Ritz: (adjective) luxurious, princely, chic, elegant, dignified.
Paris! Just the sound of it is enchanting. Walking down her cobblestone avenues, through her arcadian parks and around her fountains, and gazing up at her great buildings with their magnificent façades, she remains true to her reputation as being built to be the most beautiful city in the world. And, as the second most visited city in the world, it may very well be that there is no limit to the number of times she can inspire and delight.
Recently, the magic of Paris called...
La raison for my visit to Paris was to accept a Medal of Honour awarded for our family's ongoing restoration of Château de Gudanes, in the south of France. And ever so graciously, Expedia (like a fairy godmother with a magic wand) issued an invitation for my husband, Craig, and I to stay at the legendary Ritz Paris whilst we were there.
These few days in Paris together were a fairytale come true.
It began in the heart of Paris - 15 Place Vendôme…
Entering through the dignified façade, and taking a few steps inside I found myself in the midst of the most magnificent royal splendor, passionately embraced in the breathtaking scent of blossom. Vases and urns of expensive fragrant flowers, placed upon gold gilded consoles and tables, perfumed the air.
Further in, lining the central vestibule, ceiling to floor royal blue curtains draped regally behind tête-a-tête curvaceous ladylike chairs, cloaked in peach, pastel and pink-petaled silk. And everywhere – on the grand staircase, and the long hallways, visitors and guests tarried, perhaps like me, half believing it to be a dream.
At la réception, checking in felt gracious and genuinely welcoming. Our daughter Jas who is now living in the UK had joined us for a couple of days in Paris for the medal ceremony. The Monsieur at the reception asked if Jas would like a bed made up in our room. I can’t recall a hotel extending the gesture of allowing a third person in a room (even with asking) – ever! But given that we had already booked an Airbnb around the corner for Jas, and Craig and I had spent several months apart, this wasn’t likely…
With 48 staircases and 34 elevators in the hotel we chose the grand central staircase, or le escalier d’honneur, our eyes darting in all directions as we climbed to the third floor, towards what I could only describe as another freshet of splendour and gratitude. Quite unannounced we had been generously extended a complimentary upgrade to a deluxe room.
Tiered desserts, fresh fruits and a personalised letter were delicately and thoughtfully arranged upon arrival.
In this room, everything was trimmed, tasselled and textured to feel as if wrapped with love and tranquility. Accent shades of peach adorned the room and bathroom - the Ritz believes its softness makes it the perfect fluffy towel and dressing gown colour to accessorise the complexion. In true fairytale style, the most perfect pair of thick, velvety, peach coloured slippers were placed delicately by the bed awaiting to be worn.
Few rooms exist in any hotel or city that are so exquisite in design, gracefulness and, one can imagine, so costly.
The next morning we took a leisurely breakfast in La Table de L'Espadon - a palace of perfect pastels where every inch is lavishly decorated and bejewelled. Leisurely, as these days, it is rare to have the time to just enjoy being together. And, why would anyone wish to hurry!
In a simple touch, hot homemade croissants wrapped in crisp white linen, along with a warm coffee, were laid out whilst we made ourselves comfortable and read the menu, mise en place. Freshly picked raspberries and strawberries cascading from tall, shimmering stemware arrived on silver trays, held firmly by black tie serveurs.
This breakfast is probably the most expensive in Paris, but this is the point where I shall stop and say - it is a once in a lifetime to do.
We spent the best part of half a day getting to know the Ritz with press and communication manager Matthieu Goffard. As we explored the hotel together, he spoke with genuine loyalty and affection, as he shared not only its legendary past, but its recent restoration which had only been completed a few months earlier. And as we walked and talked, and met other personnel along the way, there was this same savoir-faire in the air. Le Directeur Général - M. Christian A. Boyens (ever so handsome and kindhearted), les femmes de chambre, les serveurs - everyone carried themselves with the same genuine loyalty and affection for where they were working.
For four years, the Ritz was wrapped up in scaffolding and 15 Place Vendôme was an Arc de Triomphe of animation - with little white, French Kangoo work vans, their drivers driving on the horn and criss crossing in all directions. I can recall curiously walking past the closed Hotel a couple of years ago, and remember seeing written on a small billboard, in fine French script the words: A Legend in Progress.
This legend begun just a little more than a century ago. Its founders, César Ritz and Auguste Escoffier acquired an 18th Century townhouse with the purpose of creating the most prodigious and princely hotel. And it was avant-garde too, being the first hotel to even offer ensuite bathrooms!
Like the journeys of all heroes and heroines, the Ritz Paris encountered restoration difficulties along the way. Significant strategy and teamwork was required to embrace the uncompromising wish to retain the spirit and soul of the past. The owner, Mohamed Al-Fayed, vowed that nothing would be sold or erased. And so four years ago, in the quiet month of August, 533 chairs, 274 chandeliers and 178 clocks, and all the remaining chattels and memories of bygone eras, were carefully wrapped and archived into 124 containers for safe keeping.
Restoring a monument of this magnitude required all the finesse that France could offer. The crème de la crème of craftspeople re-roofed, re-upholstered and re-purposed everything that was possible. As requested, ninety five percent of the original chandeliers and furniture were put back just the way they were.
In other ways, even the littlest of treasures were put back to work, including the original door keys which have been remodelled into light switches.
And in other places, the largest of treasures were built and set in stone!
Following the tour we set about getting ready for the medal ceremony. Matthieu offered us appointments at the Chanel Makeup Bar for a makeover, and with the impossible to get in Club Ritz hairdresser - David Mallet. Just to put this fairytale in perspective, David Mallet is the best hairdresser in Paris, which may as well be the universe when it comes to hair in France. Not wishing to wear out our welcome, we graciously passed on this offering. Plus, there was still so much of the hotel to discover.
The medal ceremony was held from within the 18th Century walls of the Institute of France, and it was a royal affair. Prince Albert II of Monaco and the Prince of Belgium both attended, and personally congratulated each of the prize recipients. Prince Albert spoke graciously and genuinely, and to our surprise even mentioned the smallest of details, such as how our son Ben had happened upon Château de Gudanes on the internet. We spoke together after the ceremony and he mentioned how he had visited Perth (our hometown in Australia) a couple of times. I replied "I know - the whole of Perth knows when a Prince is in town". We laughed and then he said "I would like to come and visit the Château." I stopped laughing immediately and replied "I know this medal is for the restoration but we haven't finished yet!" He reassuringly replied that he already knew that. All Craig could think was that if he visits us does that mean we might be invited to his...
It was an evening filled with kindness, sincere hearts and gratitude. And it was also a night spent with a friend, Molly, whom we hadn't seen in some time, and who we had the opportunity to invite to the ceremony.
Last year, Molly, a Cordon Bleu Pastry Chef, offered her time over summer to help at the Château and prepare the most delicious desserts and delicacies. Now living in Paris and teaching desserts, we were so pleased she was able to join us for the evening.
Just before midnight we made our way back to the Ritz Paris together and ordered the famous Serendipity cocktail in the nostalgic Hemingway Bar. It seemed so fitting. Not that long ago, we had never imagined that our world would be turned so upside down, happening upon an abandoned Château, leading to us to pack up our suitcases to live in a country where we didn't even speak the language. As if love had found its way to a far away place...
It was a magical drink - mixed with all the right ingredients by Forbes' best concocter and shaker of drinks and cocktails - the Mr Colin Field.
As the clock struck midnight we returned to our room, and into the calmness and warmth of what felt like a million threads of the softest peach coloured sheets. Sleep fell upon us in a gentle truth of knowing that perhaps even the most enchanting of all dreams could not overwhelm this moment.
The following day we managed to tear ourselves away from the excitement of the Ritz Paris. Walking through the Tuileries is always a good idea - as Madame Bollinger could have said "I stroll there when I'm happy, and when I'm sad. Sometimes I stroll there when I'm alone. When I have company I consider it obligatory." And so Craig and I spent the morning "flâner-ing".
The leaves had just begun to fall...
For lunch we decided to try Deli-Cieux located in the 9th arrondissement on the 9th floor of the department store Printemps. It's cafeteria style, where you take a tray and decide. The hot dishes of the day, such as grilled salmon, steak or a burger are cooked in an instant. Our friends who live in Paris had recommended this honest food hotspot, though more so for the rooftop view of Paris in all directions. Perched way up high, it was possible to even see the smallest detail in the gold gilding - a work in progress at Le Palais Garnier.
Looking out at the view I couldn't help reflecting on our time at the Ritz. Initially, I was apprehensive after being invited there. I found myself feeling uncomfortable, and confronted even about the smallest things such as "What would I wear?"
Upon my arrival though, I had quickly discovered that the Ritz may be exclusive but it is equally just as inclusive. Its treasures may be princely and noble, and its corridors scented like fields of favourite flowers, but what filled my heart and soul the most was the kindness and thoughtfulness that was given so openly. I am not only in wonderment to the gracious and warm-hearted personnel but also to the owner. It is one thing to have a great fortune and a legendary hotel, but it is another to live up to that legend and even better still to use it nobly and usefully. To feel so welcomed and cared for, and to matter, is what turns a hotel into a home.
The Ritz was restored with honour. It held priceless the memories of those who have passed through its doors and shared in its past. Not just those whose names remain well remembered, but for all who shared their time and celebrations. And accomplished it was, with the utmost integrity and respect.
Restoring the Ritz is one of the most beautiful gifts that could ever be given to Paris. For not only is it in the heart of this enchanting city, but it bestows the belief of future memories that await. To love and cherish...
Written by Karina Waters from Château de Gudanes.