This place would make anyone feel like a love god
Staying in the best hotel room in town was a good starting point for testing the French capital's romantic reputation
Sunday 08 February 2009
My self-image as a man of the people (always a somewhat flimsy conceit, I admit) has taken a dive off the eighth-floor Juliet balcony. Not just any balcony but the one that leads the eye out over the zinc rooftops of the 8th arrondissement on to the most ridiculously romantic view in Paris. From my penthouse suite at the Plaza Athénée, I am no longer a mere mortal, I am an emperor of the senses or possibly a minor love god; the Eiffel Tower has been placed in the middle of my field of vision. And it seems to exist pri-marily to flatter me.
I am, I hasten to add, only a part-time emperor. Or a deity with a lucky lottery ticket. The room rate of Eiffel Suite 888 is as dizzying as the view. It is enough to induce a nose bleed – €6,000 (£5,340) per night (and breakfast is extra!). It is not now, nor will ever be, in my budget but luckily I am not paying. Despite all the attentiveness that accompanies me like a cloud from the moment I set foot on the premises, I have a delirious sense of not belonging. The Plaza Athénée is more used to hosting the likes of Jackie O and Johnny D (Depp that is), Rudy Valentino and Leo DiCaprio. And that's without mentioning those who would prefer not to be mentioned.
This is an exalted and terrifying realm. The hotel boasts that its 550 staff are here to "anticipate guests' every need". The needy can choose from six different kinds of pillow, including one called the Cervical Pillow which is "essential to a night with no cervical pains". In comparison, my "needs" seem so footling that I am embarrassed by them. I need to raise my game. Perhaps the Eiffel Tower could be moved a few inches to the right? Maybe room service could deliver a house-trained ring-tailed lemur to my suite?
Suite 888 is a billionaire's love shack. It has an entrance hall, a large sitting room, a dressing room, a bedroom and two bathrooms. The style is repro- Art Deco tricked out in Macassar ebony and mahogany. A huge flat-screen television is set in a mirrored wall. The windows are draped in linen and silk curtains. The embroidered cushions on the twin velvet sofas are by Lesage.
It is theatrical; a stage set for a Hollywood rom-com. I am told the concluding episode of the Sex and the City TV series was shot in the hotel. According to the storyline, Carrie decides she doesn't belong in Paris but, silly girl, what does she know?
I have another American in Paris on the phone – a fellow journo. His reaction to my lodgings is illuminating. There is a long pause, then: "Wow! What? How? Who's paying? I thought we're all supposed to be tightening our belts."
A round of similar phone calls to some peripheral contacts in Paris makes me realise how popular I am suddenly. A steady stream of visitors begins: friends of Facebook friends, colleagues I have not heard from in 10 years, an ex-partner's sister's ex-boyfriend ...
As most of Paris seems keen to beat a path to my door I hold court and use the opportunity to gen up on my mission. Is Paris really the romantic destination it is cracked up to be? Or is that just another marketing myth spooned out to naïve foreigners? My guests, Parisian-born and expats alike, are united. Their city (adopted or native) is number one for lovers.
"People say we are arrogant," says TV technician Freddie with that infuriating Gallic shrug, "but we have so much to be arrogant about. Paris is the most beautiful city in the world." He announces this as an unimpeachable fact.
As a Londoner, I bridle. The endless queues at the Louvre or, indeed, at most of Paris's overworked landmarks are hardly conducive to lovers. Their Ferris wheel on the Place de la Concorde is pathetic in comparison with our mighty Eye.
And even when it comes to food, as a London loyalist I believe that we have caught up and in some cases bettered Paris for quality and variety. This is heresy, of course, particularly in my present surroundings and I am in danger of being defenestrated from my own suite. But the gauntlet is down.
Leave the Louvre to the coach parties, I am instructed, and for la vie romantique try the Musées Rodin, Jacquemart-André, Carnavalet or Marmottan instead.
The Musée Marmottan Monet (to give its full name) in the 16th is such an anonymous building that I walk past the entrance. Inside though, it is a boutique-sized gem, making the Louvre feel like a noisy factory of culture. The museum is housed in a former hunting lodge that belonged to the eponymous Marmottan family and initially existed to show off a fine but now unfashionable collection dedicated to the First Empire.
The Marmottan gains its cachet for housing the largest collection of Monets in the world – donated by Michel Monet, the painter's youngest son, in 1966. Claude's palette splatted with paint hangs on a wall like just another painting. De-contextualised it looks more like one of Marcel Duchamp's Dadaist "readymades".
There is no mistaking the stars of the collection, though. Claude's obsessive working and reworking of the water lilies in his garden at Giverny dazzle the eye from room to room. They seem to float not just on water but in light, and even on a dull grey winter day they promise warmth and colour. Lovers would surely leave the museum shimmering in the afterglow.
Another tip from my new best friends takes me into the Bois de Boulogne in search of a light lunch. The Chalet des Iles restaurant can only be reached by a short ferry ride across the duck pond and the manner of arrival alone guarantees a little romantic frisson. Peacocks parade along the guttering of the chalet's roofs which adds to the exoticism. The location scores highly for a tryst but the food, admittedly on a slow afternoon when the main kitchen is closed, is not the food of love. Even the cheese platter is a disappointment – yes, it can happen in Paris.
Dinner back at the hotel, however, in the Relais Plaza, more than compensates. The approach corridor from the lobby fills me with cold dread. Instead of stylish deco prints as might be expected, it is lined with signed photos of famous diners past and present (erring more on the past) like a cheap old tratt in the Charing Cross Road. Except the guest list here is a touch stratospheric: Liza Minnelli, Richard Burton, Yuri Gagarin, the Aga Khan and, I blink, Mata Hari.
The meal is beyond caveat. The oysters are simply the best I have ever had and the sea bass is flaky, moist and infused with a delicate smokiness. The executive chef at the hotel is Alain Ducasse so I guess the bar is set high. And this is only their second restaurant, a mere bistro. I struggle to imagine what the Olympian summits of the main Ducasse restaurant might be like.
The weather has turned from being sulky to outright stormy. The Eiffel Tower looks like a lighthouse with a searchlight scanning the murk that has enveloped the city. The rain lashes down, drumming on the roof tiles like a band of ghosts. The wind, too, is howling a demonic tune. It is the perfect weather for lovers, forcing you deep under the duvet; and furnished with the perfect excuse to never leave the sheltering embrace of luxury.
A late breakfast is ordered from room service. Coffee and patisserie are rolled into place on a table in front of the picture window. Stripes of sunshine and racing clouds are throwing shapes across the basin of Paris. The Eiffel Tower is still there dominating the vista and it occurs to me that I can't remember the last time I went up to the top. The tower demands to be climbed – because like Everest, it is there. And, unlike Everest, it probably won't kill me.
It is not long before I am rushing past the earthbound emporia of Avenue Montaigne, past Prada, Gucci, Chanel and Bulgari. My mind is on higher things. Across the Pont de l'Alma and along the Quai Branly. Soon I am clattering up the iron stairs of the south pillar. Up through a forest of girders to the first platform and then on to the second.
From the top deck all of Paris is miniaturised. Lovers pose for pictures. Children rush about pointing out their favourite landmarks: Sacré Coeur in Montmartre, the mini-Manhattan at La Défense, the green stretch of the Bois de Boulogne, and the sun glinting off the golden dome of Les Invalides.
But my eye is tracing the line up the Avenue Montaigne to the roofline of one tiny building among many others. There under the grey tiles is a Juliet balcony; the picture window is open. Inside, I suspect a regiment of maids is probably tweaking the flowers, buffing the furniture and fluffing up the carpet.
Soon I will come crashing down to earth.
How to get there: Eurostar (08705 186 186; eurostar.com) offers return fares from London, Ebbsfleet and Ashford to Paris from £59. From 23 February, with the restoration of the full, faster service, Eurostar will operate up to 19 services a day in each direction between London and Paris.
The Plaza Athénée (00 33 1 53 67 66 67; dorchestercollection.com), offers double rooms from €650 (£570) per night. Suite 888 costs from €6,000 per night.
Musée Rodin (musee-rodin.fr); Musée Jacquemart-André (musee-jacquemart-andre.com); Musée Carnavalet (carnavalet.paris.fr); Musée Marmottan Monet (marmottan.com); Chalet des Iles (lechaletdesiles.net)
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