Last week, standing on the balcony of the newly reopened Hôtel de Crillon, I was looking directly out over the Place de la Concorde. At its centre, the golden peak of the Egyptian obelisk glowed in the sun and, on either side, the leaves of the trees on the Champs Elysees and the Tuileries Garden seemed to shimmer in the heatwave. It’s a view that has been shuttered by hoardings for more than four years, as this famous and historic hotel has been almost completely gutted in a lavish renovation programme reputed to have cost nearly £400 million.
Now, finally, the shutters have been removed and the grand stone pediment and columns of the imposing neoclassical façade open once more on to the square. As I was taking all this in I should really have been thinking about how the Crillon was reinventing itself for the 21st century. But I couldn’t help but be distracted by the history of this great space in the heart of Paris, and I began to wonder what Marie Antoinette would have thought of it all.
The hotel’s Jardin d’Hiver lounge
In her day, the young French queen would have had rather a different prospect. It was here that she held her wedding celebrations in 1770, about 10 years after the square had been laid out. A monumental equestrian statue of the king formed the centrepiece, and it was named Place Louis XV in his honour. The Hôtel de Crillon was one of four imposing classical frontages to line the north side of the square.
Once married, she and Louis XVI, who ascended the throne in 1774, spent most of their time in Versailles. But they were forced to move back to Paris during the Revolution in 1789, and Marie Antoinette apparently visited the hotel, by then the residence of the Comte de Crillon, to play the piano. Place Louis XV had been renamed Place de la Révolution, the king’s statue torn down and replaced with a plaster version depicting Liberty, and in front of that was now an enormous guillotine. It was there that, in 1793, Marie Antoinette was to meet her fate – in plain sight of the room in the Crillon where she once tried her hand at Mozart sonatas. It wasn’t until 1830 that the square, by then renamed Place de la Concorde, achieved its current form.
Bar Les Ambassadeurs
So for the French, the Hôtel de Crillon and the prospect it commands has resonance. It is centre-stage in the history of France, and at the heart of the national psyche. Since it opened as a hotel in 1909, it assumed its role with effortless ease, and always managed somehow to stand aloof from the other grand hotels. The smallest, it encapsulated elegance and sophistication. When you stepped on to the polished black and white marble floor, you immediately noticed the scuffs on your shoes, and wished you’d worn a slightly newer jacket.
Much of this atmosphere was created by the clientele: from the word go, the Crillon attracted a social and artistic elite. In 1914 it accommodated the retinue of George V on his state visit; the young Princess Elizabeth stayed here with her father George VI in 1938; and Winston Churchill and Jackie Kennedy Onassis were also guests. Then there were the artists and musicians. In 1913 Diaghilev and Stravinsky checked in for two months during the premiere of The Rite of Spring, and the long cast of creatives includes Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Charlie Chaplin, Orson Wells, Andy Warhol and Madonna.
The hotel’s pretty courtyard
But for all this chic and glamour, the old Crillon also had its quirks. The back of the building, including most of the bedrooms, was reconstructed at the beginning of the last century around two courtyards, and the whole place had become something of a warren.
Although the grand façade on the Place de la Concorde promised order and space, inside, there were long corridors, lots of steps and awkward changes of level. The second courtyard in particular was gloomy, filled with temporary offices. The rooms themselves were also starting to look tired – there were some splendid ones, but also plenty which weren’t really up to standard.
A remodelled bedroom
The restoration has swept all that away. Only the few surviving 18th-century interiors were protected by French conservation law – primarily the grand reception rooms at the front of the building with their extravagant gilded pilasters and cornices. The rest of the building has been entirely refitted, with extraordinary attention to detail. The black and white marble of the foyer has been replaced with polished stone, which has also been used to line the walls, carved into decorative pilasters and arches. The hotel boasts that 147 specialist craftsmen were employed under four interior designers, each overseeing a different part. It sounds like a recipe for chaos, but a common pastel palette and the clean lines of the bespoke furniture disguise the transitions.
There is subtle bling, too – gold thread is laced into the edges of the stair carpet; there are gold-coloured window fittings in the bedrooms, the ceiling of the Brasserie d’Aumont is gilded, as are the stands of the lamps in the Ambassadeurs bar and the Winter Garden tea room. In the swimming pool, the tiles are overlaid with gold leaf. The pool, lit by a skylight in the second courtyard, is an addition to the hotel, and the centrepiece of a new spa, which as well as offering all the expected treatments, also includes a hair salon and barber, or, as I should say, men’s grooming service.
Taking in the view of the Place de la Concorde from the newly reopened Hotel de Crillon in Paris CREDIT: CATHERINE HARBOUR
The spa opens out into the second courtyard, which is perhaps the most impressive part of the renovation. This once dingy space is now a lovely cloistered garden with tables from the new Brasserie D’Aumont spilling into it. The bedrooms have also been rationalised. There are now 124, down from 147, including 36 suites, and 10 exceptionally large signature suites: two designed by Karl Lagerfeld. In the more run-of-the-mill rooms – praise the Lord – they get the small things right. You can turn on the shower without getting soaked by cold water; there are USB phone charging points by the bed, and the light switches not only operate in an entirely straightforward way, they have labels on them telling you what they do. Best of all, you can use all the facilities in your bedroom without having to resort to an iPad. And if you do get confused, you can call for help – the Crillon is unique among Paris hotels in having butlers assigned to all the bedrooms.
So, what about the rest of the service? The new Crillon is owned by a Saudi prince, but is run by Rosewood – a small group of 19 ultra-luxury hotels, now based in Hong Kong. The group eschewed a soft opening, instead throwing its doors open to the public on day one. I was one of the very first guests to check in, and I did experience more than a few slownesses in the first couple of days. But since only 70 of the 380 staff had worked at the hotel before, it would be unfair to make a definitive judgment as early as this.
One thing that Marc Raffray, the manager, has instilled in them is confidence and charm. I think this is helped by the “wardrobe” – Marc baulks at the word uniform. Some 70 outfits have been produced by Hugo Matha, the young French designer, and they range from cravats and broad-brimmed hats, to lacy tops and diaphanous skirts; again, it ought to be confusing, but it works.
The approach to the dining rooms is also interesting. The Brasserie d’Aumont serves a short, classic French menu – expensive (my steak was €60/£53) but competent. The fine-dining option is much more radical. Christopher Hache is the young chef who oversaw the grand old Les Ambassadeurs restaurant, which is now the bar. He had won a Michelin star before the closure and has returned to head up the kitchen. Of course, he must earn his stars again, but he is full of ideas. The new L’Écrin restaurant has only 22 covers, and feels more like a private dining room – the name means “jewel box”.
A panorama of Paris from the Suite Bernstein
I was literally the first guest to walk in on opening night last week, so again it is far too early to pass judgment. There were some hits and misses on the 12-course menu. I especially liked the tomato bavarois, beautifully composed of four different types of tomato; and a mushroom dish (Champignon de Paris), slow-cooked for 14 hours. There’s some theatre too – a mini Cointreau souffle in a glass which, surrounded by a gentle flame, rises slowly and elegantly before your eyes.
So, can the Crillon rise in similar fashion to reassume its former preeminence among Paris’s grand hotels? This is a sleek makeover. The tone feels right. The restaurants must prove themselves, but the rooms, the architecture and the design are spot-on, and I’m sure service will bed down. The challenge is the competition. Since the Crillon closed for renovation, the Prince de Galles reopened in 2013, the Plaza Athénée in 2014, and The Ritz last year. Two hotels also opened – the Mandarin Oriental in 2013 and the Peninsula in 2015. Later this year the Hôtel Lutetia is scheduled to reopen, and before too long, there will be a new hotel from LMVH – the Cheval Blanc. It has been estimated Paris now has more than 2,000 rooms costing more than €1,000 a night.
The Hotel de Crillon, a Rosewood Hotel
That’s a lot of luxury in a city that has seen difficult times, but despite the recent attacks, there seems to be new spirit in Paris. It has been energised by a young president and a renewed sense of belief. After nearly 20 years of self-doubt, during which many ambitious young people abandoned France and its atrophied economy for London, the Parisians I spoke to were noticeably upbeat. In fact, not since Zinedine Zidane lifted the World Cup in 1998 have I sensed such optimism. And where did Zidane and his team-mates celebrate? There is only one square big enough to host tens of thousands of supporters. Only one with the resonance of the Place de la Concorde. And only one hotel balcony overlooking it. Marie Antoinette would have been amazed.
The Hôtel de Crillon, a Rosewood Hotel, 10 Place de la Concorde, Paris 75008. Double rooms from £870, including breakfast.