St Petersburg's Hotel Astoria: If these grand old walls could talk... - Europe - Travel - The Independent

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).

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