I am, one knee on the couch for support, helping to gently ease the back cushion off the wall to glimpse the exposed brick wall underneath. Luckily, it's well worth the effort.

The marriage chamber is one of the most beautiful rooms I've glimpsed in Europe, decorated in a dreamy, art deco style characteristic of the 1920s. In aqua and gold tones, a mural wraps around the walls depicting the circle of life from childhood, engagement and then to marriage; the key feature a large stained glass window where a groom places a ring on his bride's finger. As the sun dips low, coloured panes of light stretch like fingertips across the floor towards us.

A listed national monument in Holland, Chris Lebeau created the marriage chamber in 1924 for the Town Hall of the city of Amsterdam. It was a much-celebrated creation. However, during the German occupation during World War II, it was labelled "degenerate art" and covered over with wallpaper. Tragically, Lebeau died of starvation in a concentration camp, refusing to eat non-kosher food. But this was not the end of his story.

Like Anne Frank, Lebeau left his mark on the city and as we pull back the lounge seven decades later to reveal the bare exposed brick underneath, we glimpse his message: a handful of colour paint blocks, a list of contractors and a dated signature.

The hotel has a distinctive historic pedigree.

The covered inscription was a vital clue to the restoration of the mural. From the information on the wall, original companies were contracted to restore the mural to its original glory.

Today the marriage chamber is again used for weddings and is one of the highlights of the short but comprehensive historical tour of the hotel offered only to guests at the Sofitel Legend The Grand, a boutique offshoot of the Sofitel luxury business chain.

The Legend concept is "hotels with history", based on selecting the most historic properties in the Sofitel portfolio and giving them a plush renovation to emphasise their stories. In the case of the Grand, the hotel has a distinctive historic pedigree, with the story of the marriage chamber simply one page in a 500-year-old history.

The hotel is situated on an entire block in the oldest part of Amsterdam, known to locals as De Wallen, and began life in the 1500s as a convent. As the centuries passed it was home to royalty, the headquarters of the Dutch Admiralty, Amsterdam's Town Hall, and it was in the council chambers that the reigning monarch, Queen Beatrix, was married.

The two-year, €47-million ($60 million) renovation was overseen by French architect Sybille de Margerie, who worked with a group of students from the renowned Design Academy Eindhoven to renovate the hotel.

Their inclusion was a canny choice: subtle nuances of Dutch design throughout the hotel balance what is a typically French brand, and the resulting collaboration led to the hotel winning the 2010 Villegiature Award for best hotel interior design.

More importantly for guests, the rooms are comfortable, functional and, to add a little prestige, the hotel is the only one in town to offer a butler service for guests.

I'm shown to my junior suite by the hotel butler, Luiz dos Santos, who offers to unpack my bag, make me a coffee and gives me his card should there be anything I need.

Inside, the room features exposed brick, purple and chocolate hues against the high ceilings; and an oversized applique outline of a famous Dutch admiral looks down at me from the wall.

Of the 177 rooms in the hotel, 101 are different in style and most offer a view to Amsterdam's famous UNESCO heritage-listed canals, which wrap around the front and back of the hotel. My view comes with an added bonus: a pair of white swans glide in and out of view for the duration of my stay.

The room features a Nespresso machine (seemingly as standard to a high end hotel room these days as a door key), flat screen TV and all mod cons, including the wickedly indulgent Sofitel MyBed, offered as standard in most Sofitel rooms.

Later that night, a bedtime story based on the Dutch admiral is left on my side-table, a unique touch to the turndown service.

The real highlight is the freestanding, deep, full size bath with built-in flat screen TV, waterproof remote and stereo speakers mounted in the ceiling. With this available in-room, I forgo a trip to the hotel's two-storey spa, hamman and pool for a simple soak in the bath and a little channel surfing.

The hotel's dining offering is Bridges Fish and Vins, which focuses on a mainly seasonal fish menu heavy with French influence in a space that was once the Town Hall's canteen. As I round the corner, I am stopped dead in my tracks by the abstract mural of ghostly figures on the wall. Painted by contemporary artist Karel Appel in 1948, the mural depicts starving children and caused citywide strikes when it was revealed to workers at the Town Hall. It's the subject of a permanent exhibition at the Amsterdam Historical Museum and another reminder of the hotel's extraordinary past.

Overseen by head chef Aurelien Poirot, the Bridges menu features seasonal dishes such as yellowtail kingfish with avocado, jelly of tomato and samphire; and Alba white truffle with a carpaccio of scallops, warm potato foam and Beemster cheese.

Bridges is also used as the hotel's full service breakfast parlour, but in practical Dutch style, the hotel serves pastries and coffee in the hotel's library, situated right by the exit to the hotel for those too busy to stop for a proper sit-down breakfast.

It's an example of the balance the Sofitel has been able to strike. The chain walks a fine line in creating the Legend brand, where the focus is celebrating the individuality of a property while at the same time catering to the high-end expectations of business clientele. The result, in the case of The Grand, is as close to perfection in a hotel stay you can get.

The writer was a guest of the Sofitel Legend The Grand.

Trip notes

Getting there Emirates flies from Sydney to Amsterdam via Dubai from $2139. 1300 303 777, emirates.com.

Where 197 Oudezijds Voorburgwal, Amsterdam. (+31) 20 555 3111, sofitel-legends.com.

How much Superior rooms with queen beds start at €320 ($410), junior suites with full bath and king beds start from €567 a night.

Top marks Service: from housekeeping to front desk to restaurant to butler, the service was flawless, personal and attentive.

Price Compared with Amsterdam's other luxury offerings the rooms are on the pricey side.

Don't miss A drink on the inner courtyard terrace, voted Best Terrace in Amsterdam 2010.