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Romanoff Royalty at Rocco Forte’s Hotel Astoria, St. Petersburg, Russia 

“It was at a trade fair in April 2005 that I met the general manager of the Rocco Forte property in St. Petersburg," says Sebastian Kraemer.  “We had a nice conversation, and he invited me to visit the city.  As a student of art and culture, I had always been interested in St. Petersburg, but I was working at a hotel in Budapest back then so it wasn't until the beginning of June that I had the chance to make the trip. I took a taxi from the airport, and when we arrived in the old part of the city it was about 9 o’clock at night. But this was the time of the White Nights; it was still daylight.  I could see the canals, the bridges crossing them, the cupolas atop churches and cathedrals, the palaces. And I was absolutely amazed. It was so beautiful.”

 

We are sitting in Davidov, the restaurant of the iconic Hotel Astoria (acquired by Sir Rocco Forte in 1997) with its genial and youthful resident manager who, possessed of an old-fashioned courtly manner, frequently tilts his head to indicate agreement.  “I was offered this position,” he tells us. “But first I wanted to spend a week seeing the city and meeting the people to determine if I could be happy living here. And I found the city has a soul. In St. Petersburg, you really feel you are in Russia.”

 

We could understand what Sebastian meant especially after several rounds of Beluga vodka which is as smooth as the ice of Siberia where it’s bottled.  Once again, it was 9 o’clock at night, but in January, not June; the sun had set in the middle of the afternoon. Still, looking through the tall dining room windows, we saw a sky bright with starlight illuminating a snow-covered St. Isaac's Square and a full moon hanging over historic St. Isaac’s Cathedral just across the way. We’d arrived only a few hours earlier, but already we sensed the singularity of a city which – despite multiple tsunami-sized traumas -- retains the 18th century magic envisioned by its creator, Peter the Great.

 


Outside the Hotel Astoria: St. Isaac's Square with Christmas Carousel

 
St. Isaac's Cathedral

The Hotel Astoria did not come on the scene until nearly a century and a half after his reign. Nevertheless, it has its own kind of magic. In the heart of the Old City, a few blocks from the banks of the Neva River and near some of the 40 canals Peter had built after falling in love with the ones he saw in Amsterdam and Venice, amidst the neo-classical and old-Russian palaces, institutes, and churches he and his progeny constructed, and the monuments he had erected (previously there were only frescoes and murals), virtually down the street from the building where Vladimir Nabokov was born and grew up, the Astoria emerged, a lovely example of Art Nouveau architecture and design, of noble proportions and palatial materials, filled with antique tapestries, paintings, and sculptures, marked by a grand circular stairway and  soaring romantic rotunda. 

The hotel would be witness to the last gasp of Romanoff Russia. Five years after it opened in 1912, the Bolshevik Revolution brought the nation’s centuries-long dynasty to an inglorious end. Afterwards, the Astoria became government property and, like many hotels during the Soviet period, open only to foreign visitors and Communist Party officials. It figured in Hitler’s nefarious vision of the victory of Germany over the U.S.S.R. where following a parade in front of the Winter Palace in the Hermitage, his army would escort him the few blocks to the Astoria where he would personally receive the surrender in its glass-roofed Winter Garden. Then he would have the hotel, along with the rest of St. Petersburg, burned to the ground.

Happily that bizarre nightmare never came true. Despite the 900 days that Leningrad (Stalin ordered the city re-named for Lenin after his assassination in 1924; the original name was restored  after the collapse of the communist system) was under Nazi siege and the enormous suffering its populace endured, the city resisted invasion. Not a tank entered its precincts; not a bomb fell on its beautiful structures, and Hitler never did get to cross the threshold of the Astoria.  Today, with the Second World War and the more than seven decade-long Soviet experience part of a brutal collective memory, Russian citizens are welcomed at the Astoria; indeed they currently comprise about 30% of business and leisure visitors. And the Winter Garden, beneath its frosted roof, serves the purpose for which it was created: a setting for gala events.


The Hotel Astoria during the Christmas season 2008.
Partial view of the statue of Tsar Nicholas I is to the right.

Davidov too retains many of its original elements. It is spacious and high-ceilinged with a wall of great windows, Art Nouveau chandeliers, a shining wooden floor laid in a herring-bone pattern, and neo-classical  pillars that conceal heating elements. Bottom lit, they bathe surrounding walls in a wash of red that bespeaks Romanoff regality (not Marxist ideology!). But it is also accented with contemporary motifs like the screen of colorful squares whose vitality is evocative of a Kandinsky painting and luxuriant cream-colored couches that embrace dining tables.  The cuisine is classical Russian: brilliantly “red” borscht, caviar, Chicken Kiev, Beef Stroganoff and the “Russian Table” – which the well-informed Sebastian urged us to try.

“For Russian people, eating is most important,” he told us. “There is a Russian saying: ‘How good you eat is how good you work.’ And because in Soviet times communal housing made it difficult for people to have guests, they always went to restaurants.

“There is the tradition of making toasts to honor the host. Each toast is accompanied by a shot of vodka that must be consumed in one gulp -- otherwise  the host is not wished good luck. The toasts go around the table and if there are 20 people, there are 20 shots. To keep going, the guests have to eat in between. That is why there are so many dishes on the table.  There are also many kinds of vodka – here at the Astoria, we offer 34 varieties.”


Stolichniy Salad    
With that, the table was laden with dishes. Continuously refilled throughout the meal, they included stolichniy salad: a combination of chicken, potatoes, corn, and mayonnaise; samples of caviar – Osetra and Beluga, sturgeon, smoked salmon, baked salmon, pickled herring, herring in cream sauce, crab meat, sour tomatoes, carrots, cabbage, and pickles which they refer to as marinated cucumbers.

And borscht, of course -- the hot version this January night; pelmeni -- a traditional boiled dumpling filled with meat, cabbage, onions, and mushrooms; and fifteen kinds of breads. Light and flaky, white and dark, crusts embedded with poppy seeds, sesame seeds, caraway seeds, pumpkin seeds, they are irresistible.

We never did move on to the Chicken Kiev, or Beef Stroganoff, or any of the other entrees. And to find the next morning, baskets on the breakfast buffet filled with the same assortment of breads – still fragrant from the ovens in which they were baked only hours before, along with many of the Russian Table delicacies prepared anew, plus thick, creamy yogurts and fresh eggs – was a happy wake-up reminder of where we  were.


A contemporary screen  behind the  Breakfast Buffet


Borscht, of course!

“At the Astoria you never have to ask ‘What country am I in?’” said Alex Pichel, the hotel’s fair-haired and elegant general manager. By now, it was mid-afternoon, time for tea in the Rotonda where, on a burnished rosewood Bechstein, someone was softly playing the theme of Tchaikovsky’s “Piano Concerto Number One.” Crepes, canapés, and pastries were piled on platters, the Astoria’s famous chocolate had been melted into a fountain where fruits and cakes were being steeped as in a fondue, water for tea was being boiled in an enormous samovar, and all were served on beautiful blue and white Russian Meissen china in the pattern designed for the last of the tsars: Nicholas II.

 The Astoria's elegant G.M., Alex Pichel

Sporting a perfectly tailored suit and (we were beginning to think de rigueur) vivid red tie, Alex Pichel conveys an aristocratic air that belies his favored vacation pursuit: touring the back roads of Europe on a BMW motorcycle with his wife and sleeping in tents. But such an avocation did not preclude his fondness for the Astoria’s luxurious environs. 

“When I had the offer to come here, there was no doubt that I wanted to try it,” the veteran hotelier, who has spent the past twenty years in five-star hotels, most recently in Kyrgyzstan, told us. “I signed the contract before I even saw the hotel. I had met with Sir Rocco in London, and he is such a personality, such a hotelier, that it was clear to me I wanted to work for him, and I wanted to work here. I already knew about the hotel; it spoke for itself.”

He went on, “The fact that it is such an old building, however, makes it a very special case. It’s a federal monument so even though Sir Rocco has  a very long lease, ultimately it belongs to the government. We are always in contact with St. Petersburg’s Architecture Department. The façade was recently cleaned and repainted by the government. We work together. But for everything we want to change, we have to get approval from the city. That can take as long as six months.”


A striking counterpoint to the traditional

Such a policy presents its challenges. For although the Astoria is defined as a historic property, it is also part of the Rocco Forte family which owns the particular style and attitude Sir Rocco has summed up as “the art of simple luxury.” Maintaining these two directions can be a delicate balancing act. At the Astoria, it is manifested in guest rooms whose generous dimensions remain unchanged and whose beds are made up in the traditional fine Volga linens with pillows filled with a choice of feathers, synthetics, wool and pinewood flakes, or natural buckwheat pods, but where modern furnishings and abstract art provide striking counterpoints and where bathrooms have morphed into state-of-the-art sybaritic recesses of black and white mosaic. At the Kandinsky Bar  -- which evokes a post-Romanoff yet non-Soviet association -- window treatments have been refreshed of late with fabrics of bold contemporary design.

Perhaps the new look is responsible for the recent influx of a younger local crowd. On the other hand, maybe those who have been stopping by are crossovers from the adjoining Angleterre Hotel.

Dating back to 1840, the Angleterre was one of the first hotels built in St.  Petersburg, and from the start, it proved a magnet for Bohemians and artists. The poet Sergey Jezenin was found dead in his room there, and whether it was murder or suicide was never determined. But a message written in blood on the walls: "Dying is easy. Life is hard." Sounds like something out of Dostoyevsky.

The hotel was destroyed by fire in the 1980s; only its façade survived. It was then re-built as an extension of the Astoria – which explains why the two hotels are connected on many floors. Some fifteen years later, when Sir Rocco bought the Astoria, the Angleterre was part of the package.  Only together, the two hotels add up to 450 rooms which did not fit with Sir Rocco’s vision of creating a collection of small luxury hotels (of which the Astoria was the first; as of 2008 there are twelve in operation with an additional four underway). So he separated them.

Re-imagined, the Angleterre (managed by R.F. although not part of the collection) is a popular four-star destination with an “edge.” A jazz pianist plays in Borsalino, the hotel's  Italian restaurant, which is directed by an Italian chef. Rumor has it that Borsalino's pasta is giving blini the proverbial "run for its money.”  Clearly, in a city where most hotels are either traditional or members of international brands, the Angleterre has found its own niche.

Step out of either the Angleterre or the Astoria, and many of the wonders of this United Nations World Heritage Site of 150 palaces and 250 museums will be close at hand. The unparalleled Hermitage begun by Catherine the Great, an architectural ensemble of four buildings including the Winter Palace , houses three million works of art. To view them all is a daunting prospect. But as it is but a few blocks away from both hotels, multiple visits are distinct possibilities.

Within walking distance is the famed Mariinsky Theater, home to the eponymous ballet company that (in a pattern familiar during Soviet times) was renamed the Kirov for the leader of the Communist Party who was assassinated in the Leningrad City Hall in 1934. Although since reverted to its original name, the company on tour is identified as “Mariinsky, formerly Kirov.”


Winter Palace: home of the Tsars


Grand Stairway of the Winter Palace

The St. Nicholas Marine Cathedral where Dostoyevsky and Pushkin worshipped is nearby on St. Petersburg’s longest canal. Members of the KGB were in frequent attendance at this beautiful 18th -century Baroque vision in ethereal sky-blue and white with elaborate gilt carvings and five golden domes. Remaining open all through the Communist period, it proved a convenient locale for checking out the faithful.


Siberian Jasper Vase ,Hermitage 

                              

To visit these and the many other historic and cultural sites of St. Petersburg is to get a glimpse into the post-Soviet Russian character. One sees long lines of people, bundled up against the cold, patiently waiting for admission to the Hermitage or St. Isaac’s Cathedral despite brutal weather. At a sell-out performance for a mid-week staging of “Swan Lake” at the Mariinsky, the audience showers dancers with bouquets of flowers through seemingly endless curtain calls. On Christmas Day of the Russian calendar, a mass of people – from small children to men and women old enough to remember the 900-day siege – stand through a service, one against the other, overdressed in winter garb in the heated upper level of St. Nicholas’ Church (once reserved for the aristocracy) in apparent devotion led by a priest dressed in jeweled raiments whose powerful tenor voice was echoed by an unseen chorus somewhere up above.

 


Waiting to enter the Hermitage


View across the Neva from the Hermitage


Another view across the Neva from the Hermitage

“St. Petersburg is the second largest city in Russia; it is a cultural capital,” the Astoria's sales and marketing director Frank Ingers told us. “But it is more than a cultural capital. It has great gastronomy, the striking beauty of the river and canals." Frank, who came to St. Petersburg from the Grand Hotel in Stockholm, loved the waterfront of Stockholm. "But here there is so much more to see," he said. "It is a growing destination."

 "Every day I walk through here, I see the flair, the feeling, the touch," Alex told us. "The Astoria is one of the most beautiful hotels I've ever worked in, and it deserves to be  known as the best hotel in St. Petersburg, one of the best in Europe. That's what we are aiming for.

“There are these wonderful people here, but many are from the old Russia and feel we ex-pats (Alex and Sebastian are German; Frank is Swedish) are pushing into something that should be left to them. So we have put a lot of effort into training, into showing them what we want to achieve. And I think over the year I've been here, we have really shaped up into a great team.

 

“Of course,” the g.m. added with a wink, “we’ve had the good fortune of having ‘Mother Russia’ with us.”


Resident Manager Sebastian Kraemer

Sales & Marketing Director Frank Ingers

 

Slender and attractive, the sultry-voiced, St. Petersburg-born director of guest relations hardly qualifies as a Russian babushka. Still Lydia Leontyeva has proved the ideal candidate for providing a bridge between Western European management and local staff. Named the best employee in the Rocco Forte family for looking after customers, she compared her situation to winning an Oscar. “Only an actress who plays her role every day could imagine mine,” she said.


The irrepressible Lydia Leontyeva

She continued, “We have many regular customers who come back again and again.  I know which room they want, which amenities they prefer, the kind of water, champagne, or vodka to send up to them. As a rule, they are very happy. But sometimes we get complaints like the time a young man (part of an American group) called down to say his microwave not working. He seemed very upset so I went up to his room right away with a current converter. I thought he must have brought a microwave oven along with him. But he showed me the safe. Its door was open, and inside was a little pot of water with some sausages. ‘No matter what I do, I can’t get this microwave to work,’ he said.”

Lydia apparently gets things to work. Having been on the scene in St. Petersburg hotels for the past 20 years, she has a unique perspective at the Astoria as one who bears witness to the before and after of the Soviet system. “Life was boring and oppressive,” she says of the earlier time. “Everything was closed. But we didn't know anything else. Now, however, things are opening up. Even people who left are coming back.”

She leans forward. Her tone has turned introspective, but she is smiling. “Maybe it's a feeling that draws us,” she adds. “We are all Russian inside.”  

Hotel Astoria
St. Isaac's Square
Ul. Bolshaya Morskaya 39
St. Petersburg 190000 Russia

Phone: +7 812 494 5757

Photos by Harvey Frommer

#  #  #

About the Authors:  Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer are a wife and husband team who successfully bridge the worlds of popular culture and traditional scholarship. Co-authors of the critically acclaimed interactive oral histories It Happened in the Catskills, It Happened in Brooklyn, Growing Up Jewish in America, It Happened on Broadway, It Happened in Manhattan, It Happened in Miami. They teach what they practice as professors at Dartmouth College.

They are also travel writers who specialize in luxury properties and fine dining as well as cultural history and Jewish history and heritage in the United States, Europe, and the Caribbean. More about these authors.

You can contact the Frommers at: 

Email: myrna.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU
Email: harvey.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU
Web: http://www.dartmouth.edu/~frommer/travel.htm.

This Article is Copyright © 1995 - 2012 by Harvey and Myrna Frommer.  All rights reserved worldwide.

 

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