Exclusive: a first look inside The Ritz Paris

Vincent Leroux

The Ritz
Paris

It has appeared in three Audrey Hepburn films. One
of its suites is a national monument. Now after a four-year revamp
and a fire setback, the Ritz Paris is finally back, more beautiful
than ever

Vincent Leroux

Bedroom in the Windsor
Suite

In 1971, the American TV show
60 Minutes broadcast a feature on the Ritz Paris in which
a guest asked the concierge to get his heirloom paperweight
re-plated in silver, immediately (‘absolument, monsieur’). Spruce
doormen staggered punch-drunkenly under the weight of colossal
floral arrangements. And a Russian-Spanish marquesa – immensely
old, swathed in shining black feathers like an oil-slicked but
still exotic bird – praised the hotel staff for not blanching when
they found her pet boa constrictor sharing her breakfast. ‘There
must exist one little island!’ she cried to camera, where people
such as herself might feel welcome and swaddled. ‘And that island
is the Ritz.’

Four years ago, the hotel – which was first opened in 1898 by
Swiss-born César Ritz – announced it was closing for a €400 million
refurbishment, triggering panic among its many regular guests, and
more generally in the Place Vendôme. To close the Ritz. Not even
the Nazis did that. The Luftwaffe motored straight here on
Occupation and made it their headquarters. After Liberation, Ernest
Hemingway rushed up the stairs, thrilled to be back in the building
he most loved (when one of his trunks was found in the hotel’s
storeroom decades later, it contained an original manuscript for
A Moveable Feast). Coco Chanel loved it too, so much so
she lived here for 34 years. And F Scott Fitzgerald, Cole Porter,
Rudolph Valentino, Churchill, Proust, Chopin. The French chef
Auguste Escoffier invented melba toast in its kitchens. And Mohamed
Al-Fayed, the hotel’s doting owner since 1979, is often seen
accosting passers-by in the lobby for a chat and a reminisce, like
the ancient mariner.

Vincent Leroux

Salon Proust
at the Ritz Paris

Vincent Leroux

Grand Jardin at the
Ritz

But a refurbishment was long due. Time was when guests forked
their dinners under intermittently working lightbulbs, too in love
with the historical atmosphere to think of complaining. But in
recent years, all of Paris’s major hotels have had to clear their
throats, each one undertaking massive investments to keep up with a
new broom of Asian-owned competitors. More than €800million was
spent on the Peninsula Paris alone. The Hôtel de Crillon, Hôtel
Plaza Athénée and Le Bristol have thoroughly rejuvenated their
decor. And new venues, such as the devilishly handsome La Réserve
off the Champs-Elysées and the Shangri-La in the 16th
arrondissement, have increased the brutal competition for business
still further.

But which of them has the effortless head start of the Ritz
Paris? When I was last here five years ago, the high windows of the
entrance halls were swagged with thick curtains. Traditionally it
was a place for promenading – for you to look at people as they
passed, just as you were there to be looked at as you sat. So one
could while away hours by those windows pondering the mystery of
the power of luxury and heritage over the most fastidious of
businessmen or the very greatest of geniuses, and feeling… a little
entombed.

Vincent Leroux

Living room
in the Windsor Suite

Now light floods in. Dainty, incandescent paint colours – called
Hail Storm and Noodle, created Willy Wonka-ishly by the
painter-decorator Pierre Finkelstein – complement any original
mouldings of wobble-thighed cherubs offering blooms to angels.
All the parts of the building that date to the 1700s and were
designed by royal architects look both crisp and opulently blithe.
New glass roofs covering the terrace of the Bar Vendôme and
L’Espadon restaurant peel back on fine days, and a hidden Grand
Jardin mimicks Versailles, full of many lovely things: sage-green
topiary, honeysuckle.

Vincent Leroux

Bar Hemingway at the
Ritz

While very few grand hotels feel like a place you might actually
choose to drink in (too effortful and tense), the bars here are
full. New head bartender Aurélie Pezet rejects the sweet variety of
cocktails (‘too girly’, she frowns) in favour of head-lolling tea
infusions. Anyone passing is encouraged to perhaps take a walk,
like Marie Antoinette, along the pale oak and glass ground-floor
gallery, with its diamond and handbag boutiques, to find the shop
selling 1820s snuff boxes and antique pipes carved in the
shape of Beethoven’s head: a little nod to the very Parisian genius
with flea markets. Wall-mounted gold clocks in the bedrooms chime
on the hour, only with a curiously muffled and wholly
unmechanical subtlety, as though the passage of time were simply a
suggestion.

Vincent Leroux

Grand
Jardin

The sweep up to the Ritz’s Place Vendôme entrance has always
been peerless for Paris thrills (with perhaps the exception of Le
Meurice, with its views onto the Jardin des Tuileries and the
Louvre). Only now the effect is even more exhilarating. The entire
square, including the 1699 Vendôme column, has been cleaned
specifically to coincide with the reopening of the hotel.
‘Only the Ministry of Justice is letting the side down,’
someone sniffed of still-sooty Number 13. And this is key: there is
a sense of the whole area straightening its tie, as though the Ritz
Paris were its own highly quixotic arrondissement. No other hotel
in Europe has quite that potency. There must exist one little
island.

This feature first appeared in Condé Nast Traveller
October 2016

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