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JC Stays: The Bristol, Warsaw, Poland

Beloved of celebrities, this grand old European hotel is just as tempting today

There can’t be many hotels with a guest list as diverse as Marie Curie, Woody Allen, Marlene Dietrich, the Queen and Caruso - but then the Bristol in Warsaw is a one-off.

Opened in 1901 as Poland’s great palace hotel to rival the best of London and Paris, spared by the Nazis and despised by the Communists, it fell derelict and closed in the 1980s.

But since being rescued by Forte and reopened in 1992 - by Margaret Thatcher of all people - this five-star jewel has gone from strength to strength; the Queen stayed here in 1996, and Michael Jackson apparently loved the hotel so much he looked into buying it.

Today’s Bristol, part of the Marriott International's Luxury Collection, is undoubtedly the prize perch in Warsaw, perfectly located along the Royal Route which connects the Old City with prime downtown attractions like the Chopin Museum.

But unlike the street it sits on, a painstakingly reconstructed wonder of 18th century architecture, the Bristol is one of the city’s few historic buildings still standing, spared when Hitler razed most of Warsaw west of the Vistula to the ground in reprisal for the city’s failed uprising.

Equipped with modern comforts as well as art deco elegance and one of the best restaurants in town, the Bristol offers a great base from which to explore Polin, the world-class museum of a thousand years of Jewish life in Poland which demands at least a full day’s visit.

Exchange rates make it surely the best-value five-star in Europe, with a gracious level of service not always present in the former eastern bloc.

Its comforts are what Marlene Dietrich fled to from the Communist-era rival across the road when she arrived in Warsaw in 1964, shrieking: “Stay in this mortuary? Never!”

I appreciated old-style design like a sofa at the foot of my bed to watch TV (rooms of all categories include armchairs), glamorous low lighting in the bathroom as well as a make-up mirror and a vestibule with an antique chest on which to lay room key, handbag and scarf before venturing forth into the Warsaw night.

And on the ground floor, the elegant Marconi restaurant, a great source of Polish specialities like schmaltz herring with pickled cucumber and borscht which are part of the Ashkenazi lexicon, and less familiar dishes like breaded local sheep’s cheese with caramelised figs and chicory.

Terrace tables overlooking the interior gardens are a delight on balmy evenings or for taking the proper afternoon tea on which the hotel prides itself.

For a more casual experience the Viennese-style Cafe Bristol (closed for refurbishment till December) is famous for its excellent coffee and home-baked pastries.

The art nouveau Column Bar with wall lights by Otto Wagner and a piano bar is a local institution, there’s a separate wine bar and an ESPA spa.

And while it’s part of a global group, there’s never any question you’re firmly in the Polish capital: perusing a street map on the bench just outside, it plays Chopin to all who sit upon it to take the Warsaw air.
 

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