Joe Mortimer enjoys a taste of Imperial Russia in the city’s largest suite, at a legendary Saint Petersburg address where royals and world leaders have crossed paths for more than a century
Stand in the centre of Arts Square in Saint Petersburg, next to the statue of Russian poet Alexander Pushkin, and you’ll find yourself surrounded by the whispers of history. The grand buildings that circle the square tell myriad tales of Russian life, from the Imperial era of Tsar Nicholas 1 and the post-Revolution years of the early 20th-century, to the modern day, when the city stands at the crossroads of east and west.
On the northern side, the neoclassical Mikhailovsky Palace, designed by Italian architect Carlo Rossi, is now home to the Russian State Museum: a trove of Russian artistic treasures spanning almost 900 years, and the largest collection of Russian fine art in the world. On the western side is the Mikhailovsky Theatre, one of Russia’s oldest, where the great works from Russian, French and German masters have been performed for the city’s cultured inhabitants since its curtain first rose in 1833.
The building that occupies much of the south side of the square is one of Saint Petersburg’s most fabled; one also created by Carlo Rossi after splicing together three existing townhouses behind one impressive façade. Belmond Grand Hotel Europe is the grande dame of Saint Petersburg; a historic property that has welcomed more heads of state, VIPs, royal families and high-profile celebrities than any other address during its 144-year history. Running the length of Mikhailovsky Street, connecting Arts Square with the three-mile long, boutique-lined Nevsky Prospect, the hotel is the most prestigious and storied in the city.
The most magnificent of all its 266 guestrooms is the hotel’s Presidential Suite, a grand two-bedroom apartment festooned in rich textured fabrics, antique furnishings and elaborate foil and silk wallcoverings, which welcomes guests into its ornate environs through a golden domed entrance hall. Residents and visitors are whisked
away to a world of tsars and tsarinas in this elegant abode, which takes its inspiration from the classic Imperial period thanks to a 2014 refurbishment courtesy of New York-based Tihany Design, which counts Four Seasons, Mandarin Oriental and The Beverly Hills Hotel among its prestigious portfolio.
Designer Adam Tihany has captured the grandeur and opulence of the era throughout the 350-square-metre corner suite, which overlooks the twinkling lights of Nevsky Prospect and Mikhailovskaya Street and claims the honour of being the largest suite in Saint Petersburg. Parquet floors in dark oak create a warm residential feel in the spacious living room, private lounge bar and ten-seater dining room, where Murano crystal chandeliers hang overhead.
An extensive art collection is exhibited throughout the suite, including a dramatic 1976 photograph of Bolshoi Theatre prima ballerina Natalia Bessmertnova, by German photojournalist Robert Lebeck, which hangs in the living room alongside a piece by contemporary Russian artist Natalia Sitnikova.
Gently push a panel in the suite’s private library and the entire bookshelf gives way to reveal a secret entrance to the master bedroom, which features its own secluded living area and a magnificent four-poster canopy bed. A standalone clawfoot bathtub takes pride of place in the master bathroom, which is clad top-to-toe in dazzling marble inlaid with fine gold glass tiles and features its own hammam sauna.
Marble is used extensively throughout this historic hotel, but nowhere is it felt more prominently than in the Presidential Suite’s grand entrance hall, where four tall marble pillars surround an elaborate mosaic floor, leading the eye to what is perhaps the highlight of the apartment: an antique C.M. Schroeder grand piano.
The beautiful instrument was built in the 19th century at the Saint Petersburg factory of Carl Schroeder, who became the official supplier to both the Saint Petersburg and Moscow conservatories (music schools) for his award-winning pieces. The Grand Hotel Europe acquired one of his pianos shortly after its opening in 1875, and since then, the talented fingers of Tchaikovsky, Strauss, Prokofiev and Shostakovich have danced across its keys.
The piano is one of six in the hotel, the most magnificent of which is a museum-worthy grand piano, inlaid with obsessively intricate birds and flowers, made by Belgian master Herman Lichtental. The antique instrument’s ivory keys have been coaxed into life by some of the world’s greatest pianists and composers over the decades, many of who have been regular guests at the Grand. Luciano Pavarotti practiced on another piano during his stay in 2014, and Elton John famously entertained guests in the hotel during a tour of Russian in 1979.
At the same time as the transformation of the lavish Presidential Suite, Tihany Design created five Avant-Garde Suites inspired by 20th century Russian artists. Each of these unique, one-bedroom apartments is decked out in a manner that reflects the style and familiar tones of each artist, with specially commissioned artworks also reflecting the nuances of the Russian greats. With five styles to choose from, there’s one for every taste, but the highlight is surely the Kandinsky Suite, which echoes the abstract style of Wassily Kandinsky via varied textures, patterns and colourful jewel-toned furnishings and décor.
In addition to these relatively new signature suites, Belmond Grand Hotel Europe is home to 10 Historic Suites created by French designer Michel Jouannet. The Dostoevsky Suite, named after regular guest and ‘Notes From the Underground’ author Fyodor Dostoevsky, commands superb views of Arts Square, with an ample writing desk in the corner living room and a bathroom finished in contrasting marbles: two of the 30 types of marble used throughout the hotel.
The Lidval Suite was created in honour of architect Fyodor Lidval, who oversaw a major refurbishment of the hotel between 1908 and 1914. During the transformation, he overlaid his ornate Art Nouveau style on the Lobby Bar and Krysha Ballroom, as well as the main stairway leading up to the Historic Floor. The Rossi Suite is dedicated to the man who created the hotel’s iconic façade, while the focal point of The Stravinsky Suite is a glossy black grand piano.
Music remains an integral part of the hotel experience, from the solo pianist who performs at breakfast beneath a stained-glass window in L’Europe (which turns into one of the city’s most beloved fine dining restaurants in the evening) to the nightly jazz at the extremely elegant Lobby Bar. Dining takes a contemporary twist at AZIA, where chef Larissa Kordik prepares modern, pan-Asian cuisine in a sleek, modish venue created by Japanese design firm Super Potato.
The strains of classical guitar and violin also accompany an evening at the Caviar Bar & Restaurant, an essential destination for anyone visiting Russia for the first time. Start with a selection of regional caviars (beluga, oscietra, sterlet and salmon, to name a few) paired with Russian vodkas, both distilled and traditional varieties, and marvel at how the potent spirit cuts through the unctuous roe. Follow with a selection from the main menu, which combines classical and contemporary Russian dishes: try the country rabbit blinis with a rich cherry sauce, followed by a deconstructed beef Stroganov, a modern take on a traditional Russian dish. Don’t miss the opportunity to try some surprisingly good Russian wines: the sparkling white Temelion, made from chardonnay and pinot noir grapes in the northern Caucasus, is exceptional.
Beyond Arts Square, there’s a whole city of architectural marvels and cultural riches to be discovered in Saint Petersburg, and Belmond Grand Hotel Europe is well positioned for guests to visit all of them on foot. The imposing Kazan Cathedral is just around the corner, and the extraordinary State Hermitage Museum and its unfathomable collection of treasures is a short walk away. A few blocks north of the hotel you’ll find the Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood, the onion-domed edifice built on the spot where Emperor Alexander II was assassinated in 1881. To the east is Shuvalov Palace, now home to the Fabergé Museum, where 15 magnificent Imperial Easter eggs are among the highlights of the incredible collection, bought from US publisher Malcolm Forbes after his death in 1990. Exploring them all takes time and stamina, but returning to the divine comforts of the Presidential Suite in the evening ensures a taste of the elite lifestyle that has been so carefully preserved at this legendary hotel.