The hotel at the heart of Russia’s most beautiful city is as rich in history as it is in the cash of oligarchs
A SERIES of thrusting statues welcome you to Russia on the car ride from the airport to central St Petersburg. First, Lenin stands tall outside the House of Soviets, his arm outstretched like a twenty-foot tall revolutionary hitch-hiker. A couple of blocks along stands the monument to those who defended Leningrad (as St Petersburg was then called) from the Nazi siege that claimed the lives of 1.5m Soviet citizens between 1941-44. Ten foot bronze figurines of soldiers, sailors and civilians clamber atop stone plinths, striking poses of defiance. It’s a sobering reminder that for all the classical grace, St Petersburg is a city that has been in the wars. Its relatively short history is chequered with elegance and brutality – the Fabergé delights have come at a price.
The intensity of Hitler’s desire that the city be captured or destroyed is not sufficiently accounted for by its strategic importance. An imperial capital whose artistry easily surpassed that of Vienna and Berlin, it is the sheer splendor of the city, with its endless palaces and spires of gold that made it such a fixation for Hitler. The Fuhrer was confident that it would fall, so confident, in fact, that he planned his victory banquet. It was to be held at the Hotel Astoria, a seven-storey art nouveau hotel located in the heart of the city opposite the domineering columns of St Isaac’s Cathedral. The Nazis even went as far as to print the invitations: guests were invited to celebrate the successful occupation in the hotel’s Winter Garden on 9 August 1942. The symbolism was seductive: a lavish German ball in the heart of imperial Russia, a festival for Hitler in the hotel built for the last of the Czars.
Designed by architect Fyodor Lidval, the hotel first opened its doors on 23 December 1912. From day one the hotel was a hit with the chattering classes. Aristocrats and artists from Russia and beyond stayed and socialised there, partying away the last pre-revolutionary years in a whirl of caviar and champagne. Grand Dukes held extravagant balls, a prima ballerina danced until dawn in the Winter Garden and it is rumoured that Rasputin spent the night there in the company of a wife of a senior member of the government. From further afield the Astoria played host to legendary Californian dancer Isadora Duncan and the writer HG Wells.
OVER 70 years since Hitler daydreamed about his post-occupation knees-up, and a century since the first guests checked in, The Astoria has regained the lustre of the Romanov era in which it was built. The Rocco Forte Hotel Group acquired it in 1997, and two major refurbishments have finally shaken the dust that gathered during decades under Intourist, the Soviet state tourism board. In the foyer, room-sized chandeliers scatter light across slippery marble surfaces.
Names of all the royalty, pop royalty and politicians who have stayed the night are engraved next to the lift. I was casting my eyes down the list (Prince Charles... Madonna... Jack Nicholson… Woody Allen) when the concierge called me to my table in the restaurant. The menu in the Astoria Café consists of the same Imperial Russian dishes that guests dined on 100 years ago – beef stroganoff, roast tabaka chicken, pozharsky cutlet – but with an injection of contemporary freshness from executive chef Ian Minnis. Traditional sophistication plus modern style: this is the philosophy that Olga Polizzi, Rocco Forte’s director of design, adhered to when designing the hotel’s brand new “Czar Suite”. Situated on the sixth floor, the spectacular suite boasts uninterrupted views of St Isaac’s Cathedral, three bedrooms, a massage room and gym, a kitchen, a board room and a library full of classic Russian literature.
If Tolstoy and Pushkin fail to hold your attention, you can take a five minute stroll down to The Hermitage museum or simply set out to explore the city. St Petersburg is so far north that from mid June to early July there is a period known as “White Nights”, during which the sun sets at 11.30pm and rises only five hours later. It never gets completely dark, and the city is at its most beautiful in the rosy twilight that bathes the streets in the two hours before midnight. It was in this light that I boarded a boat for a tour through the pastel coloured palaces, museums and schools of art that line St Petersburg’s waterways. In the lilac twilight the buildings seem too delicate to be made of bricks and stone. The ornate detailing and symmetry of their façades resembles more closely the work of pâtissiers than workmen. Winding through the bridges and canals my boat opened finally on the wide expanse of water that is the Neva, the river that divides St Petersburg in two. From there I could see the glowing gold leaf spire of Peter and Paul Cathedral. In the early 18th century Peter the Great ordered that no building be built higher than the 404ft spire, giving the city its open, spacious feel. In St Petersburg you’re never more than a couple of flights of stairs away from a view across the entire city.
HITLER underestimated the resolve of Leningrad. After a bitter winter that killed hundreds of thousands of starving Russian civilians for whom a ration of 200g of bread a day simply wasn’t enough, 9 August 1942 became momentous for reasons unbeknown to the German troops gathered at the gates. With the city encircled and supplies vanquished, the emaciated musicians of Leningrad Radio Orchestra gathered at the Great Philharmonic Hall for a performance of the Shostakovich’s seventh symphony – the “Leningrad Symphony”. Speakers were assembled across the city and front line defences so that every citizen and soldier could hear the concert.
Music continues to play in St Petersburg, but these days the crowds are far from hungry. Once the haunt of St Petersburg’s literary middle classes, today you are just as likely to see a swollen bellied oligarch with a medallion around his neck at one of the grand old concert halls as you are a bespectacled member of the intelligentsia.
It was the members of this new post-USSR Russian establishment who joined Sir Rocco Forte and 800 distinguished guests in the Winter Garden for a party celebrating the hotel’s centenary. A red carpet was rolled out and a steady stream of Maseratis, Bentleys and Ferraris deposited a lively mixture of business-people and celebrities into the foyer. It was an intimidating crowd, full of enormous, barrel-chested men and women who look like supermodels. Often it’s difficult to tell if it’s a businessman with his trophy wife or a female celebrity with her bodyguard. At these kind of events in Russia the women tend to be uniformly gorgeous and the men uniformly terrifying. With couples, the more gorgeous the woman, the more terrifying the man. Elegance and brutality – some things never change.
Guests were welcomed with a Beluga vodka cocktail, Sir Rocco delivered a speech and we were all ushered into a large ballroom dotted with extravagantly laid tables. In the middle was a plinth with what at first looked like statues, but were actually mime artists slowly manoeuvring themselves into a variety of unlikely tangles and poses. Sushi, caviar and thousands of oysters were laid out on tables and trays made of ice. A suitably lavish celebration for a hotel that’s seen it all. Here’s to the next 100 years.
Prices start from £217 per night for a classic double, not including breakfast. Check roccofortehotels.com for details. British Airways flies regularly to St Petersburg. Check britishairways.com for details