Historical nuances and intrigue enrich Bucharest’s Athenee Palace Hilton

by Sean Hillen

Sitting under a blue sky on the terrace of the Athenee Palace Hotel, one might mistakenly think one is in the midst of an exotic jungle setting.

That’s due to the mysterious monkey sounds emanating from the foliage of nearby tree-tops. But no, it’s not the Amazon or deepest Africa. It’s Bucharest, capital of Romania, and the noise one hears is a mimicking one, a creative ruse to keep nuisance birds away from guests’ tables.

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It works, guests sit leisurely undisturbed drinking with friends and family or eating a fine meal cooked carefully under the direction of chef Franz Conde.

Monkey sounds are far from being the only intriguing aspect of this elegant, downtown luxury Bucharest hotel. Dating back to 1914, this historic landmark, as R.G. Waldeck’s book ‘Athene Palace’ points out is, “one of the world’s grand hotels. Survival, triumph, journalism, politics, and intrigue have all contributed to (its) current fame.”

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Take the ‘English Bar’ for example. More recently, home to the country’s exclusive ‘Cigar Club’ founded jointly by myself as publisher of national business newspaper, Bucharest Business Week, and the Hilton Group, it carries aloft an enviable history. During World War Two, this intimate, cozy ground-floor corner bar was the scene of nefarious, dramatic goings-on as elites including members of European royal families from neighboring countries fled the advancing Nazis to the temporary safe haven of neutral Romania, mixing together over cocktails with spies from all sides sitting at tables.

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Today’s ambience could hardly be more different than that of those yesterdays. Then, tension was at its highest, nerves jittery, now the English Bar provides utter relaxation, a highly-valued place to unwind, complete with plush surroundings, a mix of muted reds and yellows, soft light projected from chandeliers and gentle music easing from overhead speakers.

Here guests settle deeply into armchairs and linger over an impressive range of cocktails cold beers and lite-bites from the international snack menu, all served with élan by long-time staff members, Lili and Daniela. By day, the bar can be equally busy, a suitable place for working, using complimentary WiFi, a cup of tea or coffee in hand. With more than 40 whiskeys from around the world, the bar also hosts a Thursday Gin & Jazz event, the mellifluous voice of Viorica Pintilie being one of the highlights, and occasional themed parties, as well as a big-screen TV for major sporting events.

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A very different atmosphere settles itself at ‘La Strada’ terrace facing the broad Boulevard Calea Victoriei. Here, in fine weather, an airy atmosphere is enhanced by colorful hanging baskets of red geraniums, a three-tiered mini fountain, varnished wooden flower beds, scattered slim saplings, shaded tables under canopies of wood and canvas, slatted wood chairs and tables, an outdoor barbecue grill and a semi-circle outdoor bar. Don’t worry. Imitation primate sounds mean you’ll receive no surprise plops from overhead.

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The fare can best be described as ‘high-class’ and served warmly from attentive waiting staff under the guidance of affable restaurant manager, Daniel Dumitru, many of whom have worked here for many years. Hungry after a long, leisurely stroll through the ‘Old Town,’ a ten-minute walk away, my companion and I dined on several courses, avoiding heavy meats, as the evening was warm. Our healthy selection over a relaxed three-hour dining experience included smoked swordfish with lime cream, fried capers and crostini; risotto with asparagus and parmegiano regiano; melanzane parmegiano; a mixed grill of king prawn, yellow-fin tuna and cod wrapped in pancetta and grilled octopus with chickpea puree. After a short break to permit partial digestion, we leapt at the warm chocolate cake with melting vanilla ice cream and a caramel and chocolate parfait with lime zest.

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For a more formal interior dining experience, try Roberto’s Restaurant, just inside from the terrace. Scenes from old 1950s classic movies line the walls featuring erstwhile stars such as Sofia Loren, Gregory Peck, Audrey Hepburn, Marcella Masyriani and Claudia Cardinale add a nostalgic cinematic touch. For something more informal, there’s also the street-level Café Athenee where French specialties and gourmet desserts are among the menu.

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Re-opened in 1997, the overall décor of the Athenee Palace Hilton has been revitalized and replenished by Hilton International, overlaying a modern 21st century hotel upon an immensely historical building, creating seamless charm and grace. In many ways, this hotel’s pedigree is every bit as impressive as the Parker House in Boston, the Langham and Ritz in London and Madrid, Le Negrescu in Nice.

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Rooms are classically designed using the finest of materials, on curtains, bed-linens and flowing carpets. Our suite on the third floor, even though it overlooked the busy Calea Victorie, provided a quiet haven, such was the efficiency of wall and window insulation. Located on the executive floor, we also enjoyed access to the hotel’s lounge facilities, where a tasty array of complimentary hot and cold snacks, as well as soft and alcoholic drinks, were provided throughout most of the day. The view from here uplifted one’s spirits, granting clear views over the nearby Athenee Palace Concert Hall and the National Art Gallery. Even one of Romania’s most intriguing museums, including a fascinating numismatic collection dating back to antiquity –  housed in the National Bank of Romania and the pride of 27-year-bank governor Mugur Isarescu and curator, Ruxandra Onofrei – was within short walking distance of the hotel.

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Lingering in the comfort of the room, my companion couldn’t help but cast our minds back to what it must have been like during the sensitive inter-war period when chambermaids made extra cash by selling the contents of guest waste-baskets and others passed on sensitive secrets by listening to hushed conversations through ventilator shafts.

Guests can also enjoy comfortable leisure facilities, including a small, well-equipped gym, a Jacuzzi, sauna, steam-room and boutique-size swimming pool. Massage services are available upon request, either in-room or in a private space on the ground-floor near the gym.

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Taking its rightful place in the annals of European history and with a complete renovation that combines gleaming marble pillars, floors and furnishings with ultra-modern amenities, the Athenee Palace Hilton possesses multiple attractions to allure select travelers.


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