In Amor Towles' novel A Gentleman in Moscow, fiction melds with reality at the Russian capital's Metropol Hotel. The century-old Metropol is where the gentleman of the title, Count Rostov, spends more than 30 years after being condemned in 1922 to life under house arrest for being an unrepentant aristocrat.
It sounds an unlikely premise for a best-seller. However, the urbane Rostov has charmed readers around the world, and the Metropol is now sharing in the count's success by offering guests A Gentleman in Moscow Tour.
You can sip the count's favourite cocktails at the mahogany Shalyapin bar before enjoying one of his favourite meals (maybe Okroshka cold soup with beef tongue) and then retire for the night to your room (presumably better than the count's modest quarters on the Metropol's top floor). And all from a reasonable 15,800 roubles (about $300) a night.
Alternatively, you can enjoy the count's favourite haunts via the Metropol's traditional "tea ceremony" for a more modest 5000 roubles. That's where we're headed on a sunny summer morning.
We're a small group at the end of a cruise from St Petersburg to Moscow. We've decided against the optional excursion to Sergiev Posad – "Russia's greatest monastery" – and strike out independently from our mooring in the north of Moscow, taking the underground to the city centre.
I'm in the midst of reading A Gentleman in Moscow, and the fictional count seems every bit as immediate, every bit as real, as the frenzied Moscow traffic on the road between the Bolshoi Theatre station and the Metropol. I can easily imagine Count Rostov waiting for us in the hotel's marble foyer. He'll be sitting between a couple of potted palms, glancing about discreetly over the top of his newspaper.
Before we can reach the hotel's front steps, however, a small sign brings me back to reality: "Please use side entrance during construction." I look up to see the steel frame of a large awning taking shape overhead. We're greeted not by Alexander Ilyich Rostov, but by a walk-through scanner and a sombre security officer. Ah well, times change and, as the count says, " ... it is the business of gentlemen to change with them." Hotels, too.
A young woman introduces herself as Christina and ushers us to a table next to the Shalyapin Bar. The table is set for seven, with china decorated in a delicate pink and gold pattern reminiscent of one we'd seen a week or so earlier in Catherine the Great's palace outside St Petersburg. We settle into high-backed armchairs upholstered in purple velvet and toast each other with shots of pink vodka (tinted by cranberries), confident of neutralising the alcohol with the waiting plates of plump pancakes topped with red caviar and sour cream.
Our table is soon crowded with piroshkies (pastries), both sweet and savoury, and three-tiered carousels of temptations: delicious miniature sandwiches filled with beef and small rolls topped with prawns, rising through decadent chocolate petits fours to a top level of macaroons and jellied sweets. And of course, there's the tea: black, with slices of lemon and sprigs of thyme on the side.
This is not "tea", it's a meal. After an hour, we've barely begun the petits fours. "Can we leave it, and come back?" Christina nods and invites us to go exploring.
What or who will we find? Certainly not the novel's fictional bell captain Arkady, nor Emile the chef, nor Andrey the head waiter. But the hotel itself – not quite a character but more than merely a setting – is as recognisable as an old friend.
When the count was not in his cramped quarters on the sixth floor he'd be found in the opulent Boyarsky restaurant or among the tropical greenery of the Piazza (now called the Metropol Hall). Our table is just a few paces from the Piazza, where noon sunshine spills through a spectacular stained-glass ceiling and splashes into a central fountain, lighting up a marble and gilt interior where waiters have just cleared the last crumbs of very late breakfasts.
Finding the Boyarsky proves trickier. A hotel executive encounters us wandering lost on the second floor and takes us up to the fourth – through a hall lined with photographs of a century's famous guests – to the Moorish opulence of the Boyarsky, where the count begins the novel as a diner and ends up a waiter.
Tea at the Metropol has proved an unexpected highlight of our cruise; an elegant anachronism, holding firm to the traditions of a gracious past. Much like the count, really.
Greg Lenthen travelled at his own expense.
Various major airlines fly to Moscow from Australia's east coast.
TOUR & STAY
The Metropol's A Gentleman in Moscow Tour costs 15,800 roubles (about $300) and includes one night's accommodation, cocktail tastings inspired by the novel, dinner at the Shalyapin Bar with a menu of the count's favourite dishes, breakfast near the fountain in the Metropol's hall and a copy of Hotel Metropol: A Moscow Legend. See metropol-moscow.ru