A Taste of Russia
My first day in Russia was a disaster. We landed at the airport at 5-ish, and checked into our hotel, hit the sack and got up early only to find that the night before the Stones had played in the town’s main square and we could have bought general admission tix for a few dollars each. I was crushed, that would have been a hot show to catch. But it was all downhill from that point on…Everything you need to know about St. Petersburg you can learn at The Grand Hotel Europe. Almost ancient by today’s standards, the hotel has been serving royalty and movie stars, presidents and potentates for nearly 150 years. Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky played on the stage in the dining room, caviar is still served with breakfast. The hotel has a cigar bar, a chocolate shop, a caviar bar, a ballroom, real art (and I do mean real, as in 19th century museum real) in the hallways and rooms, security as tight as Buckingham Palace and oh yes, did I mention real Russian gangsters in the bar at night? Hands down this is my favorite hotel in the world and I would rather spend a night, or 10, here than in any other. Every moment of every day is spent with your jaw in your lap, either the stunning opulence gets you slack mouthed and drooling or it’s the history lessons from the people you meet.
The hotel, like the city, is both a throwback to the old Russia (The Hermitage, Catherine’s Palace and so on), the good ol’ USSR (check out the graying apartment blocks that stretch for miles) and the new Russia (Mercedes, Chanel, sushi bars and a middle class). Check out the prices at the hotel…Beef Stroganov costs a fortune, but it is no longer the most popular dish at the hotel. Tuna sushi at one of the hotels 5 restaurants is. And it is consumed in massive portions by happy customers sitting streetside, watching tall skinny supermodels wheel in and out of the trendy boutiques across the street. In some respects SP is not really like Venice, thecity it is often compared to because of the canals. These days SP is more like Paris!
The hotel takes up an entire city block, massive and solid like you imagine a Russian hotel would be, but the Euro-opulence is everywhere. You are greeted by a squadron of liveried doormen and security men so beefy and Slavic they have no necks at all, just heads planted on massive shoulders. Inside, a phalanx of gorgeous 20-somethings line up to present caviar and foie gras along with a flute of champagne as you stand to check in. You are escorted by one of the lovely lasses to your room, which reminds me of the bedrooms at Versailles, there is no other way to describe it, except that flat screen TVs rise at the touch of a button, retro fitted inside 200 year old artisanal cabinetry.
The Lobby Bar at night is where all the action is. Sitting outside of the bar in the ‘on deck’ circle are several of SP’s finest courtesans. They are not part of the hotels list of amenities but they service the clientele and the hotel feigns ignorance. For a thousand euros the ladies will have a drink with you in your room and the entire week we were there we watched spellbound as international titans of industry, Asian crime lords and famous faces all took advantage of their amenities. Russia has changed, but the freewheeling wild west vibe is still alive and kicking in SP.
One of local experts was a history teacher at a high school, his wife also works 9-5, and he still needs to hold down a second job just to make ends meet. Viktor nearly cried when he took me to the meat counter at the Kuznechny market, recalling misty eyed the days of rationed canned ham. We met local art students and film costumers who ate in restaurants and danced in clubs til the wee hours, waiters in humble eateries who had visited Minnesota (my home these days), young entrepreneurs who took us to their family lake homes for wild boar barbecues, Swiss hoteliers who have taken the town by storm…there is a lot of money in Russia these days and lots of upward mobility…everyone wants their piece of the pie.
So make your way past the call girls, sidle up to the bar, order yourself a beverage and look around the room. Count the bodyguards, sip your drink, listen to the world class jazz band playing improvisations on Cole Porter standards, imagine what the conversations are like at the 30 some odd tables scattered across the parquet floors. Tip Andrei well, and he might have you escorted up to the windowless Pool Room, where there is no longer a pool table, replaced long ago by the huge conference table where Premiers, Prime Minister and Presidents have met in secret for decades. Go back down to the bar, and toast the good old days marveling at the enigma, wrapped inside a puzzle inside a conundrum that is still Russia.