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Apr 23, 2007
Lenin Slept Here: St. Pete's Hotel Astoria - Forbes

St. Petersburg: For those who expect the Hotel Astoria, St. Petersburg's most glamorous hotel, to be anything like its newer, glitzier competitors on the nearby Nevsky Prospekt, the first sight of the stark, even forbidding building across from St. Isaac's Cathedral may bring a reaction as cheery as a Dostoevsky novel. But step into the lobby and you are transported into an elegant world of sleek secessionist design, Russian history and giant samovars of tea brewing in the corner--the harder stuff is served in the adjoining, ahem, "library." There is also the sweeping staircase where the powerful, famous and infamous (or, in Lenin's case, all three at once) have been making grand entrances and exits for 93 years. People still talk about the time in 1956 when Truman Capote danced down the stairway and kick-stepped twice around the revolving door before exiting, much to the amused consternation of his Soviet handlers.

There was at least one prospective hotel guest the Astoria was happy never to welcome. During World War II, Adolf Hitler, confident that he would take the besieged city--then, of course, called Leningrad--had invitations printed up to a celebratory New Year's Eve party in the Astoria's Winter Garden ballroom. The Wehrmacht never danced at the Astoria, but the once-grand hotel suffered for another half-century under the shabby management of the Soviet Union's Intourist monopoly. Finally, in 1997, the place passed into the control of British hotelier Sir Rocco Forte, who renovated the Astoria to its current hyper-luxurious state.

The Astoria now has a crack English-speaking staff who seem to wince at the mention of the word "Intourist." That might be because, night and day, the hotel's dapper English general manager, Michael Walsh, seems to be permanently on guard in the lobby, supervising and greeting. Imagine Basil Fawlty's more stable brother. Nothing seems to escape his attention; when a bellman mislaid a piece of my luggage, Walsh personally tracked it down. My guess is that not many guest towels go missing at the Astoria.

The hotel has a small spa on the seventh floor featuring a gym, sauna, Turkish bath and massage rooms. For some reason, I always had the place to myself. The real workouts seemed to be going on down in the hotel's restaurant, Davidov, where preening Russians were enthroned in faux-ostrich-leather chairs and booths eating beef Stroganoff, pelmeni and other local specialties, washing it all down with a choice of some 80 different kinds of vodka from the caviar bar.

If the Astoria has one major drawback, it's that its standard guest rooms are tasteful but small. The bathrooms are so minuscule that the towel racks are in the shower--but hey, at least those racks are heated. And the bathrooms are marble. Those in the know ask for the rooms with breathtaking views of St. Isaac's Cathedral, something I discovered when I got relegated to a courtyard that obliged me to redefine the word "dreary."

All was forgiven when the room service borscht arrived piping hot within minutes of my 2 a.m. call for food after an evening's quiet meditation on Russian culture in the nightclubs along the Neva riverfront. The descendant of a long line of European mud peasants, I pride myself on my deep intimacy with beet products, but the Astoria raised the bar. I've never tasted anything so fine. Moreover, it was the first time I've ever eaten borscht out of a silver tureen. Somewhere downstairs, I'm sure, Mr. Walsh was waiting to check it back in.--Finn-Olaf Jones

The Set-Up

Hotel Astoria, 39 Bolshaya Morskaya, is a five-minute walk from the Hermitage. 011-7-812- 494-5757, (800) 223-6800, Rates vary widely by season, but singles start at about $400 while suites go for as much as $4,400.

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