Bucharest property blends Old World elegance, modern comfort

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BUCHAREST, Romania--In 1988, a friend and I chose the Athenee Palace's terrace restaurant for our first lunch in Romania.

The crowded tables, indifferent service, mediocre food and lack of ambience were imminently forgettable. A Standard guest room Our table companions were not. Initially annoyed that we were not handsome men, Tatiana and Elena soon regaled us with gossip and a wish list of hard-currency items.

These memories returned, as I lunched, 10 years later, at the same restaurant. With cafe tables under white umbrellas, good china, a well-considered menu and attentive waiters, the meal and its setting bore little resemblance to that earlier visit. The fashionably dressed couples and clusters of western business clients might have come from another planet. Somehow, I missed Tatiana and Elena.

In many ways, today's Romania is a different country and the hotel, now the Athenee Palace Hilton, is clearly a different property. At the time of my earlier stay, its proud history as one of Europe's grand hotels was evident only in the marble columns of the upper lobby.

As if to finish off the decline, bullets scarred the facade and fire damaged some rooms during the 1989 revolution that ended Romania's communist dictatorship. A few years later, Hilton was named to operate the property, and the building was swaddled in blue plastic wrap.

Finally, in November 1997, the Athenee Palace reopened after a $42 million renovation. Although guest rooms, meeting rooms and restaurants incorporate the best of 1990s comfort, the upper lobby and ballroom, both listed as historical monuments, retain their old-world elegance.

In the lobby, marble insets, outlined by gilded moldings, reflect the variegated pale gray, tan and pink of the columns. Intimate groupings of tables and chairs invite guests to enjoy tea or cocktails accompanied by the soft tones of a piano. Mirrored doors open onto the ballroom, which features an ornate marble fireplace flanked by statues in gold-leaf.

It is the ballroom's ceiling, however, that holds the eye. In the center, a stained-glass dome glitters from lights hidden above it. All around, smaller stained-glass squares add to the brilliance, as do the mirrored doors and panels covering three walls. During renovations, the entire dome was taken down, cleaned piece by piece and resoldered.

According to Milton Almeida, director of sales and marketing, the ballroom has become a sought-after venue for conferences and conventions as well as for social events.

Ten additional function rooms; a Meeting 2000 business center; an executive floor with a private lounge; a solarium, and a complete fitness center, reached by private elevator and featuring a pool, a whirlpool, a sauna and a steam room, help make the hotel "very much a corporate property," according to Almeida. As the Athenee Palace is within walking distance of most tourist sights, Almeida noted its advantage for leisure travelers, as well.

In addition to the outdoor restaurant, clients can opt for La Pergola, which offers Romanian and Continental specialties as well as a buffet and Sunday brunch; Cafe Royal, featuring light meals in a Paris bistro setting, and the English Bar with paneled walls and a British club ambience.

By year's end, a casino will be in place, accessible from the lobby or a streetside entrance. The 272 guest rooms include three categories of suites. All are equipped with televisions, in-room safes and laptop connections along with the usual upscale amenities.

Almeida calls the Romanian people the country's "most valuable natural resource," and he includes the Athenee Palace's 306 employees in this superlative. "Any hotel's strength lies in its staff," he said, adding that 98% of guest surveys rate the service "very good" to "excellent."

Two personal examples back up this evaluation. As negotiating Bucharest streets is not my favorite driving experience, a receptionist painstakingly drew a detailed map that got me out of the city without a hitch. And a bellman and a doorman cheerfully changed my flat tire, then headed back to their posts before I could produce a tip.

When the new Athenee Palace Hilton received its first guest, former U.S. ambassador to Romania David Funderburk, it continued a history of hospitality dating to 1914. As European capitals fell during World War II, the hotel became the gathering place for nobility, journalists, statesmen, officers and spies from much of the continent and the U.S.

Those days are described with penetrating, and often controversial, insight by the American journalist R. G. Waldeck, also known as Countess Waldeck, who took up residence there between the summer of 1940 and January 1941.

In her book, "Athene Palace," Waldeck speaks of the property's glamour, calling it the "most famous hostelry of the Balkans." First published in 1942, the book was reprinted for the hotel's 1997 reopening.

Today's Athenee Palace may be short on spies and nobility, but as the pianist begins his medleys it is easy to visualize them strolling along the colonnade, socializing and observing. Rates are $320, single, and $360, double; suites cost $641 to $765. Prices include VAT and buffet breakfast.

For reservations, call (800) HILTONS.

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