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Special guest writer Kristin Wood, editorial manager for A Woman’s Paris™

Hôtel Ritz Paris, by Barbara Redmond

Hôtel Ritz Paris, by Barbara Redmond

When I first saw the headline of Elaine Sciolino’s October 31, 2011, New York Times article – “Closin’ Up the Ritz”  – mon petit coeur skipped a beat. The iconic Paris Ritz, closing down? C’est pas possible! How could the preferred establishment of so many great celebrities – from Coco Chanel to Johnny Depp (whom I once saw scrambling out of the Ritz’s front doors amid a sea of bodyguards) – fall out of favor so drastically?

As it turns out, the landmark hotel is shuttering its doors for an extensive renovation — a complete, top-to-bottom revision that will last at least two years. Reading over Sciolino’s  not-so-stellar description of the Ritz in its current form (“…the sandwiches were soggy and the scones chewy…”), I had to admit that it sounded like this venerable institution could use a makeover. But I wasn’t convinced that wilting gladiolas and unimpressive finger foods merited a two-year shutdown. Aren’t those things that can be corrected with a “reorganization” of management?

The real impetus behind the massive change, Sciolino hints, is that the Ritz was snubbed last May when the French tourism industry declined to designate the hotel as a “palace,” a “classification for five-star hotels of special character.” The chairman of the jury, Dominique Fernandez, said that a “palace” is determined by its ability “to transport clients into another domain than everyday life,” comparable to “a kind of novel placed in a mythical setting which the guest enters, like the world of a thousand and one nights.”

The reader can practically hear Sciolino’s guffaw after this quote. As anyone who has been lucky enough to visit the Paris Ritz knows, it is nearly impossible to resist its romance, intrigue, and charm from the moment you step in the door and inhale its signature amber scent. Whether you’re staying there overnight or simply stopping in for un apéritif, its other-worldly opulence is overwhelming.

Maybe, as Sciolino later suggests, the reason for the Ritz’s renovation is simply because it’s going out of fashion. And in Paris, nothing is worse than not being à la mode. She contends that the people who were once spending their time and money at this legendary institution now prefer to frequent newer spaces with drinks and menu items that push the gastronomical envelope. The Ritz, compared to these dynamic spaces, is a stodgy old curmudgeon that refuses to change.

Sciolino has a point. The Ritz, while legendary, certainly has a very “old school” feel to it. But I would argue that that’s not such a bad thing. In today’s age, what’s trendy today is très passé tomorrow. When it’s impossible to stay ahead of the curve, isn’t a little stability desirable?

I had the incredible opportunity to stay at the Paris Ritz for several nights in January 2008, when my college roommate “D” invited me to accompany her on a European getaway. I couldn’t believe my luck as our taxi pulled into the Place Vendôme and I spotted the royal blue awning. We had a seamless check-in, thanks to D’s beautiful French, and we found our way through the labyrinthian corridors to our room.

The first thing we did was slip into the Ritz’s petal-pink robes and slippers for a quick power nap, then we skipped down to the piscine for a refreshing wake-up swim before embarking on our first adventure à Paris.

A stunning sky-like fresco adorns the pool room’s ceiling, and a grand staircase bookends a vast array of fruits & juices, depending on the time of day. Reclining on a poolside chaise lounge, sipping on a freshly-squeezed jus d’orange, gazing at the friezes of toga-wearing Romans, you not only lose track of the time of day, you lose track of the era in which you live. The piscine’s indoor location protects its patrons from the fracas outside on the city streets, and even within its meticulously painted walls, there is hardly any chatter or music. This timelessness is what makes le Ritz le Ritz.

Bloody-Mary, Bar Hemingway Ritz Paris, by Barbara Redmond

Bloody-Mary, Bar Hemingway Ritz Paris, by Barbara Redmond

Later that night, we went down to the Bar Hemingway for pre-dinner drinks. It’s a very dark, intimate space, with a grandfatherly, library-type feel, and we each ordered a bloody mary — after all, this is the bar that invented the drink.

After we recovered from the sticker shock of our bill (our drinks were about $35 a piece), we walked just around the corner for dinner and drinks at the Hôtel Costes, a newer hotel that’s known for its trendy bar scene and techno music compilations. The age difference, as far as the clientele between the Ritz and the Hôtel Costes, was immediately apparent. At 25 years of age, we were by far the youngest people in the room at the Bar Hemingway, whereas we fit right in with the other patrons of the Hôtel Costes. But here’s the thing: while the bar/courtyard scene at the Hôtel Costes certainly lived up to its hype, we were both relieved to return to the quiet, comfortable Ritz at night’s end.

In fact, our entire stay in Paris was punctuated by the relief we felt upon returning to the Ritz each afternoon/night. After long days of trekking from Nôtre Dame to Montmartre, from the Marais to the Champs-Élysées, we relished the luxury of the piscine and the hammam as we massaged our aching pieds and planned our itinerary for the next day. We got our fix of trendiness from nightly excursions to places like Hôtel Costes and Le Café Marly, then quickly fell asleep in plush twin beds on silky smooth sheets.

D’s and my experience embodies Sciolino’s contention about the old vs. the new. Every young Madeline needs a secure place to prop up her feet, certainement, but she also needs a place to rock her new Dior heels. The beauty of Paris is that you can have both, right around the corner from each other. What will be corrected over the next two years’ renovations, I’m not sure, but I hope that the tranquility I felt at the Ritz Paris remains in tact.

Kristin is the new editorial manager for A Woman’s Paris™ blog. She graduated from Duke University in 2006 with a major in European history and a minor in English. Currently, Kristin is pursuing her PhD in English from the University of Minnesota – Twin Cities, where she specializes in expatriate literature. For more information about Kristin, please visit the A Woman’s Paris™ Advisory Board page.

French to English translations:

À la mode: Avant-garde, contemporary, fashionable.
Apéritif: In France, traditional alcoholic drinks, cocktails and liqueurs to enjoy before a meal.
Certainement: Absolutely.
Chaise lounge: Long chair. A upholstered couch in the shape of a chair.
Coeur: Heart.
Hammam: Arabic public bathhouse with separate areas for hot and cold bathing.
Passé: An action repeated a number of times in the past.
Petit: Small or little.
Pied: Foot.
Piscine: Swimming pool.
Très: Very good.

You may also enjoy A Woman’s Paris™ blog, Breakfast at the Ritz, Paris, about the many stories and associations of the Ritz, Paris. Breakfast at the Ritz — champagne, omelette, black truffles or caviar. The sheer luxury takes your breath away…

Or, Place Vendôme: Countess de Castiglione, about the Countess de Castiglione, who was also one of the later inhabitants of the Place Vendôme. The story goes that in the 1890s, she lived there as a recluse, venturing out only at night, heavily veiled, in a carriage with the curtains drawn. Only a few servants ever saw her face, and there were  no mirrors in her apartment.

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Text copyright ©2011 Kristin Wood
Illustrations copyright ©Barbara Redmond
All rights reserved.