Shopping in (French) style

For luxurious sale browsing, why not a weekend in Paris?

Someone wise enough to comprehend the harsh realities of a Visa statement must have uttered at some time or another: "One cannot both feast and become rich." This may be true for the January sales in London, but this year in Paris, after a dismal retail December, the city's sales are forecast to be a veritable bout of money mayhem.

Feasting on the carrion of cut-price purchases in the rue Saint Honore, the Place Vendome or the Avenue Montaigne can leave an illusion of wealth, and this year may be the time to carry the illusion to historic extremes. If the impoverished Oscar Wilde (once staying at l'Hotel in the rue des Beaux Arts) did not in fact make her say it, Lady Bracknell should have said: "If one is not actually wealthy, that is no reason not to stay in a palace."

To "do" the Paris sales in unquestionable style there really is only one suitably palatial destination: the Hotel de Crillon.

The guide books jump for the thesaurus when they try to describe the Crillon, which overlooks the Place de la Concorde: "luxury, elegance, magnificence, imposing, outstanding". These descriptions, rather than encouraging, tend to scare; but not enough to frighten Theodore Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, the Shah of Iran, Charlie Chaplin, Sophia Loren, Jackie Kennedy, David Niven, Elizabeth Taylor, Michael Jackson, Bette Davis, and, although not Eva Peron, Madonna - all of whom are former guests.

The thought of Madonna struggling through the 18th-century Louis XV lobby at the Crillon, drowning in sale bag bargains from Chanel and Dior (Avenue Montaigne), Christian Lacroix and Versace (rue du Faubourg St Honore) Armani, Hermes, Lagerfeld and Louis Feraud (Place Vendome), and Thierry Mugler and Ungaro on the Ave Montaigne, either means that Evita is concentrating on the couture houses of the Right Bank, or that she is trying to save on cab fares from the Crillon.

From her early New York days Madonna may have visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where one of the Crillon's original wood-panelled rooms is on permanent display. It may take some time before one of Granada's Welcome Break motorway suites reaches such heights, but this is the point of the illusion of wealth: the economics of the sales should not be confused with Calvinistic sensibility; the dosh saved on the goods can be philosophically transferred, without guilt, to the prime purpose of living among the High Society grace of a Kelly.

The Crillon's location, overlooking the obelisk of Luxor in the middle of the Place de La Concorde, was initially supposed to be the masterpiece of the architect Jacques-Ange Gabriel, set in Louis XV Square. The French revolution changed the name of the square and much else. Now France's history is a morning's stroll from the Crillon: past the Tuileries, the nearby Louvre museum, and the Arc de Triomphe. In January, such a journey will only complicate the business of looking for red-and-white Solde signs in famous shop windows.

Once you have worn yourself out shopping, you will find that the Crillon, still privately owned by the French Concorde Hotel Group, has all the haven-like comfort of a diplomatic residency. Unlike the architecture of the current wave of super-hotels which seem to take their style from theme-park extravagance, the Crillon's public rooms, such as the Winter Garden tea room and the Piano bar, are quiet, understated. While the prices of the formidable Restaurant les Ambassadeurs might scare even Marco Pierre White, you can always order the full Crillon breakfast in your room. This can only be described as one of the world's great breakfasts: more a catwalk of cuisine than simple coffee and toast. The waiters, in full morning dress tails, who lift the silver lids off your poached eggs, know they are engaged in royal theatre. In 1815 Hazlitt remarked : "The art of life is to know how to enjoy a little and endure much."

Keep that in mind when the credit card overheats.

For details of the Crillon's special winter rates, call 33 1 44 71 15 00.

For travel to Paris on the Eurostar, call train reservations (0345-303030).

Details of Paris sales may be obtained from the Office du Tourisme, 127 Avenue des Champs-Elysees, Paris (33-1-47 20 88 98). Assistance is provided in English).

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