Paris in the bling: How to do the French capital in style
He slummed it there in his teens, so when Brian Viner returned to the French capital he did so in style – by renting a luxury apartment
Saturday 15 November 2008
In 1980, between finishing my A-levels and heading off to university, in what was not yet so widely known as a gap year, I went to live and work in Paris. I found a job as a humble bagagiste – a luggage-carrier – in a three-star hotel on the rue Cambon, right next to the headquarters of Chanel in what was literally one of the ritziest neighbourhoods: my hotel, the Hôtel de Castille, was owned by the Ritz, and stood opposite its back door, later made famous as the fateful getaway exit for Diana, Princess of Wales, and Dodi Fayed.
My living quarters were also in a smart area, yet amounted to little more than a slum. For 150 francs a week – about £15 – I rented a dingy attic room in what had been the servants' quarters of a grand apartment block on the rue de Courcelles, in the 17th arrondissement. The room was little bigger than a walk-in wardrobe, but as well as a single bed it had a battered electric hob and a sink.
There were no lavatorial facilities. The loo was a hole in the floor in an ancient, smelly cubicle at the end of a dark, dank corridor, and sometimes, faced with the overpowering nocturnal need to urinate common among 18-year-olds who have spent the evening getting plastered, I used my sink. The problem with this procedure was that, occasionally, the sink got blocked. As yet unacquainted with the simple plunger, I used to scoop up the contents in a saucepan (kept expressly for that purpose; I wasn't a total slob) and chuck it out of the tiny sloping window.
This continued until the Portuguese concierge informed me of a vehement complaint from an elderly comtesse who lived in the large flat below, liked to sunbathe on her capacious balcony, and, not unreasonably, objected to being, if you'll pardon my French, splattered with piss.
Over the year that I lived in that attic room, I lost all the substantial flab that I had accumulated during my teens. This was due partly to having to walk up seven flights of stairs several times a day, and partly to a diet forced on me by a combination of penury and laziness. A large tin of sauerkraut-and-sausages used to last me three days.
All of which brings me to La Réserve, a block of self-catering apartments just off the Place du Trocadéro, not many Métro stops from my garret on the rue de Courcelles. I enjoyed the teen experience of slumming it, but in his forties, a chap needs to sample life on the other side of the tracks, so for a weekend dose of Paris in the springtime with my wife Jane and our friends Kim and Will, I picked one of the most luxurious short-term self-catering lets the city has to offer.
La Réserve did not disappoint, starting with the view of the Eiffel Tower, perfectly framed by every window. The spectacle of Paris from my attic-room window depended on being able to lean out far enough while twisting one's head sharply to the left, which yielded a view over rooftops of the top third of the Arc de Triomphe. But a full-frontal of the Eiffel Tower is the view that all visitors to Paris want – we calculated that there could not be more than a dozen apartments in the city with the same spectacular outlook.
Within, the apartment was similarly striking. It was decorated in boldly contemporary style with a safari theme (the leitmotif of La Réserve, which also has properties in Geneva and Ramatuelle, near St Tropez), and whereas my old landlord Monsieur Hakeim had spared every expense on fixtures and fittings, here the opposite was true, from the almost eerily soundproof double glazing to the Bose music system.
Best of all, though, was the service. A maid discreetly let herself in each morning, and had gone by the time we emerged from our lavish bedrooms, leaving the dining-room table set for breakfast: a basket of perfect croissants and pains au chocolat, a pot of freshly brewed coffee, and a jug of juice that might not have come from oranges squeezed by silky-haired maidens singing Provençal love songs, but I wouldn't have wagered against it. There was even a copy of The Independent for us. And when we returned each afternoon after several happy hours on the Vélib – the marvellous bike-rental system that has become the best way for moderately fit tourists to enjoy Paris – everything was immaculately tidy again. So much for "self-catering".
Nevertheless, I was determined to cook one night, if only to cock my own personal, if rather belated, snook at M. Hakeim and his crappy electric hob. So we bought wonderful steak, vegetables, bread and cheese a 10-minute stroll away on the Avenue Woodrow-Wilson – which boasts one of the city's best markets, on Wednesdays and Saturdays – and put the de- luxe kitchen to the test, to which it rose effortlessly.
After cocktails across the Place du Trocadéro, at the lively Café de l'Homme, where Rafael Nadal celebrates with his entourage every time he wins the French Open, we returned to the apartment and ate dinner with the light-festooned Eiffel Tower winking in the background.
The next evening, we went out, to the venerable brasserie Bofinger, near the Bastille, where the belle-époque decor was fabulous and the food average. We'd done better fending for ourselves.
The objective at La Réserve is to provide a self-catering apartment with a five-star hotel vibe, and it succeeds triumphantly. The concierge, Stéphanie, spoke English fluently, made our restaurant reservations, and seemed slightly disappointed that I knew Paris well enough to do my own itinerary.
She also proved herself the equal of any top-hotel concierge after I asked one morning whether she could, perchance, find us a backgammon set. She said she'd see what she could do, which I supposed meant that she'd have to go out and buy one, and by evening not only was there a very handsome set waiting for us, but its colours, browns and beiges, matched the decor.
It was that kind of attention to detail, as well as the privacy afforded by La Réserve, that won over a film star, who stayed there with his family for three months last year. Stéphanie made me promise not to identify him. Suffice it to say, by the time you've listed the five leading Hollywood male megastars, you'll have named him.
After reluctantly checking out of La Réserve, and waving Kim and Will off on to the Eurostar, Jane and I still had one night left in Paris. The sensible thing would have been to find somewhere cheap, but one of the points of this trip was to strike a contrast with my hand-to-mouth existence there almost 30 years earlier: we'd even travelled first class. So we took a room at L'Hôtel, the small but extravagantly formed hotel that exists in its own time warp on the rue des Beaux-Arts, on the Left Bank, and which, as the Hôtel d'Alsace, was where Oscar Wilde breathed his last on 30 November 1900, in room 16, supposedly just after saying, "Either that wallpaper goes or I do".
We could see Oscar's point. The wallpaper in room 16 when we visited – and there's no reason to think it was any less subtle in Wilde's day – was decorated with turquoise peacocks. Our own room, meanwhile, looked like an explosion in a chinoiserie factory. L'Hôtel is unashamedly flamboyant, with screeching individuality in every room and around every corner. We loved it, as should anyone who has ever flopped with a weary sigh on to a cloned bed in a cloned room in a Novotel or Holiday Inn.
We also loved our late-night hammam in the atmospheric basement, which can be booked for two and, with the co-operation of an obliging porter, surrounded by candles. It was the perfect end to a weekend that could only have been more perfect if I had bumped into my elderly comtesse from the rue de Courcelles when stepping out of either L'Hôtel or La Réserve, and been able to show her that I had gone up in a world in which she firmly believed that my only course was down.
Brian Viner travelled to Paris from Birmingham via London St Pancras with Virgin Trains and Eurostar. Through fares are available from Birmingham to Paris from £79 return. From 15 December, Virgin Trains will operate services every 20 minutes each way between Birmingham New Street and London Euston, with a fastest time of 71 minutes. Eurostar (08705 186 186; eurostar.com) operates up to 18 daily services to Paris from St Pancras International. Return fares start at £59.
La Réserve Paris, 10 Place du Trocadéro (00 33 1 53 70 53 70; lareserve-paris.com). Prices for a three-night minimum stay, including breakfast, concierge and housekeeping, start at €€6,500 (£5,417).
L'Hôtel, 13 rue des Beaux-Arts, Paris (00 33 1 44 41 99 00; curioushotels.com). Double rooms start at €€280 (£233), not including breakfast.
Eating & drinking there
Café de L'Homme, 17 Place du Trocadéro (00 33 1 44 05 30 15; restaurant-cafedelhomme.com).
Brasserie Bofinger, 5-7 rue de la Bastille (00 33 1 42 72 87 82; bofingerparis.com).
Paris Tourist Office: 00 33 892 68 3000; parisinfo.com
Chic on the cheap
Apartment: Printemps Nation Studio, Nation
This cosy pied-à-terre comes with chic decor, a mezzanine bed, kitchen/ diner and sitting area with windows overlooking a residential street near the Gare de Lyon.
(00 41 41 761 0706; parissweethome.com) Rental from €63 (£53) per night; sleeps two
Hostel: Oops! Hostel, Quartier Latin
Opened just over a year ago on the trendy Left Bank, Oops!, with its psychedelic palette and upmarket fittings, is very much part of the "design hostel" trend. Private rooms come with more grown-up shades and dinky Parisian balconies.
(00 33 1 47 07 47 00; oops-paris.com). Dorm beds from €23 (£19) per night; private doubles from €€60 (£50)
Hotel: Mama Shelter, Saint-Blaise
This former multi-storey carpark (pictured below) in the 20th arrondissement raises the budget-lodging bar with its "urban" interior by Philippe Starck, Apple iMac TVs, free Wi-Fi, and rooms you could easily pay five times more for nearer to the Champs-Elysées.
(00 33 1 43 48 48 48; mamashelter.com). Doubles from €79 (£66) per night
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