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Autumn arrived with an elegant handover courtesy of late, late summer in southern Italy. It was one of those extended long weekends when everything worked with brisk precision: the Swiss flight from Zürich to Naples was staffed with attentive and engaged crew, the flying conditions were perfect and when we started our descent into Naples the Med was dancing – all frothy and choppy with freighters, yachts and tenders pulling in and out of port. With family in tow we enjoyed a jolting round of coffees, went in search of magazines and sun lotion, and attempted to snap photos of some Italian soldiers sporting ridiculously camp tasselled beanies.

Shortly after the run around the city centre we were out on the bay in a sleek, 1970s cruiser and heading south. Ischia and Capri slipped away as we turned further south and before long we pulled up at the familiar docking platform where we were greeted by a hotel team that hasn’t changed in decades. Guests were already sunning themselves and tucking into an early lunch as we were shown up to our rooms. “You’re lucky the weather’s returned,” said the general manager. “It’s been absolutely pouring and we’ve had thunder and lightning these past few days. It’s been so dry that we really needed the rain.” Inside the hotel it was all as I’d remembered it, following a four-year absence. The furniture was arranged in the same little groups, the greenery was flowing inside and out, and all was gently calm with a warm breeze blowing across the lobby.

It was only as we reached our rooms that I sensed something was different. What was that smell? Had an over-scented guest just walked past? Had a maid been a bit heavy-handed with a deodorising spray? I tried to ignore it but the scent stuck in the back of my nose as I opened the door to the room. Thankfully the scent remained in the corridor and I took in the room and the view beyond. I was now on the hunt for changes in the design and decor and determined that the room was somewhat the same but had been totally overhauled. The colours were just a bit too lurid and the bathroom lighting suggested recessed leds had been installed when a good old-fashioned set of bulbs would have done just fine. Nevermind, it was great to be back and the room was a decent adaptation of the style that had gone before. It didn’t take long to ease into our routine and enjoy the rapidly cooling Med and an even chillier Sicilian white.

After a nap, a bit of work, some reading on the terrace and perhaps another nap it was time to meet for dinner. While the waiter took drink orders and we surveyed the other guests there was a long-ish pause at the table. We all wanted to say something but no one wanted to be the first to spoil the mood. I decided to break the peace. “What on earth are they thinking with those lamps and that furniture?” I asked. “I was just about to say the same thing,” said my mother. “Seriously, how could they think that looks good?” asked Mats. The hotel had clearly been sold on a makeover and a small corner of the dining room had had a facelift that would put a halt to any further work. “What they’ve attempted to do in that little nook has nothing to do with the history of this place and is just wrong,” I remarked. “They have a perfectly preserved gem here that doesn’t need any work.” Over dessert we determined that someone had clearly sold the owners on the idea to modernise and attract a new audience. The scent dispensers in the hallways were clearly part of a programme that some adviser had been keen to convey. “Every hotel has a signature scent these days,” the management might have been told by a consultant. “You need one too!”

A few days later on the train to Rome I spoke to a friend familiar with the hotel. We agreed that the plans to renovate it needed to stop. When I hung up, I concluded that we should be handing out awards to hotels that preserve and protect rather than renovate with little regard for the design that helped build their business in the first place. Since then we’ve been out on the road looking for hoteliers, barmen and restaurateurs who know how to delicately manage their architectural assets as much as their menus. The winners will be revealed as part of our 2017/18 Travel Top 50 in our December/January issue.

Before we get too ahead of ourselves however, we’ve spent the past month riding up alpine trails and crisscrossing Switzerland on sbb for our latest nation survey. During our travels we had a bit of luck on the real-estate front and managed to find some addresses that might do the trick for an expanded continental set-up – more on this in the weeks to come. All questions, comments and story tips can be sent to me at tb@monocle.com or to Hannah Grundy at hg@monocle.com. Thank you for your support.

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  • The Continental Shift