The Tsar Treatment
by Harriet Upjohn
The Grand Hotel Europe in St. Petersburg. The sumptuous Dostoevsky Suite
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WERE it not for the waiter's discreet intervention, I might have ruined the beluga moment. Sensing that I was about to wolf down $200 worth in a single gulp, he tactfully hinted that this was an experience to be savoured. And, of course, he was right. Because when I had my first taste of the millionaire's roe, I realised why people fork out a king's ransom for this delicacy – it was sensational, in a salty, mouth-popping kind of way.
Where better to have my beluga moment than in the opulent Caviar Bar at St Petersburg's Grand Hotel Europe, where each year diners consume 1.5 tonnes of the so-called black gold. A favourite watering hole of society's elite since it opened in 1875, the Grand is steeped in Russian imperial history – legendary figures to have swept through its doors include Emperor Nicholas II; composers Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Strauss and Shostakovich; and writers Fyodor Dostoevsky and George Bernard Shaw.
Tchaikovsky spent his honeymoon here in 1877, though, sadly, the marriage was short-lived. "She is loathsome to me in every sense of the word," he is reported to have said of his wife only weeks after their nuptials. Ouch! So presumably the composer didn't have her in mind when he came to write the climactic ending to his 1812 Overture three years later.
Today, the hotel is renowned for its magical Tchaikovsky evenings, held every Friday, when an excerpt from the ballet Swan Lake is performed for diners at candlelit tables in the elegant L'Europe Restaurant. As romantic nights go, it doesn't get much better than this.
Times haven't always been so good. The hotel was converted into an orphanage during World War I and a hospital during the siege of Leningrad in World War II. In 1989, it was closed for a complete overhaul, reopening in 1991, the same year Leningrad's citizens voted to rename the city St Petersburg.
During the restoration, the 19th-century neoclassical facade and art nouveau interior were painstakingly preserved and antiques and treasures that had been packed away during the war were brought back. It has been said that, with its collection of more than 200 objects, it is "the only museum in the world that rents rooms".
The Grand, Russia's first five-star hotel, is now among Europe's finest. It is always full for St Petersburg's White Nights celebrations in the height of summer. First to sell out during this period are the terrace rooms on the top floor with views across Arts Square to the colourful onion domes of the Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood. And far from shutting up shop in winter, the hotel is abuzz for the White Days cultural festival, when fur-clad visitors flood into the city.
The hotel promises a "reliving of la belle epoque". From the magnificent art nouveau decor in the Lobby Bar and L'Europe Restaurant to the sweeping marble staircase and elegant guest rooms, the air of an indulgent bygone era pervades. Russian imperial fabrics and furniture have been replicated and used in all 301 rooms and suites, while those at the top end – 10 sprawling historic suites – have been given the tsar treatment, with antiques and artworks.
Each of the historic suites, the largest of which have Italian marble bathrooms big enough for a cocktail party, has its own decor and character. The Dostoevsky Suite, for example, is on a corner overlooking two streets, reflecting the Russian writer's preference – he liked to observe street life while writing and always favoured a corner room. The Pavarotti Suite, where the Italian tenor stayed during his farewell tour in 2004, has a full-size grand piano.
In the Lobby Bar, you can rub shoulders with Russian tycoons and, if you have the fortitude, join them in a glass or three of vodka. If you don't know your Pyatizvyozdnaya from your Sinopskaya, the degustation option is a good place to start.
The Caviar Bar also has an extensive list of vodkas, including 50 Russian brands. Here, as well as three kinds of black caviar, you'll find traditional cuisine, which might include a 10-dish hors d'oeuvre selection of fish, meat and pickled vegetables or a main course of wild bear.
Just outside the hotel's palatial marble-columned walls is the heart of St Petersburg, the cultural and architectural legacy of Peter the Great. Arts Square, Mikhailovsky Palace (Russian Museum) and Mikhailovsky Theatre, one of the oldest opera and ballet houses in Russia, are all on the doorstep, while the State Hermitage Museum, Yusupov Palace and the Peter and Paul Fortress are within walking distance.
Hotel staff can arrange tours to any of these sights, as well as more off-the-beaten track places. How about a barbecue and evening swim at a forest lake or a concert with champagne at the country cottage of Empress Alexandra?
Opting for a personal guided tour of the Hermitage, we were whisked past a long queue of tourists and shown the highlights among the museum's 1000-plus rooms and 3 million artworks. The tourist boats plying the city's canal network also attract big crowds, so we booked a personal tour on the hotel boat, a James Bond-style timber launch that made us feel like film stars.
Speaking of 007, the hotel does have that classic Bond feel, so it's appropriate that in GoldenEye, he says on the phone: "Meet me tonight at the Grand Hotel Europe."
In my case, the call to my husband went more like this: "I've just had my first taste of beluga caviar – and I love it!" The sigh of despair down the line said it all.
Source: Sydney Morning Herald