A celebration of classic haunts where the spirits of the old regimes still often sleep.
Main photo: The oversized Cosmos Hotel in Chisinau, Moldova, a classic example of 1970s Soviet gigantism that’s failed to find a natural clientele in the modern era. The rooms are too small and poorly fitted out to command the prices that management would need to improve the property. We’ll see what happens.
In my travels around Central and Eastern Europe during the past three decades, first as a journalist and later as a travel writer, I’ve stayed at a lot of hotels in the region. Since the fall of communism in 1989, the number of lodging options has exploded. Big hotels, small hotels, pensions, B&Bs, Airbnbs, hostels – basically anything you’d find anywhere else, you’ll find here. And the standards have risen dramatically. But I still have a soft spot in my heart for those big, communist-era, high-rise hotels.
It may not be obvious now, but if you happened to be traveling through any city of any size in Central or Eastern Europe before 1989 and were looking for some action – and by this I mean a meal, some drinks, and maybe a bar or club – chances are the only place in town you’d find it would be at the city’s central, state-run hotel. You could always tell these places by their very consciously Socialist names, such as “Mir” (Peace) or “Druzba” (Friendship) – or grand city names like “Moskva” or “Riga.”
They not only had the best rooms in town, they often had the finest (or at least most expensive) restaurants and bars. Many also had risque nightclubs, invariably referred to as “gentlemen’s clubs,” with names like the “Black Cat,” though these were usually as uninviting as their Western counterparts.
Back then, the hotels were usually operated by a state-controlled hotel chain, with an outwardly tourist-friendly name hiding what was, in fact, a cheerless arm of that country’s Interior Ministry or Communist Party. Russia’s state-run Intourist travel agency was the model, but all of the smaller countries had their own versions: Cedok (Czechoslovakia), Orbis (Poland), and so on.
It’s not immediately obvious why the party and state-security apparatus would take such a keen interest in running hotels, until you consider the fact that these places were tremendous moneymakers for the regimes. They could charge for the rooms and meals in hard currencies (mainly, at the time, U.S. dollars or German marks) and had a captive clientele of relatively well-off foreigners to whom they could market their off-the-books services like prostitution and money changing. There was simply too much cash floating around to pass up. This nexus of party bosses, state-security types, local hustlers, and Western businessmen often lent the hotels a sleazy vibe.
In an earlier post on my blog on the comings and goings of Prague’s Intercontinental Hotel in the 1980s, I describe the hotel’s lobby as a funk of stale Marlboro smoke and knock-off perfume. The place was filled with grubby-looking money changers and attractive female “law students” relaxing over a drink at the bar. It was depressing but – admittedly – pretty absorbing theater.
In the aftermath of the anticommunist revolutions in Central and Eastern Europe in 1989, these hotels have tended to fare poorly. The state-run chains have mainly been broken up and sold off to private (often foreign) investors. Some of the bigger, better-placed properties are thriving, but many of these admittedly ugly high-rises are struggling to compete with a new generation of smaller hotels, boutiques, and private offerings marketed through sites like Airbnb.
This article features a collection of photos of some of my favorite Eastern and Central European hotels as they’ve appeared in the past 10 years or so that I’ve been writing guidebooks. These photos show off some of the best and worst aspects of these weird demiworlds, where the spirit of the old communist regimes often lingered for years after the political structures that supported them had collapsed.
Editor’s Note: Mark Baker is a freelance journalist and travel writer based in Prague. He has written guidebooks and articles for Lonely Planet, Frommer’s, and Fodor’s, and his articles have also appeared in National Geographic Traveler and The Wall Street Journal, among other publications. This article originally appeared on the author’s blog, which can be found here.