Return to the glamour of Paris

Garbo stayed there, Marlene Dietrich kept a suite. When the tired, dilapidated hotel George V was restored to its former glory, John Lichfield was there

The contents of the most rubbish-filled wash-bag in the world (mine) were arranged carefully along the marble bathroom shelf. Four emaciated tubes of toothpaste; an empty razor-blade packet and several dishevelled toothbrushes had been laid out by the chambermaid in a nice, neat (satirical?) line.

Lesson: if you stay in the world's newest, super-luxury hotel - even in the spirit of journalistic inquiry - clean out the contents of your wash-bag. My wife and I (feeling like Neil and Christine Hamilton, without the affrontery or the hair lacquer) joined 70 other guests for the first night of a reborn Parisian legend: the hotel George V.

I had expected a culture clash - but humiliation by wash-bag had not occurred to me.

That apart, the culture shocks were mild and pleasant. After two years of closure, the George V, the hotel which once epitomised the ephemeral glamour of the 20th century, re-opened on Saturday as a new kind of luxury hotel for the 21st. This means the Internet in every room; it means a TV, video and video-game ensemble which makes your bed feel like the cockpit of an Airbus; it means a swimming pool and a health spa, and a little leaflet in each room, suggesting jogging routes through Paris.

It also means a generational shift from the attentive but stately and judgemental atmosphere of the Ritz or the old George V. The new staff (attentive, but startlingly young) seem to have been trained to avoid gazing at you as if they have the power to X-ray your bank account (an impression you still get if you happen to wander into the Crillon or Bristol, or the other Parisian hotels for the super-wealthy).

It is as if the reborn George V - beyond the high-tech gadgetry - has been updated spiritually for a new, more informal world, in which millionaires are just as likely to turn up in baseball shoes as in pearls.

For the last two years, the George V, on the avenue of the same name off the Champs-Elysees, has been the most expensive building site in the French capital. Its owner, Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, nephew of Saudi's King Fahd, paid pounds 90m to the British hotel group, Granada, for the hotel in 1996.

He has since spent another pounds 70m on ripping out the interior and starting all over again. The work took twice as long as initially envisaged because the builders were obliged to observe gentlemen's office hours - from 10am to 5.30pm - so as not to disturb the wealthy and powerful neighbours on this, one of the most exclusive avenues in Paris.

There was much sorrow when the old George V closed. I went to the vast auction-cum-jumble sale in October 1997, at which much of the hotel's furniture and memorabilia were sold off. It seemed at the time that the George V was selling its memory bank and its soul. Anything associated with a celebrity name sold for two or three times its anticipated price.

A pair of snot-coloured Staffordshire porcelain dogs which had once stood in Greta Garbo's room went for pounds 4,500. A double bed in which the Rolling Stones had slept (all of them?) for pounds 4,300. A potty used by General Dwight D Eisenhower - when the hotel was briefly his staff headquarters in 1944 - for pounds 2,800.

Ten ageing multi-millionaires, who had been living in the hotel for as long as anyone could remember, had to be evicted into the Prince of Wales hotel next door.

The George V is not an old hotel by Paris standards. It was built in 1928, in Art Deco style, by American hotel tycoon Joel Hillmann. At the time, it was the only hotel in Europe with an en suite bathroom for every room. For the next four decades, it was one of the places to be seen if you were part of a certain kind of jet set: the rich and energetic, rather than the rich and idle.

It was especially popular with Hollywood stars and Middle East potentates (both of which groups have long since emigrated to the Bristol hotel on the other side of the Champs-Elysees).

The cast list of former guests also includes Gene Kelly, Gary Cooper, Vivien Leigh, Burt Lancaster, Sophia Loren, John Wayne... In the Sixties, Marlene Dietrich booked a suite at the George V for years at a time. In its heyday in the Thirties, the hotel had its own air-taxi service, and chauffeur-driven cars direct from the French Atlantic liner ports of Cherbourg and Le Havre.

In 1964, on their first visit to Paris, the Beatles stayed in the George V. A grand piano was moved into their suite. According to one account, it was here that Paul McCartney and John Lennon wrote "Can't Buy me Love". The refrain - "Money can't buy me love" - was appropriate for what was still one of the great gathering places for the immensely wealthy.

Not for much longer, however. The George V was once compared to an ocean liner, moored just off the Champs-Elysees. Like many an ocean liner, it proved unable to move with the times. It was starved of investment and its glory days faded with its furnishings.

In the Eighties, after its purchase by the British Forte group (later taken over by Granada), the George V slipped out of the premier division of Parisian hotels. By the early Nineties you could go there on package tours for pounds 100 a night. Even walking off the street, you could stay there for less than pounds 200 a night (against pounds 300 for the cheapest room at the Crillon or the Ritz).

Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Bin Abdulaziz Al Saud had spent part of his childhood in the hotel. He made it his mission to restore the George V to its former pre-eminence - but also to make it the most technologically advanced luxury hotel in the world. Rather than close the hotel floor by floor, or wing by wing, he ordered the whole place to be closed and virtually gutted.

Some of the best furnishings were kept, including a dozen celebrated 17th and 18th century tapestries from Aubusson and Flanders, which are the centrepieces of the new hotel. The rebuilding has recreated the original Art Deco style and seems to take its colour scheme from the tapestries: all pale slate-blues and ochres and creams. The effect is stunningly beautiful.

The new George V (managed by the Four Seasons group, of which Prince Alwaleed is a major shareholder) also plans to reclaim its long-lost place among the best restaurants in Paris. The main restaurant, Le Cinq, has recruited one of the best younger French chefs, Philippe Legendre, 41, who has been awarded three stars in the Michelin guide at the Taillevent restaurant in Paris for each of the last 10 years.

Since, unlike Neil and Christine, we were paying for ourselves, we did not sample the more expensive items on the menu or wine list. It was only afterwards that the maitre d' told us that it was half-price for the first night because the kitchen was not yet up to full speed. Everything seemed fine to me: my crab cannelloni and roast wild duck were extraordinary.

The dress code in the new George V has yet to establish itself, but the first-nighters were mostly ostentatious-casual: smart jackets, discreet jewellery and crisply pressed jeans. There was one celebrated TV newsreader. But there was also a middle-aged mum with an 11-year-old boy, who spent most of the dinner reading a comic-book.

Earlier, the same pair just beat me to the honour of being the first to use the new George V's underground swimming pool. I had to be content with being the third person to dirty the pristine tiles of the changing rooms. I laboriously swam up and down, while the lifeguard anxiously paced alongside me. Was it his first-night nerves, or is my swimming really that bad?

No-one would pretend that the new George V is cheap. It is back in the minimum-pounds 300-a-night class. To have your knickers washed in the laundry costs pounds 4.50, which is more than the price of a new pair, even in Paris. This is perhaps a subtle way of saying that only people with very expensive knickers are expected to stay there.

On the other hand, judging by the welcome we received, no one need feel out of place. Anyone who wished to save up and blow a little money on a luxury weekend here in Paris would get far better value than the foreign tourists who are charged up to pounds 200 a night for mediocre hotels in central London.

Jean Cocteau said that a great hotel should be "a reflecting mirror" of the vanities and achievements of its age. The new George V, both exclusive and relaxed, fits the description. In the end, however, the character of a great hotel also depends on the richness of its history, something the new George V has partly washed away.

Money can't buy a new soul and a new memory bank. Only the guests and the passing years can supply those.

Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

    Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

    But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
    Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

    Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

    Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
    Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

    Britain's 24-hour culture

    With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
    Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

    The addictive nature of Diplomacy

    Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
    Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

    Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

    Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
    8 best children's clocks

    Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

    Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
    Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

    Who is Oliver Bonas?

    It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

    60 years of Scalextric

    Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones