Anthony Looch ponders food, Russian history and the country’s five-star tourist experience as he visits St Petersburg for the weekend.
It felt strange to sit beneath the gilded ceilings of one of the finest buildings from the glory days of the old Imperial Russia – and ponder the thorny subject of what to order for breakfast.
It is reckoned that more than 620,000 people starved to death in the three-year siege of St Petersburg (then called Leningrad) as the Germans pursued their ultimately doomed invasion of Stalin’s Russia at the bitter climax of the Second World War.
That was nearly 70 years ago. Now, in a huge and spectacularly beautiful art nouveau dining room of the Grand Hotel Europe, I can eat as much as I like from the mouth-watering and substantial breakfast menu.
Should I try the caviar? Or possibly one of the seven varieties of fish, including salmon and sturgeon, 10 types of cheese, nine different sauces, and 15 varieties of jam and honey.
Seven decades ago, this very room served as a crowded hospital ward, with thousands falling and dying in the streets outside. Today, this splendid building, restored to former glories on Nevsky Prospekt among the city’s great architectural treasures, shows you at once why this city is a favourite stop (second only to New York) for Britain’s cruise enthusiasts.
St Petersburg was actually the capital of Russia until 1919, although it became Petrograd when Russia and Germany went to war in 1914, because “Petersburg” sounded much too German.
In 1924, its name changed again to “Leningrad”, honouring the ruthless creator of the 1917 Russian Revolution. Then in 1991, under the more liberal Gorbachev regime, the population was offered the chance of another name change, and more than 70% wanted to return to the original, although Gorby didn’t like the idea.
While staying in any luxury five-star hotel is fun, in my book the Grand Hotel Europe is a special member of this select group. As the first five-star hotel in Russia, its antecedents stretch back to 1824, when an inn opened on the site.
The hotel has a beautifully preserved neo-classical façade. The interior is sumptuous, indeed imperial, with sweeping staircases, thick carpets, marbled pillars and floors, high ceilings, beautiful curtains and spacious rooms.
Its stunning art nouveau decor and stained-glass windows - expertly preserved during recent refurbishments - reflect palaces and royal residences elsewhere in the city, like the Winter Palace of the tsars nearby.
Among its 301 guest rooms, 10 of the historic and most expensive suites have reopened after expert redecoration. They retain original 19th century features and style and are adorned with pastel colours, inlays of Karelian birch, Russian historical prints, samovar lamps and richly-coloured 19th century-style fabrics.
Lavish bathrooms in these suites are reminiscent of Roman Baths built for Catherine the Great.
Orient Express Hotels, the international chain, has owned and managed the hotel since 2005. The staff, charming and helpful, communicate easily in English, with not a hint of loftiness you sometimes find in luxury hotels around the world.
Great names who have visited this august address since the mid-19th century include Tsar Nicholas II, Grigori Rasputin, Isadora Duncan and Johann Strauss.
Tchaikovsky, the composer, checked in for a honeymoon in 1877 and more recent guests include Vladimir Putin, limbering up for yet another term as Russian President, leading politicos from Europe and the US and, unsurprisingly, stars from the world of stage, screen, music and theatre.
One night, in the dimly-lit, crimson-themed and marble-studded Caviar Bar, I tried “Bear Parmentier” - diced meat of hunted wild bear, in sauce, mashed potatoes, fresh garden leaves and herbs in a parmesan basket.
Bear meat has a pleasantly sweet taste and I could not help wondering what happened to the skin of the animal from which it had come. Probably it became a fur coat, to protect some affluent soul from another savage Russian winter, beside which Britain’s “cold” snaps are embarrassingly mild.
But there must be a limit to time spent living in a luxury hotel. St Petersburg has many fabulous sights and a weekend is hardly long enough to see everything. I was unable to get to the war museum, but covered the major sights.
We got the hotel’s box at the famous Mariinsky Theatre, for a production of the ballet Spartacus. The historic theatre dates back to the 19th century, and famous works by composers such as Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov received premieres there.
Next day, we headed for the Summer Palace of the tsars, about 30km from the city, on the southern coast of the Gulf of Finland. This palace, known as Peterhof, was destroyed in the Second World War after its contents were moved to safety before the Germans arrived.
It has been completely rebuilt, refurbished and redecorated exactly as it was in the imperial days, and is breathtaking in its beauty, both internally and outside, with terraced fountains, golden statues representing figures from antiquity, and French-style gardens.
On the following day, we visited what must surely be Russia’s greatest artistic treasure: the State Hermitage in the Winter Palace. Its collection of art and sculpture (more than three million items in all) is mind-blowing.
St Petersburg, like Venice, is built on water with the broad and deep Neva River flowing through. Our boat trip on this waterway, and along canals flowing from it, provided excellent views of the city’s architecture.
Much of it resembles English Georgian architecture, although facades are more ornate. The heart of the city survived the war relatively intact, although the Germans razed the suburbs in their retreat.
St Petersburg carefully protects its building line to ensure an absence of modern glass-box buildings and skyscrapers.
One of the city’s magical features is the phenomenon of the “White Nights” in the summer, peaking in June and July. In a city so far to the north, the sun does not descend sufficiently low, so the sky never gets dark and night never comes.
When it is warm enough, the city’s navigation season begins. To allow large ships to pass along the Neva River at night, all the bridges are raised at a certain time. Bridge-raising, an international symbol of the “White Nights,”, is eagerly waited by tourists each night.
If you win the lottery, or any sort of windfall, head for St Petersburg and treat yourself to a grand suite at the Grand Hotel Europe.
But you may find that securing a visa for Russia is no pushover. I needed bank statements from the previous three months to prove that I could get safely back to London without becoming a burden on the Russian state.
Key facts: St Petersburg
:: Best for: Art collections and palaces.
:: Time to go: Ideally May-Oct, especially June-July for White Nights.
:: Don’t miss: The Peterhof and the Hermitage.
:: Need to know: Very little English is spoken locally.
:: Don’t forget: Don’t drink tap water or use it for tooth-brushing.
Tony Looch was a guest of British Airways Holidays, which offers three nights’ B&B at the five-star Grand Hotel in St Petersburg from £809 (two sharing) during November, incl return BA flights ex-Heathrow.
Reg deps incl Manchester (from £904) and Glasgow £902), incl connecting flights into Heathrow.
BA Holidays reservations: 0844 493 0758 and www.ba.com