I'm sitting in the main reading room of Paris' Bibliotheque Historique, at a green leather-topped desk under painted wooden beams that have been holding up the soaring ceiling for hundreds of years. I am listening to another French institution, the chanteuse Juliette Greco, be interviewed; it's part of the library's exposition on Paris En Chanson, Paris in Song. Greco looks great for her 80-some years, her hair still jet black, her skin pale, her voice deep and husky. She's talking about her life, and why she always sang so much about Paris. "It is because," she explains, "Paris is une ville magique. People come to Paris looking for things, and whatever you come here in search of, you can find."
Legions of people have come to Paris over the centuries, of course, seeking to find their artistic voice, everlasting love, or simply a good baguette. I've come in search of a room at the Ritz, a search that finally reached fruition after decades. I'm so glad I persevered because the legendary hotel will close, in August, for more than two years for renovations. For those who like to say "you should have seen it (anything) before..." the time to experience the Ritz Paris is now.
Why the Ritz? Everyone has a favorite story. Mine began when I was a kid, reading Hemingway and Fitzgerald, Janet Flanner and Djuna Barnes write about living in Paris, and, often, stopping by the Ritz. The hotel seemed an unattainable paradise. Even its very name revealed its illustrious story and came to identify anything swank, expensive, "ritzy."
When I first came to Paris as a teenager, I was too intimidated to do more than stand outside the Ritz' imposing entrance on the Place Vendome and gawk. A few years later, with the confidence that a couple years of college had imparted, I put on my Sunday best and ventured inside, peering into the Bar Vendome in case Yves Saint Laurent was having lunch, and striding down the long, blue carpeted hallways lined with sparkling vitrines displaying an Aladdin's chest of luxuries--dazzling jewels, delicate ceramics, lustrous silks--as outside my reach as staying a night in one of the hotel's rooms.
But one evening years later, after arriving in Paris late because of an airline strike only to find that my reservation at a modest hotel near St. Sulpice had been given away, I called the Ritz. They had a room, no doubt their most modest, on the rue Cambon side, but to me it was paradise found. The crystal chandelier, the Rococo moldings, the silk damasks and jacquards, the closets that lit up when you opened the doors, and a bathtub as big as, well, the Ritz. I was in heaven, and all for a staggering $250 night.
Rooms cost a good bit more than that now. Rates start at $1,100 for a double, $1,500 for a junior suite, $2,170 for a suite, and a whopping $11,000 for the Coco Chanel Suite, with its black marble Cs inlaid on the white marble floor, honoring the designer who lived there for 30 years. The prices are lofty, but who knows how high they will sky-rocket after the renovation?
I just had tea with Matthieu Goffard, the hotel's Public Relations Manager, to find out more about the renovation. There's a lot that is not known. The redecoration is being done by design hotshot Thierry Despont, who promises to keep the look in the same style as it is now, but hasn't provided any details. Hopefully this means guests will feel as if they are in a French chateau and not in some chain hotel anywhere in the world, which often happens when traditional hotels try to modernize and look hip. They end up, to my mind, looking anonymous, impersonal, and cold.
“The Coco Chanel Suite, they wouldn’t change that, would they? “ I asked Matthieu. While no one knows the particulars yet, the goal for the hotel’s historic suites at least is more to restore rather than replace or redesign.
What is known is that there will be a tunnel already under construction linking the parking garage under the Place Vendome to the hotel, so all the celebrities that have stayed over the years--Madonna, Michael Jackson, George Clooney--won't be mobbed by adoring fans crowding the street-level entrance. More suites will be created. All rooms will have improved technology including a do-everything control box that's light year's more advanced than the ring-the-maid buttons that Cesar Ritz invented when he founded the hotel in 1898. Plumbing will be updated, and tubs will fill in seconds.
The Terrace of the Bar Vendome, now open to the Parisian sky, will be covered, like a conservatory or winter garden. The hotel's other green space, now an outdoor lounge, will be landscaped like a formal garden a la Versailles. And the hotel will get its first ballroom. "Now we have to install a floor over the pool for events," Goffard explains.
The last time I stayed at the Ritz was a few years ago, as a guest of the hotel, in recognition of the coverage I had given it over the years for various publications. My late husband and I were welcomed into a suite with a photograph of us the hotel had lifted off the internet, blown up, and put in a silver frame by the side of the bed. The creamiest high-thread-count pillowcases were monogrammed with our initials. We had drinks on the soon-to-be covered terrace with the manager. We had dinner with Matthieu at the chef's table, with chef Michel Roth personally waiting on us. We took a Ritz-Escoffier cooking class, named in honor of the hotel's first chef, the great Auguste Escoffier, and learned the correct way to kill a lobster (plunge a blade between Larry the Lobster's eyes.)
The experience will always remain one of my life's finest. When the Ritz reopens, I'll return, God willing, to see what changed and what remains. Hopefully my response won't be "you should have seen it when..." but "hey, look at it now!" To my mind, though, there really is no room for improvement.
There's still time to experience the Ritz before it's too late. The rue Cambon side with its Hemingway Bar may already have closed, but the Bar Vendome with its open-air Terrace, the Espadon restaurant, the Ritz-Escoffier cooking school, the Ritz Health Club pool, the rooms themselves, even Coco Chanel's suite, all remain open, until the last booking the night of July 31.
On August 1, c'est fini.
Photos courtesy of The Ritz