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Hotel with checkered past tailored to today's Romania

In its wartime heyday, the Athenee Palace Hotel was the picture of high intrigue: Nazi officers, diplomats, spies and refugees passed one another in its corridors.

Decades later, the Bucharest hotel degenerated into a hangout for prostitutes and secret police agents - both of whom kept tabs on the trickle of foreign guests, albeit with different motives.In a swirling snow Tuesday, the newly refurbished Athenee underwent yet another transformation - this one tailored to a modern Romania. Under management of the Hilton chain, the hotel is aiming to attract business people hunting for profits in a new and largely untamed market.

Its first guest Tuesday was an exiled Romanian princess, Marina Sturdza.

Waiter Paul Paraschiv quit his job on a cruise ship to work at the Athenee. "This hotel is a monument to history," he said. "It survived two world wars and 45 years of communism."

Built in 1914 next to Romania's Royal Palace, the Athenee symbolized the period between the world wars when Bucharest was dubbed the Paris of the East.

The hotel gained a reputation as the most elegant - and most notorious - hotel in the Balkans as a result of Romania's ambiguous status during World War II.

Formally allied with Nazi Germany, Romania did not break relations with the Allies and switched sides in 1944. During that period, Romania served simultaneously as a haven for Nazis, Western diplomats, reporters, spies and dispossessed royalty of Eastern Europe, all of whom hung out at the hotel's English bar.

Books such as the "Balkan Trilogy" by British writer Olivia Manning and "Foreign Correspondent" by Associated Press reporter Robert St. John captured some of the flavor.

With Communists in control after the war, the hotel's staff kept watch on foreign visitors and reported to the secret police. Even so, the hotel retained an air of faded elegance until the late 1980s, when it succumbed to the growing paranoia of Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu.

Prostitutes plied their trade among the few foreigners staying at the hotel, selling their services for a pack of coffee. The Gypsies who sold bright flowers next door disappeared, leaving illegal money changers doing virtually the only commerce.

After Ceausescu was overthrown and executed on Christmas Day 1989, the hotel continued to languish until Hilton signed an agreement in 1993 to manage the property and restore it to its former glory.

Some familiar signs of the storied hotel remain - marble pillars at the entrance, gilded mirrors and gold leaf detailing on the ceiling - but much of the interior is new. Rooms go for $300 to $740 a night.