I started going to Paris in the early 1980s. Since then, I’ve visited the city, I’m guessing, about 50 times.
As a student I had a miserable job in an engineering factory north of the capital. A drive to Paris was an occasion: an incredibly exciting night out eating impossibly exotic food – Moroccan, Vietnamese, Thai. During university holidays I’d show up, guitar case in hand, and head off busking to Beaubourg, the Latin Quarter and the tourist-friendly streets around Saint-Germain.
Then came the work trips and long weekends. The accommodation improved. I got to stay in all the grand palace hotels – Plaza Athénée, Hôtel de Crillon, Le Meurice, the Georges V and my personal favourite, Le Bristol. The only one not crossed off the list was the most celebrated of all, The Ritz: it closed for renovations in 2012 and with delay after delay, we began to wonder if we’d ever see its doors open again.
I’ve sat on pavements chewing baguettes, scraped together enough centimes for a croque monsieur, had the finest tasting menus that two- and three-Michelin-starred chefs could throw at me.
This month, everyone will be looking at Paris as France chooses its 25th president. It will be a choice between looking inward and backward, to soothe a bruised sense of national self-worth and conjure up the glories of empire; and looking outward and forward to a cosmopolitan, technocratic but uncertain future.
London in the early 1980s went through perhaps its greatest surge in creative energy. The New Romantic bands and fashion designers ruled the pop charts globally and set the aesthetic for a decade of outrageous colour and display. This was just as well, because outside the doors of the Wag Club and beyond the world of the Culture Club music videos, London’s streets were a grey, flyblown, windswept mess.
Paris was where everything happened: but most notably the future. You’d land at Charles de Gaulle Airport and marvel at the space-age architecture. La Défense, the high-rise, high-tech business city, was rising in a riot of tall towers.
The mini economic miracle that started after the war, when the French economy grew at five per cent every year on average, was known as Les Trentes Glorieuses – the glorious 30 years. Money poured into Paris.
This was a city of beauty, history and architectural unity, yet also a city willing to make bold and even outrageous counterpoints between old and new. As ever, the experimenters and the creatives flocked there. Paris recruited an English and two Italian architects to design a building completely unlike anything anywhere in the world: Richard Rogers, Renzo Piano and Gianfranco Franchini’s Pompidou Centre. In 1983, President Mitterrand commissioned the Chinese-American IM Pei to construct a glass pyramid on the hallowed grounds of the Louvre. The ancient Paris establishment were alarmed; the world marvelled at yet another display of Parisian élan.
London had little taste and less money for experimental new architecture. Its own attempt at a new business hub, Canary Wharf, was bogged down in financial wrangles and was a national embarrassment – something we knew a lot about in those days of strikes and go-slows.
But by the time the Channel Tunnel opened in 1994, this tale of two cities had flipped. London, deregulated and strike-free, began to attract the global money and talent. Britannia was cool again.
Canary Wharf grew into a glittering mini-Hong Kong in the Docklands. The arts and fashion scene flourished – even the food improved. And there was a rash of bold, new buildings: the London Eye, Lloyd’s of London, the Tate Modern, the Shard.
Paris didn’t have such a great 1990s. In contrast to the previous fin de siècle, the era of Toulouse-Lautrec, the Moulin Rouge, unalloyed naughtiness and glamour – the muted, right-on aesthetic of the time didn’t much suit it. Turn of the century minimalism certainly didn’t.
Still, a couple of new places – the Hôtel Costes, Buddha-Bar – dared to recapture the city’s decadent heyday. There was gentrification: the Bastille and Marais areas became cautiously, Parisianly hip. But the city didn’t convincingly bounce back from the recession of the early 1990s.
Come the new century Paris was no longer the top city economically, culturally, even gastronomically – but there was one ranking it continued to top, year on year: tourism. Try as they might, cool as they were, London, Barcelona, Prague, Berlin, even New York, just couldn’t shift the French capital from the top spot. You could have celebrity chefs, boutique hotels, vibrant ’hoods – but you didn’t have the Eiffel Tower and Ladurée. The macarons just didn’t taste the same anywhere else.
So when the new wave of visitors from Asia – especially China – landed, it landed first of all in Paris.
That inspired a wave of hotel building and renovation, including three brands ideally suited to welcome this new breed of traveller: the Mandarin Oriental, The Peninsula and the Shangri-La, which opened magnificent new hotels on the Rue Saint-Honoré, Avenue Kléber and the Avenue d’Iéna respectively. The glam and the friskiness returned. They even put beaches on the banks of the Seine – a very sexy, very Parisian move, and a much-copied one.
Then in 2015 came the Charlie Hebdo shooting. Then the Bataclan massacre. Then the attacks in Nice, Provence. Heavily armed police appeared on the Paris thoroughfares – welcomed by locals, scary for tourists. A year ago, hotel occupancy was down 10 per cent on 2015. Last June, air passenger traffic in France fell by 5.8 per cent compared to the previous June.
Then, the icing on the cake – or maybe the coup de grâce: Donald Trump. When 9/11 happened, cities the world over rallied around New York and urged their people to carry on visiting. There was no such spirit of solidarity from the new American president. At a conference in February he quoted a friend called ‘Jim’ who’d stopped taking his annual trip to Paris because of the terror attacks. ‘Paris,’ Jim told Trump, ‘is no longer Paris’.
I went back for the 51st time to find out.
To find an answer to the question, ‘Is Paris still Paris?,’ The Ritz was definitely the place to start. The reopening finally happened in June last year. What did they change, after US$442 million (HK$3.4 billion) and the efforts of 800 stonemasons, upholsterers, gilders and woodcarvers?
Nothing. At least, nothing important.
The Ritz was never going to opt for John Pawson minimalism or Philippe Starck irony. They’ve just gone more extremely, fabulously The Ritz, more unmitigated Paris: more gilt on the frames, more velvety banquettes, more marbled halls. They’ve added a Chanel spa. Chanel.
They didn’t need to do a lot of market research. They know this is the way the guests want it. As for tailoring prices to suit these hard times for the city, forget it. A cocktail in the Hemingway Bar is de rigueur. It should have the author’s observation emblazoned above the door: ‘When in Paris the only reason not to stay at The Ritz is if you can’t afford it.’
As a Bristol man, I’m not persuaded.
But the hotel certainly distils all that’s glorious about Paris. This might be the home of fashion, but it stands gloriously aloof from fads.
We wandered out to the ninth arrondissement, which I’d seen talked up as the latest hip area: ‘the Marylebone of Paris’. Why should Paris – Paris – need to borrow some allure from a district of central London? In any case, the comparison didn’t favour the ninth. Whereas Marylebone on a Saturday morning is full of global residents checking out the latest designer delicatessens and boutiques, the ninth was quiet, a touch sullen. There were wonderful bakeries, apothecaries, an outdoor market – but then there always have been. I counted five rare and secondhand bookshops, taking up valuable real estate in glorious defiance of the digital age.
As a gaggle of paramilitaries picked their way warily along the streets, we wandered through the classic arcades around Opéra. The Passage Jouffroy had been tarted up a little. But it still felt shabby-chic – yet somehow preferable to its flashy London counterparts off Piccadilly.
You can’t say the same for the Rue de Rivoli. This glorious Bonaparte-era street flanking the Louvre is now punctuated by money exchange booths and the graffiti-splattered doorways of tourist shops. It desperately needs a dash of Mayfair. Where are the brands? Where’s the money?
At least some of it is going into the refurbishment of the building that marked that high point of Parisian daring: 40 years on, Renzo Piano is returning to give the Pompidou Centre a makeover.
In the evening we crossed the Place de la Concorde (trying to ignore the copycat Ferris wheel) and over the river, past the bouquinistes (booksellers) towards the art galleries and cafés of Saint-Germain.
The Eiffel Tower was casting beams into an inky blue sky, the brightly lit boats were coasting down the Seine, couples were snogging and taking selfies on the Pont Neuf while the ghost of existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre was smoking and arguing in a café somewhere.
The travel writer in me gave up. I fought, but the word just can’t be resisted: Paris is so bloody, amazingly, irresistibly, inimitably romantic. And that’s the trump card, lower or upper case. Paris is still Paris.
We ate the best dinner we’d had in years at the Shangri-La’s L’Abeille restaurant: a happy romance between a French chef and a Hong Kong company underneath a rather famous tower. And then you find yourself thinking as you always do about Paris, that you have to keep coming back – to see what’s changed, and to hope, in all honesty, that not very much has.
Best of Paris in 2017
What’s new in Paris this season.
Rural, from Michelin-starred Haute Savoie chef Marc Veyrat, opens this spring in Porte Maillot in the 17th arrondissement.
Bar Les Grands Verres, in the hip contemporary art temple Palais de Tokyo in the 16th arrondissement, opens in June – expect a 13-metre-long bar and conceptual cocktails.
Global burger joint Five Guys is expanding its Parisian network this year (it currently has one branch at Bercy Village, in the 12th). Look out for branches at Opéra (this summer) and Gare du Nord (this autumn).
The new incarnation of formerly tatty Forum Les Halles (itself a reimagining of the historic Les Halles wholesale market) opened last month in a haze of glass, fancy shops and restaurants. Alain Ducasse’s all-day brasserie Champeaux is a highlight.
Art and culture
More than 20 years of historic Yves Saint Laurent designs from 1974 will open the new Musée Yves Saint Laurent Paris gallery just off the Pont d’Alma this autumn.
Continuing the high fashion theme is the Balenciaga exhibition at Musée Bourdelle (27 May-26 July), with a selection of the Spanish designer’s most iconic pieces.
Le Hasard Ludique opens in the 1889 Saint-Ouen train station following a five-year renovation. Inside the cultural hub is a restaurant and concert hall, among other things.
The Grand Musée du Parfum, an immersive museum dedicated to perfumery, opened a few months ago in a Parisian mansion on the high-fashion Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré.
This July, Chicago festival Lollapalooza arrives in Paris for the first time. Expect a star-studded lineup including The Weeknd and Red Hot Chili Peppers.
At the Musée Picasso in the Marais, an exhibition to celebrate Picasso’s first wife, Olga, runs until the start of September.
Following the landmark reopening of The Ritz last summer, the nearby (and just as storied) Hôtel de Crillon on Place de la Concorde reopens this summer as a Rosewood property. The majestic palace hotel will unveil two suites designed by Karl Lagerfeld.
More low-key but equally glamorous is the new Maison Albar Hotel Paris Céline, an art deco-styled hotel in an old Parisian townhouse on the banks of the Seine.
The boutique MOB Hotel in Saint-Ouen is the latest opening from the co-founder of wildly successful Mama Shelter chain.
Cathay Pacific flies to Paris from Hong Kong 10 times a week