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Hospitality, Glasnot-Style : Until recently, tourists visiting the Soviet Union where limited to dreary, broken-down Intourist hotels. Now there are two new choices: restored grand hotels with Western comforts, and 'B&Bs'for those who want to meet real Russians.

August 18, 1991|ELIZABETH SHOGREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER; Shogren is a Times correspondent based in Moscow

MOSCOW — When a taxi drops you off at the Metropol or Savoy, a battalion of doormen will usher you from the gray street life of the Soviet capital into the luxurious world of turn-of-the-century Russia.

It used to be that when foreigners came to Moscow, their only choices for lodging were rooms provided by Intourist--the government-run tourism agency--in drab, Soviet-era high-rises or once-sumptuous-but-now-dilapidated hotels left over from Russia's capitalist days. But now, two of Moscow's most famous pre-revolutionary hotels offer a level of luxury even Communist Party bosses here would envy.

Both hotels have undergone dramatic reconstruction projects by non-Soviet companies. Restored to their old gilded grace but equipped with modern conveniences, they offer a glimpse into the indulgent lives of the upper crust in pre-Soviet Russia while providing 1990s comforts.

The best window on Moscow's opulent past is the Metropol, a celebration of Russia's architectural equivalent of ArtNouveau, both of which were popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

As you walk into the Metropol, the marble floors, trim, stained-glass decorated elevator and classical music being played on a grand piano in the lobby create a mood of days long forgotten. Many of the guest rooms (especially the suites) are filled with an eclectic mixture of antique furniture that was in the hotel when it opened, just after the turn of the century, and has been newly restored at the famous Hermitage Museum in Leningrad.

Just a block from both Red Square and the Bolshoi Theater, the Metropol was a center of cultural life for Moscow's rich and famous in the heady days of early 1900s.

Despite its rapidly declining glory during the decades of Soviet power, the Metropol remained the closest thing Moscow had to a landmark old grand hotel until it was closed for remodeling in 1985. It kept its place in the hearts of Muscovites, who recall spending afternoons sipping coffee and eating pastries in the cafe and popping champagne corks in the grand dining room to celebrate very special occasions.

Now it caters to an elite crowd of foreign business executives, wealthy travelers and VIPs. The new prices--all in U.S. dollars or other foreign currencies--exclude most Russians. Even a beer in the lobby bar costs $5--at the tourist exchange rate, equal to half a month's salary for many Russians.

Once you settle into the Metropol, however, it quickly becomes apparent that Inter-Continental, the American chain that is running the hotel, has not been able to triumph over the inconveniences of Moscow. Since it opened its doors last March, it has gradually finished remodeling rooms (all 403 are scheduled to be open by September) and added amenities. But mini-bars are still empty (the hotel has not yet obtained the import license it needs to bring in foreign-made alcoholic and soft drinks in miniature bottles). There is also no room service, for the same reason.

The glaring turquoise, orange and cream carpet in some hallways and guest rooms is the unfortunate casualty of a boondoggle by a Soviet buyer in Finland before Inter-Continental took over. In the room where I stayed, the carpet clashed wildly with the paisley fabric on the furniture and gold and cream wallpaper.

The most pleasing part of my room, the bathroom--with a roomy tub, tasteful tile and large mirror--was hardly luxurious. But it was a world above the bathrooms in most Intourist hotels, which often feature cracked tiles, cockroaches, continually running toilets and showers without curtains.

The service at the restaurants at the revamped Metropol still suffers from old-style Soviet slowness. During a Sunday lunch at the European cafe, it took 30 minutes for the waiter to bring menus, then an hour more before some tasty, hot crab croquettes were served in tiny silver cups.

Breakfast at the Metropol is served in the main dining room, a glamorous hall with a huge painted glass dome and ornate frescoes on the walls. With a stained-glass window as a backdrop, a harpist plays as you help yourself to the buffet. Ordinary breakfast fare, such as scrambled eggs with cheese, pancakes and oatmeal, as well as fine pastries, were good. But the juices tasted like flavored sugar water.

Despite the inconveniences that management says will be smoothed out by time and training courses for the staff, the Metropol is well worthwhile for travelers willing to spend the money for a chance to live in history.

The hotel was sprayed with bullets during the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution that toppled the old order and brought an end to the lavish lifestyles of the capitalists and aristocrats for whom the Metropol was built. Bolshevik leader Vladimir I. Lenin made the hotel into a temporary home for the new government's executive committee. Even the decision to execute the Czar and his family was made at the Metropol.

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