Paris - Ernest Hemingway made his home here, as did F Scott Fitzgerald and - for more than three decades, Coco Chanel.
The exiled Duke and Duchess of Windsor often stayed over. The tragic Princess Diana had her last meal here.
Now, the Ritz of Paris is open again after a three-year, 10-month refurbishment that cost several hundred million euros.
The iconic hotel had been running for 114 years without a break, says Ritz Paris general manager Christian Boyens, when owner Mohamed al Fayed gave the green light to close down the hotel and renovate it.
“It had been non-stop all that time,” explains Boyens, who ran the hotel for two years before overseeing the massive revitalisation. “The doors were turning and the champagne was flowing.”
The hotel has been re-opened for five months.
“Today we sit with a Parisian feel, but behind these walls is the most modern hotel in Paris,” he says.
The hotel is a blend of antiques and artefacts, a faithful grasp of its history and an uncompromising determination to incorporate the latest technology, from fibre to HD TV in the huge mirrors that dominate the “apartments” upstairs. The hotel has gone from 160 keys or rooms, to 142 in the process. What is unique, says Boyens, is that half of them are suites (with their own lounges) and half are normal rooms, if anything can ever be considered normal at the Ritz.
The distinctive keys have been replaced by keycards that look more like embossed calling cards, while the keys are retained as part of room motifs, as drawer handles or even as the main light switch in the bathroom.
The rooms are plush, double volume and very French. The furniture is cream with gold inlays, the taps in the bathroom made to look like crystal, the spouts all golden swans and every other fitting gold. Everything bears the Ritz Paris monogram, from the leather-bound desk notebooks and TV remote holder to the peach towels, slippers and gowns in the bathroom. Peach was a colour that founder Cesar Ritz chose to “show off a woman’s complexion at her best when she has just woken up but has yet to have coffee. It deflects the harsh light of the morning,” explains Boyens.
Keeping the past and blending it with the future has been critically important for Boyens and his team, but it’s also totally in keeping with Ritz’s ethos, the acclaimed “hotelier to kings” and “king of hoteliers”.
Some of the signature suites are named after some of the hotel’s most famous guests, including Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Proust and Chanel, as well as Charlie Chaplin, the Prince of Wales, the Windsors (in honour of Edward after his abdication), Frederic Chopin, Maria Callas and the king of them all, the Imperial Suite with its 6 metre-high ceilings and exact copy of Marie Antoinette’s bed at the Palace in Versailles. The Imperial Suite was Luftwaffe boss Hermann Goering’s billet of choice whenever he visited Paris during World War II. It was also where Diana and Dodi al Fayed had their last supper before perishing in a car crash on the Pont.
“When Ritz teamed up with Auguste Escoffier to create this hotel it was the first with running water, bathrooms, electricity and telephones in every room.” Today, that includes very fast wi-fi and a remote box at your bedside that controls everything from the glare to the light, the aircon and even the curtains.
Ritz would go on to establish the Ritz in London in 1906 and in 1910 the Ritz Madrid. He would also open the Carlton in London, leading to the foundation of what became the Ritz Carlton group. That chain is owned today by the Marriott Group; the Ritz Paris has never been anything but family-owned, with Fayed buying from the Ritz family in 1979 and continuing to this day.
Boyens regards him as an innovator in the hotel trade. “He created Ritz Club in the 1980s, well before hotels were thinking about lifestyle and fitness. He developed cooking classes long before these reality TV programmes came into being. He’s pretty impressive. Now we’ve expanded on it.”
The subterranean Ritz Club incorporates the Chanel wellness spa, an homage to Coco Chanel, as well as L’Ecole Ritz Escoffier, which provides cooking lessons for everyone from kids to corporate team-building as well as being a finishing school for professional chefs venturing into the high-pressure world of Michelin-starred cuisine.
There are three signature restaurants and three bars; the eponymous Bar Vendome, the iconic Bar Hemingway and the much-storied Ritz Bar. The hotel also has its own chef-sommelier, not an inconsequential position when you consider there’s a cellar of 50000 bottles with cognacs dating back to the 1800s. The head barman is the legendary Colin Field, who holds court at the Bar Hemingway. He has twice been named best barman in the world. The London Observer dubbed him “the LeBron James of liquor, the Matisse of martinis, the Yves Saint Laurent of gimlets”.
The market for the Ritz is both local and foreign, with most of the overseas visitors being from the US and the UK, with the local Parisians visiting to make use of the food and beverage amenities or the spa. It’s helped by the hotel’s locality on the Place Vendome, a Louis XIV folly that began as nothing more than a facade, “like a Hollywood film set” says Boyens, which duly evolved from 1702 to become one of the most exclusive pieces of retail real estate in the world with diamantaires, Chanel herself setting up boutiques on the octagon around the column celebrating Napoleon’s victory at Austerlitz and cast from the bronze of the captured Prussian cannons.
Place Vendome is in the first arrondissement of Paris, “the bull’s eye of the map”, says Boyens. Designer Karl Lagerfeld must think so, he’s showcasing his winter collection at the Ritz on December 6.
There’s a lot of original art in the hotel from the 1739 map of Paris in the foyer to the table in the middle of Salon Proust, a lounge off to the side filled with oversized settees nestled in among bookshelves full of original books with museum-worthy antiques dotted about. Marcel Proust was a regular visitor, he’s believed to have written much of the classic A la recherche du temps perdu (In search of lost time), actually at the Ritz.
“A lot of writers came here for inspiration; Hemingway, Fitzgerald. Proust used to sit here, in that corner over there,” Boyens points, “even on his deathbed, he was asking someone to bring him a beer from the bar at the Ritz.”
Today people still come in to drink coffee, to relax or to meet, but most of all to do so discreetly and in luxury. There’s a tunnel, should you need it to enter the hotel unobserved by the paparazzi, but what sets the Ritz apart from the 10 other internationally iconic hotels in the City of Lights is the attitude towards service.
“This should be more like a private residence than a hotel.”
To do this, Boyens personally interviewed each of the 600 staff at the Ritz. “A good resume doesn’t necessarily mean a good employee,” he says. “We can train people, but we can’t change who they are.
“We pick up the majority of our guests directly from the aircraft. Our staff shepherd them through customs and passport control; we have a fleet of blue Bentleys to ensure our guests are taken wherever they want.
“We have gone out of our way to discover and test other parts of Paris to provide them with an experience that is more than just the Eiffel Tower or the Louvre.”
WHAT IT COSTS
“When in Paris, the only reason not to stay at the Ritz is if you can't afford it,” said Ernest Hemingway famously.
It's not cheap. These are the 2016 rates (per night excluding breakfast):
A superior room: R18 675.
An executive room: R20 232
A Deluxe Room: R21 788.
Grand Deluxe Room: R24 900.
Junior Suite Deluxe: R35 795.
Executive Suite: R45 133.
Deluxe Suite: R54 700.
Prestige Suite: From R62 252 to R435 767.