Like any city worth its sel, Paris is several cities in one. Having been fashioned and refashioned throughout its tumultuous history, it has many faces, regal luxury and tubercular poverty being only one of its many contradictions. It’s grimy and refined, strictly ordered and cheerfully insouciant about rules, ragged round the edges but aristocratic at heart.
The most uniformly beautiful facet of the city, one quite inscrutable to me, is on the regal Right Bank. The preserved Haussmanian heart of Paris specialises in a discreet, old-world luxury that is hard to resist. It’s a film set come to life that invokes involuntary nostalgia for a past I’ve never even seen: that particular golden Paris light, patrician pavement cafés, manicured parks and manicured dogs, nary a patrician pebble out of place. (The many fanny packs on the horizon are the only bum note.) And its invitations are windows into a world of opulent living.
Just off the Champs-Elysées, for instance, I was confronted by the most exquisite mackerel in the world. Mackerel is a fish I ordinarily sniff at, but this particular exemplar was indubitably the Platonic ideal of mackerel. The sun, streaming through the French windows of Le Diane, the Michelin-starred restaurant at the hotel Fouquet’s Barrière, hit the silvery wedge of fish, its red rhubarb jus and tiny purslane leaves just right. It was a miniature painting, all bright tones and microscopic brushwork.
By Paris standards, Fouquet’s Barrière is the new kid on the hotel block. Though the legendary Fouquet’s brasserie has existed since the late 1890s, the hotel was only built recently, in 2006. The hotel itself spans five fin-de-siècle buildings, built around a courtyard so calm you can’t credit that it’s just off the noisy Champs-Elysées. The futuristic-baroque lobby is all glitz: marble floors, chocolate leather and gold laurel leaves, and in contrast to the tophatted doormen at Paris’s older hotels, Fouquet’s guardians sport fedoras. The hotel keeps its hip guests happy with 24-hour butlers, ‘carbon-neutral’ bookings, and Pop Earth, Maison Pommery’s organic champagne (labels printed with non-toxic ink on recycled paper). The brasserie, still in its trademark cognacs, reds and golds, hosts the César nominees’ luncheon and the after-party, as well as hundreds of awestruck tourists daily.
Upstairs, however, is the real star: Le Diane, small and serene, like a jewel box. The circular room is resplendent in puce and purple tones, taffeta and damask, lit by white 1930s-style Murano glass lamps. Even the food has a jewelled clarity to it, each portion a tiny mosaic of multiple ingredients. After that incomparable mackerel came a ravioli of quail confit and mushroom, capped by roasted supreme of quail, and then citrus-crusted monkfish with the season’s first asparagus.
Gaëtan Fiard, the 25-year-old pastry chef was away at the Mondial des Arts Sucrés, the World Cup of confectionary (which he won). But you’d never have known it from the dense chocolate and morello cherry entremet with a mouthpuckering tart cherry sorbet, cherry confit, and vanilla-scented cream. I was lost in admiration when the maître d’ appeared with coffee and a goldfish bowl of orange slices, cinnamon and star anise, the top crowned by thin chocolate petals, lightly perfumed from below. The considered delicacy of every gesture here was like a piece of music, the crisp white wine that the sommelier suggested ringing round every mouthful.
Afterwards, I staggered down to take the Metro to the Boulevard Haussman. The grand department stores of the Galeries Lafayette and Printemps were the ultimate in 19th century chic when they opened. Printemps pioneered the idea of discount sales and window displays, which reeled in the Parisian ‘midinettes’, young working girls who would skip their midday meal to go shopping.
Fortunately, in the VIP rooms, you do not have to forego lunch. The Guest Relations department will escort you to a lounge, where personal shoppers bring you pre-culled outfits according to your size and taste, make you a ‘lookbook’ so you’ll remember their suggestions, and arrange alterations. They will make reservations at the in-house salon or restaurants, arrange tax refunds or park that unwieldy limousine for you; there is also a concierge service for when you’re all dressed up and need somewhere to go. Rhea Sarraf Paris, one of the department’s managers, said that the VIP rooms were popular with customers buying expensive jewellery, who could browse their choices at length. For even more privacy, she added, occasionally for visiting royalty, they open the entire store after hours, or take selected items over to the customer’s hotel.
Luxury of this kind chiefly means insulation against the crowd: a shop’s wares laid out for you, a private boat, a helicopter tour of the Loire. Anne Kiefer, luxury consultant and founder of event company Anne de Paris, specialises in this sort of exclusive experience, and in opening doors otherwise closed to tourists. She sets up visits to perfume houses, museum tours on closed days, VIP wine tastings at reclusive wineries, and sought-after restaurant reservations. Two of her most popular offerings are a visit to Giverny, Claude Monet’s home, conducted by one of the Monet family members, she said, and a backstage tour of the Opera Garnier, peeking at the studios, dressing rooms and perhaps even eavesdropping on a rehearsal.
Kiefer also frequently arranges behind-the-scenes visits to couturiers’ studios or iconic ateliers such as the Hermès workshops in Paris; many of her guests are fascinated to learn about the centuries-old traditions of leatherwork or dressmaking that underpin Paris’s most famous labels. In September this year, she will focus on the Biennale des Antiquaires at the Grand Palais: “It gathers all the big galleries and also the high-end jewellery makers, who make special collections. VIP customers come to preview the new pieces from all over the world, so it’s a very busy time for me.”
Later that weekend, at Le Meurice’s Valmont spa, I contemplated the line between luxury and excess, not very objectively, while basking in the hammam. Outside, a fountain sputtered ice chips, and trays waited with cold grapefruit juice and water. My “Rituel Energie” facial was administered by a woman in a white lab coat; the gluey collagen mask with its pre-cut holes for my face had a suggestion of the Man in the Iron Mask about it; but unlike him, I emerged with softened, refreshed skin. The rough bathrobe struck the only jarring note, ruining my fugue-like illusion of floating through a very expensive ocean.
In the gold-emblazoned lobby above, I was certain that my newly poreless face blended in much better than two hours ago. As the benign concierges beamed over their domain, guests came in and out bearing Colette or Bruno Frisoni bags. At Le Dali, the café-restaurant, families in pastel spring scarves drank early aperitifs before wandering off into the Tuileries gardens; it was the first sunny day of the year.
Le Meurice was born in 1817 during the Bourbon Restoration (the Tuileries address dates back to 1835), and from its inception, has always traded in nostalgia, attempting to recall a Bourbon decadence long past. The three-star Alain Ducasse restaurant was inspired by the Salon de la Paix at Versailles, while the rococo Salon Pompadour is a replica of its Versailles counterpart. However, Philippe Starck’s recent remodel was inspired by something more modern: favoured guest Salvador Dali (notwithstanding the damage his pet ocelots caused to the
Suite Royale). Now portraits of Madame de Pompadour rub shoulders with a replica of Dali’s famous lobster-handled telephone and a table sporting human legs ending in silver stilettos (which she might well have appreciated).
Upstairs, the rooms are Louis XIV-inspired, dressed in Marie-Antoinette-approved pastels. Many look out onto the glorious expanse of the Tuileries. On the second floor, the wallpaper has been stripped to reveal the original pale wood below, and the colours are mints and sages, like the green of a Ladurée macaron box.
Despite the Dali touches, the general effect remained that of a sumptuous Fragonard painting. “Luxe, calme et volupté,” said the voice of Baudelaire in my ear, from another study of nostalgia, written in 1857 as an invitation “au voyage” to a lost, ideal world.
“There all is order and beauty
Luxury, peace, and pleasure.”
The next afternoon, on the Left Bank (which, contrary to rumour, is just as expensive as the Right), I walked up the rue de la Montagne-Sainte-Geneviève to the De Vinis Illustribus cellars. The shop is the culmination of a lifelong interest in wine; Dominique and Lionel Michelin have run this labour of love for over twenty years. We sat around a table whose centrepiece was a basket of rock samples from the French wine-growing regions, as they explained how their private degustations may compare different regions, or offer a range of flavours from a single area or year. Their wine ‘gallery’ divides its efforts between big-name bottles and a curated selection of ‘coup de coeurs’, affordable wines of excellent quality (their prices range from €13 a bottle to €13,000). Down in the cellar, showing me their oldest bottles (a 1916 Bordeaux and a 1811 fine champagne Cognac) Lionel told me that clients ask for a bottle from the year of their birth, or their wedding day (he tries to dissuade them from “so-so years”). I asked him about my birth year, offhand. He responded immediately. “1986? Yes,’86 is a very interesting year, especially in Bordeaux, because the weather was good. On the left banks of Bordeaux, most wines are produced with cabernet sauvignon, and cabernet sauvignon was very ripe in ’86. So it gives very interesting wines: Margaux, Pomerol, St-Estèphe.”
The Michelins were both hugely knowledgeable, but charming and unintimidating about it. We had agreed on a three-wine tasting, but when the conversation turned to aged and unaged wines, Lionel brought out another couple to illustrate his point. Dominique produced a platter of charcuterie and paté from the back room, and revealed the address of her fromager (worth its weight in gold). They bickered companionably over whether or not the bubbles in champagne are caused by particles in the flute (Dominique: “That’s saying the glass is dirty!”), and Google finally proved Lionel right. We overran our designated two hours by another two, and didn’t notice.
I walked out to find a violet dusk falling. Luxe, calme et volupté is in the orchestration of the small things, I thought, when everything is at your disposal and everyone conspires to make your time in the city superlative. It’s a privilege that you pay for, but it can happen serendipitously as well. I was pleasantly tipsy as I walked towards the Luxembourg gardens on my way home. In my head, Baudelaire insisted on finishing his poem:
“The canals, the whole city,
With hyacinth and gold;
The world falls asleep
In a warm glow of light.
There all is order and beauty,
Luxury, peace, and pleasure.”
Where to stay
Hotel Fouquet’s Barrière (from €544 per night; lucienbarriere. com) on the tranquil Avenue George V just off the bustling Champs Elysées scores not only with its outstanding location but also its five great restaurants and three bars; a spa endowed with one of largest pools in Paris; rooms done up in mahagony, silk and velvet; and an exceptional concierge service that can materialise impossible reservations in a jiffy. Hotel Le Bristol (from €770 per night; lebristolparis.com/eng) on the elite rue du Faubourg Saint Honore, at the very heart of Parisian fashion and art, is all about muted, old-wordly elegance, impeccably refurbished in the classical styles of the 18th century. Midnight in Paris was shot here, by the way, and the hot chocolate tasting is very memorable. Four Seasons Hotel George V (from €1200 per night ; fourseasons.com/paris) also presides gloriously over the same neighbourhood as the Fouquet neighbourhood although neither property would do anything as crass as compete. The private terraces are as delightful as the extravagant floral arrangments, the 18th century tapestries have been restored painstakingly, and you musn’t be tempted by the pampering room service into breakfast in bed—the regal morning repast deserves to be enjoyed formally.
What to see & do
Anne de Paris (10, place Vendôme; +33-0-6-13-79-71-60; email@example.com; anne-de-paris.com) arranges ‘exclusive emotions’ in great style. The ultra-luxury specialist gives bespoke service a whole new spin and it would seem nothing is beyond her reach—a cooking lesson with renowned chef, a museum reserved just for you and your invitees—whatever you could possibly imagine, she has thought of already. You will need an appointment to visit the De Vinis Illustribus (48 rue de la Montagne-Sainte-Geneviève; 1-43-36-12-12; devinis.fr), and a more charming experience in understanding and tasting wine would be hard to find. Located inside Le Meurice, a Dorchester Collection hotel, the plush Spa Valmont (228 rue de Rivoli; 1-44-58-10-10; evalmont. com) reopened in September 2012 after a ‘revitalising’, with its reputation as an exceptional skin care specialist only glowing a little more. To call Printemps (64 Boulevard Haussman; 1-42-82-50-00; printemps.com) a department store would be rather like referring to Paris as, well, a metropolis. Ask for guest relations and head straight for the VIP rooms, please.