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by Bob Brooke


The Russians have a saying, "Better to see it once than hear about it one hundred times." And seeing is believing. For if I hadn't seen it with my own eyes, I wouldn't have believed it. A luxurious style of travel, once reserved for the Czar and his court, is now available in the new Russia for anyone who can afford it.

With the sweep of new power has come a plethora of new or restored hotels, new cooperative restaurants, and a new level of service unheard of in Russia since before the Revolution. Old Russian culture—the splendor of Imperial Russia--is being revived.

The most dramatic difference in travel to Russia today is the higher level of service. Previously known for their indifferent attitude towards serving their guests, the Russians seem to have done an about turn. Service in restaurants, hotels, airports, and such is polite, courteous, and personal. Everyone, from the cleaning help to store clerks tries to give their best.

A new breed of luxury for the individual traveler has surfaced in new and restored hotels like the Grand Hotel Europe in St. Petersburg and the Savoy in Moscow. Today, these hotels have become the benchmark of luxury service. Now hotel staff greet you with a smile and a warm hello in English, a language requirement for all workers in such establishments.

Many of these luxury hotels, originally joint ventures involving companies from Sweden, Finland, and Austria, are now part of Russia five-star properties. However, one hotel, the new Beresta Palace in Novgorod, decided to search out its needs in Russia and was the first to use local glassware, china, and even food. Though a joint Austrian venture, it was the only purely Russian hotel after the fall of Communism.

But what the new hotels really brought to Russia was European know-how. Chefs from Switzerland, Sweden, and Finland, as well as trainers from England and Austria, brought with them a European five-star standard.

Hotel rooms, once dark and gloomy, are now bright, airy, and well-designed with every amenity, including luxurious American-style baths bedecked with fresh flowers.

If the old imperial Russian empire still lives on anywhere today, it's in St. Petersburg. And its soul, the main artery of the city, Nevsky Prospekt, the street of the aristocracy, still stretches its majestic five kilometers between the Admiralty and the monumental Alexander Nevsky Monastery. Czar Peter wanted to build a street of such a length that it would be impossible for anyone to see the end of it.

Here, almost at the very midpoint, sits the first five-star hotel in Russia—the Grand Hotel Europe--with traditions that go back to the year 1824. In the old days when Europe's statesmen and celebrities visited St. Petersburg, they stayed here. Russian regulars included Maxim Gorky, Vladimir Mayakovsky, and Anna Pavlova. The hotel has been restored to the year 1907, the year when the monk Rasputin gained access to the Czar's court. He desired to exert major influence on the Czar's wife who believed that he had supernatural powers.

The 301-room Grand Hotel Europe, even beside other imposing buildings, seems like a swan among sparrows. Its rich Art Nouveau interior, a result of a turn-of-the-century renovation by Swedish architect Fyodor Lidvall, gleams with white marble, crystal chandeliers and shiny dark wooden paneling. Luxurious marble baths feature thick terrycloth robes and heated floors. King-size beds and color TV with satellite channels provide additional comfort.

But sleeping here is only half the experience. Downstairs, exquisite dining rooms await guests. Before dinner, many stop by the Caviar Bar for some Russian caviar served on thin blinies, or pancakes, with some chopped onion and a dob of sour cream— everything comes with sour cream in Russia. Guests have a choice of 33 kinds of vodka. The bar, made of marble, has a marble floor, marble walls and a marble fountain. But that's only the beginning.

The hotel’s Europe Restaurant has ceilings so high there’s no risk of champagne corks damaging the leaded, decorative glass panels. Heavy candelabra, thick linen, silver and stemware, so large they look like fishbowls, weigh down the tables. Hundreds of candles shed a glimmering light on the wooden paneling and stained glass, as a trio of pianist, flutist and violinist plays soft classical Russian melodies.

The food and service are as exquisite as the setting. Goose liver pate served on a bed of lettuce on a large block of ice, followed by hot fricasse of angler fish with pilgrim mussels in saffran sauce, Russian bear steak with gele, and finally, William pears in strawberry sabayonne. All served in synchronized French fashion. This is what it must have been like to eat like a czar.

Breakfast—a sumptuous buffet of assorted meats and cheeses, cucumbers and tomatoes, brown bread, eggs and orange juice, Russian tea from a samovar—is just as grand. The glass-enclosed atrium offers boutiques selling, among other luxury items, reproductions of Faberge eggs, white with cobalt blue lapis, diamonds, and pearls starting at $700. These fabulous Easter eggs, made famous by the Romanov family, will soon once again be made in St. Petersburg. A relaxing sauna and massage awaits guests in the hotel's health club.

If this hotel sounds extraordinary for Russia, it is. But there are others that are just as luxurious, which offer many of the same amenities.

Another historic one is the 436-room Astoria, located in the heart of the city across from the imposing edifice of St. Isaacs Cathedral. Formerly a state-owned Intourist hotel, it has been restored to its 1912 vintage by the Finns. Its classically elegant white marble lobby, with vaulted ceilings and crystal chandeliers easily accommodates a piano lounge and a boutique selling antique Russian lacquer boxes for up to $5,000 each. The Astoria's Wintergarden Restaurant features a spectacular Art Nouveau ceiling of red, green and blue stained glass. Guests access their rooms, each with richly carved doors festooned with welcome wreaths, by way of a mahogany mirrored elevator. Thick Oriental rugs line the hallways, and each floor has its own color scheme and decor.

Within a three hour drive of St. Petersburg is the town of Novgorod with its ancient kremlin or fortress—from the Russian word kremi, meaning stone—dating to 859 A.D., the year of the founding of Russia. Even this small town has a luxury hotel, the Beresta Palace, making it an ideal stop on the way to Moscow.

Unlike the ancient monuments for which the town is known, the 225-room Beresta Palace Hotel—its name means birchbark in Russian—is a contemporary sprawling structure that effectively integrates its surroundings with open interior spaces. One of its most spectacular features is an indoor Olympic-size swimming pool, with adjoining Finnish sauna and massage rooms.

Under the guidance of a Swiss chef, guests dine on nouvelle Russian cuisine. The menu includes rabbit, local fish, pork and beef dishes, as well as creamy homemade ice cream, already a popular hit with the locals.

Moscow also has several restored masterpieces. The Savoy Hotel, an 86-room Art Nouveau gem located in a portion of the building formerly occupied by the KGB, was built in 1914. It's the epitome of the Russian imperial style. The interior is a rich mélange of faux marble columns, red mahogany paneling, crystal chandeliers and swirling gilded stucco moldings. Unique paintings decorate the walls and ceilings, and Russian works of art are visible throughout.

The true magnificence of the place isn't apparent until guests step through the door of the dining room. From a height of four steps, its elegance and grace make it look as if it has been taken right out of a museum. Built before the hotel in 1912, its high ceiling is covered with gilded paintings of gods and goddesses lounging on clouds. Romantic murals decorate the walls, and tall palms complete the effect. A grand piano, that provides soothing music during dinner hours, stands in the far corner on an elevated platform under a mirrored ceiling.

But the decor isn't the only good thing about this room. The cuisine is also fit for a czar. Marinated herring a la Russe, black caviar, followed by Siberian pelmeni, or ravioli, excellent borsht, or beet soup, home smoked sturgeon with caviar sauce, and reindeer with morel sauce. All this is topped off with a rich cranberry parfait, a specialty of the house.

It's now possible to celebrate the coronation of Czar Nicholas II once again. During the hotel’s restoration, Savoy staff members discovered menus for twelve dinners organized for this occasion. The hotel presents a different one each Thursday evening, complete with appropriate music, for approximately $50 per person, all inclusive.

f the Savoy is the most lavish, the most legendary hotel in Moscow is the Metropole, which underwent five years of restorations. A mere stone's throw from Red Square and the Kremlin, and just across the street from the Bolshoi Theater.

Built a century ago by art-loving tycoon Savva Mamontov, it was occupied by counter-revolutionaries in 1917 and later by Lenin in 1918. When he decided to move the capital from Petrograd, formerly St. Petersburg, to Moscow after the revolution, Lenin requisitioned the Metropole for additional space. He often gave speeches from the balcony overlooking the hotel's massive restaurant. Above him were two Art Nouveau stained glass panels from which restoration workers scraped off one centimeter of nicotine that had accumulated over the decades.

Russian antique furniture was sent to the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg for painstaking restoration. More was recreated to suit the eclectic style of the hotel. But the hotel's most impressive feature is its great gilded elevator.

Dining here is a real treat. The Boyarsky Restaurant, with its vaulted ceiling decorated with Near-Eastern motifs, from which restoration workers removed seven layers of paint, is known more for staring then supping. It's definitely the place to see and be seen in Moscow. The ceilings in the elegant Europeisky Restaurant had been "improved" in the 1920s with heroic panels of revolutionary heroes and triumphant marches on Red Square. These had to be stripped back to find the originals underneath.

The Russia of the czars is a place as full of mystery and wonder as a Dostoevsky novel. It continues to seethe with fire and emotion, hidden under the fir hats and long winter coats of its citizens. Only now, the elegance and passion of Imperial Russia has begun to surface.

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