St Petersburg's Hotel Astoria: If these grand old walls could talk...

As the Russian hotel marks its 100th birthday, Chris Leadbeater recalls its rich past

At midday today, local time (8am in the UK), a cannon will be fired from the Naryshkin Bastion of the Peter and Paul Fortress in St Petersburg. The sound will boom across to the south side of the River Neva, echoing against the walls of churches and palaces – as it does each lunchtime, this grand tradition being a part of daily life in Russia's second city.

But today will be different. On this occasion, the shot will ring out in honour of the Hotel Astoria – a legend of five-star accommodation, pitched at the heart of the metropolis on the wide square of Isaakievskaya Ploschad, which is celebrating its exact 100th birthday.

It is appropriate that this tribute should take place within the stronghold where Peter the Great founded his dream city in 1703 – and where he now lies entombed. Because the Astoria is as much a historic fixture of St Petersburg as the burial ground of the tsars.

At first glance, it might not seem so. The hotel is not even the most dramatic building on its square. (That position belongs to the 19th-century bulk of St Isaac's Cathedral.) And yet it is perhaps the structure that is most emblematic of Russia's turbulent past 100 years, a landmark that witnessed – and even played a role in – almost every act of a bloody play.

It was commissioned in 1910 in the hope that it would be ready for the tercentenary of the Romanov dynasty – but by the time the royal festivities took place in May 1913, the hotel had already found favour with St Petersburg society. Its opening on 23 December 1912 was enough of an event for the noted photographer Karl Bulla to capture the evening on film. A century on, his images still tell a story: unsmiling gentlemen, moustaches clipped, dress-coats smart; a pair of Orthodox priests staring at the camera, serious of expression.

It was the start of a brief but flamboyant period. As the First World War raged, aristocrats threw lavish parties in the hotel's Winter Garden ballroom. Rasputin was known to spend the night with some of his married lovers, sneaking away from the machinations of court.

This could not last. Five years after the Astoria's arrival, the revolution of 1917 tore Russia apart – and the hotel again kept watch. Hand-to-hand fighting between Tsarists and Bolsheviks stained the pavements outside its entrance. By 1919, it was a popular bolthole for the revolutionary leadership; at one juncture, Lenin appeared on the third-floor balcony of what is now the Royal Suite to address the faithful in the square below.

Then came harder years. St Petersburg, having morphed into Petrograd in 1914, changed again into Leningrad in 1924, and suffered as German forces besieged it from September 1941 to January 1943. The hotel went to work as a hospital – though war mythology has it that Hitler, underestimating the city's stubborn powers of resistance, had concocted plans to hold a victory bash at the Astoria, even going as far as to have invitations made.

He would not have that pleasure, but the hotel endured further difficult days nonetheless, Stalinist officials dining on quail in its restaurants in the early Fifties, jazz nights trying to lighten the mood in the Winter Garden. And when a far-left coup attempted to unseat Mikhail Gorbachev in August 1991, pro-democracy protests sprang up in the square outside. It is certainly fitting that Mikhail Bulgakov – the author whose masterpiece The Master and Margarita lampoons the darkness of the Soviet era under Stalin – spent his honeymoon at the Astoria in 1932, reputedly penning some of his novel in room 412.

But as Russia has entered a new, affluent age, so too has the hotel. Celebrity guests have tripped through its elegant hallways, from heavyweight politicos (Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair) to titans of the entertainment world (Madonna, Elton John, Jack Nicholson).

And the Astoria has kept up with its feted clientele. Bought by the Rocco Forte group in 1997, it has undergone a wave of renovations – most recently this decade. Earlier this year, 78 rooms and suites, subtly reconfigured for the 21st century, were quietly unveiled.

The result is a retreat whose update for the present has not intruded on its hallowed past. Its main Davidov Restaurant specialises in staples of Russian haute cuisine – black and red caviar, beef stroganoff, chilled vodkas. The Rotonda Lounge serves afternoon tea from 3pm to 7.30pm, all delicate blinis and fine china. An antique lift clambers from the lobby to the upper rooms, whirring and clanking as it goes. And the Winter Garden still makes eyes at 1912 on the ground floor, its high glass ceiling letting light tumble in from above.

On my visit in the summer, I found a room of marble bathroom fittings, heated tiles and tall windows proffering a view onto Isaakievskaya Ploschad. Above the bed, a large image caught a ballerina in flight, arms a blur of motion, face fixed in concentration. The latter was a hint to the Astoria's links with the Mariinsky Theatre. It has a private box for guests at the spiritual home of Russian opera and ballet, and can arrange backstage tours.

It is through connections such as this that the Astoria remains at the core of the modern St Petersburg, an easy base for a morning amid the myriad brush-stroke wonders of the Hermitage or the many shops of Nevsky Prospekt – all within 10 minutes' range on foot.

Although now is not the moment. St Petersburg is cold, dank, mired in gloom in winter – yet a glorious prospect in summer, when the sun barely sets. This is tacitly acknowledged by the hotel's decision to schedule its centenary ball – a Belle Epoque hurrah – for 18 June. So the Astoria will wait for its birthday cake. But then, it has had enough practice.

Travel essentials

Getting there

British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) flies to St Petersburg from Heathrow.

Staying there

Double rooms at the Hotel Astoria (007 812 494 5757; roccofortehotels.com) cost from £161, room only. A four-night stay, including breakfast, airport transfers and return economy flights from Heathrow with British Airways, costs £850 per person, based on two sharing, through Exeter International (020-8956 2756; exeterinternational.co.uk).

More information

British citizens visiting Russia must obtain a visa prior to travel. A single-entry tourist visa is £50, plus £26.40 fee, via the UK visa office (0905 889 0149; ru.vfsglobal.co.uk).

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

News
A 1930 image of the Karl Albrecht Spiritousen and Lebensmittel shop, Essen. The shop was opened by Karl and Theo Albrecht’s mother; the brothers later founded Aldi
people
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'
filmA cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
Arts and Entertainment
Flora Spencer-Longhurst as Lavinia, William Houston as Titus Andronicus and Dyfan Dwyfor as Lucius
theatreThe Shakespeare play that proved too much for more than 100 people
News
exclusivePunk icon Viv Albertine on Sid Vicious, complacent white men, and why free love led to rape
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Stir crazy: Noel Fielding in 'Luxury Comedy 2: Tales from Painted Hawaii'
comedyAs ‘Luxury Comedy’ returns, Noel Fielding on why mainstream success scares him and what the future holds for 'The Boosh'
Life and Style
Flow chart: Karl Landsteiner discovered blood types in 1900, yet scientists have still not come up with an explanation for their existence
lifeAll of us have one. Yet even now, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
Arts and Entertainment
'Weird Al' Yankovic, or Alfred Matthew, at the 2014 Los Angeles Film Festival Screening of
musicHis latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do our experts think he’s missed out?
Sport
New Real Madrid signing James Rodríguez with club president Florentino Perez
sportColombian World Cup star completes £63m move to Spain
Travel
Hotel Tour d’Auvergne in Paris launches pay-what-you-want
travelIt seems fraught with financial risk, but the policy has its benefits
Arts and Entertainment
booksThe best children's books for this summer
Life and Style
News to me: family events were recorded in the personal columns
techFamily events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped that
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    VB.NET and C# developer (VB.NET,C#,ASP.NET)

    £30000 - £45000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: VB.NET a...

    Visitor Experience volunteer

    Unpaid voluntary role: Old Royal Naval College: To assist the Visitor Experien...

    Telesales Manager. Paddington, London

    £45-£55k OTE £75k : Charter Selection: Major London International Fashion and ...

    Recruitment Consultant (Trainee), Finchley Central, London

    £17K OTE £30K: Charter Selection: Highly successful and innovative specialist...

    Day In a Page

    Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy': A land of the outright bizarre

    Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy'

    A land of the outright bizarre
    What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

    What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

    ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic's latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do The Independent’s experts think he’s missed out?
    Can Secret Cinema sell 80,000 'Back to the Future' tickets?

    The worst kept secret in cinema

    A cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
    Facebook: The new hatched, matched and dispatched

    The new hatched, matched and dispatched

    Family events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped the ‘Births, Deaths and Marriages’ announcements
    Why do we have blood types?

    Are you my type?

    All of us have one but probably never wondered why. Yet even now, a century after blood types were discovered, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
    Honesty box hotels: You decide how much you pay

    Honesty box hotels

    Five hotels in Paris now allow guests to pay only what they think their stay was worth. It seems fraught with financial risk, but the honesty policy has its benefit
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Why weight of pressure rests easy on Michael Jamieson’s shoulders

    Michael Jamieson: Why weight of pressure rests easy on his shoulders

    The Scottish swimmer is ready for ‘the biggest race of my life’ at the Commonwealth Games
    Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

    The 'scroungers’ fight back

    The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
    Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

    Fireballs in space

    Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
    A Bible for billionaires

    A Bible for billionaires

    Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
    Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

    Paranoid parenting is on the rise

    And our children are suffering because of it
    For sale: Island where the Magna Carta was sealed

    Magna Carta Island goes on sale

    Yours for a cool £4m
    Phone hacking scandal special report: The slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

    The hacker's tale: the slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

    Glenn Mulcaire was jailed for six months for intercepting phone messages. James Hanning tells his story in a new book. This is an extract
    We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

    We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

    Child abusers are not all the same, yet the idea of treating them differently in relation to the severity of their crimes has somehow become controversial
    The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

    The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

    For instance, did Isis kill the Israeli teenagers to trigger a war, asks Patrick Cockburn