Mama extends a trendy welcome to tough Paris

The Mama Shelter used to be a multi-story car-park. Its ceilings and floors are covered with graffiti. It stands beside a disused railway line in what is reputed to be one of the toughest, and least fashionable, areas of Paris.

And yet the Mama Shelter, two weeks old, is already threatening to become the most talked about, and the most trendy, hotel in the French capital.

The "graffiti" scribbled permanently on the ceilings, floors, even inside the lifts, are part of the décor – bizarre but welcoming, funky and functional – created by the internationally-acclaimed French designer, Philippe Starck. The hotel attempts to combine the informality of a student hostel with the best qualities of a top-class hotel, without the stratospheric prices.

The Mama Shelter is the brain-child of Serge Trigano, 61, son of Gilbert Trigano, the founder of Club Med. Just as his father invented a new kind of tourism in the 1960s and 1970s, M. Trigano believes that he and his team have invented a new kind of hotel for a new kind of urban tourism in the early 21st century.

"The name may seem odd at first but it tells you what we are offering our customers: a convivial shelter from the tension and aggression of the city and a friendly welcome – a mother's welcome," M. Trigano said.

"I believe that the old tourist model, once represented by Club Med, is declining. People no longer want to wait for hours in airports to fly to exotic locations which are no longer especially exotic. The new tourism of the 21st century will be urban tourism, the discovery, or the re-discovery of great cities, like Paris or Amsterdam or London."

Placing a trendy, new 172-bed hotel in the 20th arrondissement of Paris – the poorest, the most racially-mixed, the most troubled part of the capital – may seems like a gamble. Until recently, the 20th arrondissement was fashionable only if you were dead. The sole tourist "site" close to the Mama Shelter is the Père Lachaise cemetery, last home of, amongst others, Edith Piaf, Oscar Wilde, Bizet and Chopin.

For M. Trigano, and his two sons Benjamin and Jeremy, for the designer Phillippe Starck, and for the hotel's architect, Roland Castro, the location of the Mama Shelter was a "deliberate choice". The French capital's axis of youth, fun and trendiness has shifted from west to east in recent years. The 19th and 20th arrondissements - still regarded as the Outer Darkness by well-heeled residents of western and southern Paris – have become part of a new, youthful, Bourgeois-Bohemian city east and north of Bastille.

Despite this tide of gentrification, the 19th and 20th retain some of the edgy atmosphere, the gritty street and café life, of the old pre-war Paris.

"The Mama Shelter is in the ideal place, not for the first-time visitor, but for those who want to discover a different Paris, a livelier Paris," M. Trigano said. "It is definitely not just a hotel for the young. It is a hotel for the young in mind."

The Mama Shelter is a swirl of black, grey and brown, metal, glass, wood and concrete. Poetry, aphorisms and bizarre observations are "scribbled" on the ceiling, carpets and lifts. "Human beings and dolphins are the only animals who enjoy sex". "Twenty seven per cent of women who win the lottery hide their ticket in their bra."

The staff is young, multi-national and has mostly never worked in restaurants or hotels before. "They have been chosen for their capacity for friendliness and warmth, which is not something always associated with the welcome tourists receive in Paris," said M. Trigano.

Unlike in Club Med, from which the Trigano family was ousted in 1997, the friendly young staff will not organise communal games or insist that you pay for everything with shells or tokens.

The Mama Shelter is, however, club-like in other ways.

The combined restaurant-bar-lounge- breakfast room has separate tables but also long wooden benches, like a youth hostel or old country inn. There is also a long, electronic table with built-in screens where you can eat and surf the net at the same time. The rooms vary in price from €79 (almost as cheap as you can find in Paris) to €200. The beds have linen of quality that you might find in the Ritz. Each room has a free-access, combined television and wi-fi computer screen.

How is the Mama Shelter doing? With minimal publicity so far, the hotel is fully booked until close to the end of October.

M. Trigano said: "My hope is that we will eventually attract visitors for weekend breaks from the 16th arrondissement (the most bourgeois and conservative of all Paris districts). After all, if they go to Marrakesh, they will merely see other people from the 16th arrondissement. If they come here, to the 20th, they will see people, and things, which they have never seen before."

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