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. 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
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
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
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
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.