Britain's Orient Express firm buys Russia's oldest and grandest hotel

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The Independent Online
RUSSIA'S OLDEST hotel, one of its most prestigious pre-revolutionary architectural gems, has been bought by the British hotel firm that operates the Orient Express.

Regarded as decadent by the Communists, the Grand Hotel Europe in St Petersburg was converted into a hospital during the Second World War. But since the collapse of the Soviet Union it has re-established itself as one of the country's most luxurious hotels.

Its imposing baroque facade is classified as a national and cultural landmark and the hotel itself is regarded as a quint- essential part of St Petersburg and of Russia itself. The Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich, the former US president Bill Clinton and the Italian opera singer Luciano Pavarotti have all stayed there, and its charms are now likely to be aggressively marketed to a well-heeled British audience.

Although Orient Express Hotels did not disclose the details it is thought to have paid somewhere in the region of $85m (pounds 45m) for the hotel; a further $40m will now be invested in a grand refurbishment.

Putting up at the Grand Hotel Europe is not for travellers on a shoestring. The cheapest single room off-season starts at $310 a night while the most expensive set of rooms - the Imperial Suite - will cost $3,800 a night in peak season.

Seventeen of its 301 rooms have terraces overlooking the famous Russian Museum in Arts Square and the hotel itself is located within easy walking distance of St Petersburg's most famous sites including the Hermitage Museum and Winter Palace.

Orient Express's decision to buy its first hotel in Russia is seen as a sign that the country has made serious progress since 1991. The move is being viewed as incontrovertible proof that it can provide the luxury "cultural" experience that so many American, British and continental tourists now crave. Few cities in the world can rival St Petersburg's selection of opera, ballet and theatre, its museums, its architecture or its general sense of history.

"The hotel is comparable to our hotels Ritz Madrid and Copacabana Palace, Rio, where royalty, celebrities, business leaders and political dignitaries choose to stay," Simon Sherwood, the president of Orient Express Hotels, said in a statement.

Pippa Isbell, the firm's vice-president of public relations, told The Independent that the company was so enthused by Russia's enormous potential that it might consider acquiring other hotels and possibly start a luxury river-cruise service on a 50-seater yacht between Moscow and St Petersburg.

"We think Russia is a very interesting part of the world. There are opportunities there ... and there will be increasing demand. St Petersburg itself is a tourist magnet."

The first hotel on the site opened in 1830 while the original Hotel Europe opened its doors in 1875.