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Few hotels breed anecdotes like Paris' Meurice. Consider a few facts. When the king of Spain visited in the early decades of the last century, he stayed in a second-floor suite overlooking the Tuileries gardens and brought his own furniture.
From the 1960s to the 1980s, Salvador Dali lived in the same 1,000-square-foot suite for at least one month a year. "He once sent the staff out to collect flies in the Tuileries gardens, paying five centimes per fly. We never knew what he did with what we collected, for it was not ours to ask," says concierge Jacques Pillet, who has been with the hotel for 43 years. Pillet even remembers the day that Dali saw a life-size billboard advertising Camel cigarettes and directed the hotel staff to purchase it for him; of course they did. "Years later," says Pillet, "I saw the billboard in his garden in Spain."
When the hotel's open-air, rooftop restaurant first opened in 1907, feasts went on for 12 hours nonstop. The Paris Daily Mail reported: "There are 150 seats, but there is such a wealth of trellis work covered with growing creepers, each table is completely isolated, offering quite independent views of the Tuileries and Louvre." In 1909, the hotel initiated its own private postal service: Every day, one employee of the hotel crossed over to Dover with letters for England.
Today, the Meurice still does what the French do best: It offers up luxury as if it were a birthright. Once you've stepped through the towering mahogany-and-bronze doors into the sunlight-filled lobby, you understand immediately la fête du Meurice.
Even though I have lived in Paris for 21 years, I had never slept overnight in one of its hotels. But for two delicious days and nights recently, I did just that in this gilded gem, which reopened last July after two and a half years of top-to-toe renovation—the first major one undertaken at the hotel in nearly a century. This was not a simple refurbishing or updating of bathrooms, but a complete dismantling and reconstruction. During that time, this early-19th-century coaching inn for British travelers founded by Charles-Augustin Meurice was transformed into a lavish, albeit modern, hotel.
In order that an architectural and historical integrity be maintained throughout the restoration, the owners of the Meurice turned to respected architects Jean-Loup Roubert and Nicolas Papamiltiades. Roubert had won the Grand Prix de Rome for architecture and had been applauded for other successful renovations in Paris. At Hotel Meurice he was in charge of the magnificent rococo-like salons on the ground floor, the restaurant, bar, and reception area. Not only did he reconfigure the public areas to make them brighter and more spacious, but he also created a grand new main entrance on Rue de Rivoli facing the Tuileries. Papamiltiades, who's also an interior designer, supervised the rooms and suites, most of which retain their marble fireplaces topped with gilt-and-beveled mirrors.
If God is in the details, the Meurice was built in heaven. Over 500 construction workers and craftsmen worked on the project. One hundred seventy fabrics were used throughout the guest rooms (that's 35,000 yards of fabric), and no two rooms are alike, as they are done in different combinations of colors and styles. Thirty-five hundred square feet of hand-painted friezes line the hotel walls; the 1903 mosaic floor of the Jardin d'Hiver, or Winter Garden, is made up of more than 500,000 sandstone tiles. Seventy-four windows overlook the Tuileries gardens, and on the ground floor alone there are 2,600 square feet of gold-leaf detail. Not to mention the 3,000 roses and 160 orchids that are brought in daily for the lobbies, dining rooms, and lounges.
Over the years, the guest list has included everyone from Queen Victoria and King George VI to Coco Chanel and Rupert Everett. During World War I, the hotel transformed itself from a temple of luxe accommodation into a makeshift hospital for soldiers. Perhaps its saddest moment came during World War II, when the SS appropriated the Meurice as its headquarters. During the Occupation, the hotel's most famous resident was General Dietrich von Choltitz, leader of the German tactical support in Paris. From his office (the Royal Suite, where Salvador Dali would later decamp) he refused, thankfully, an order to destroy the historical monuments of Paris. He was instructed to resist the Allies until the very last possible moment, and then to set off land mines positioned by the Germans throughout the city. However, on the advice of one of his officers, a Francophile named Norman Gunther, he never did. Choltitz surrendered to the French on the 25th of August 1944.
My own favorite rooms are numbers 602 and 607, both small and modest singles with dormered windows overlooking the Tuileries. But the choices are dazzling. The most talked-about room right now is La Belle Etoile. This seventh-floor suite is an extravagant, full-fledged apartment with its own marble Jacuzzi. A private elevator, valet, and full-sized kitchen are all yours. A 2,960-square-foot terrace allows you to see, in one sweeping panorama, the Arc de Triomphe, Place de la Concorde, Eiffel Tower, and the Seine.
The Meurice is the best-located of the city's luxury hotels. Exit the hotel and the Tuileries are straight ahead. To your left, the Louvre and Notre Dame. Turn right and head toward the Place de la Concorde and Champs Elysées. Behind you is shopping on Place Vendôme.
The Meurice is a place to indulge in culinary wonders. At lunchtime, I found my way to the ground-floor Jardin d'Hiver, a highlight of the hotel that, during a hideous 1960s renovation, was totally covered with a false ceiling painted over with sky and clouds. The current restoration corrected that, and fortunately, when the ceiling was removed, the entire iron skeleton of this Art Nouveau gem was found to be intact. The glass portion of the roof includes some 160 rosettes in six different sizes, all restored and repainted in glittering gold. Now one can bask again in the dazzling daylight that floods the room. And the room itself is astonishing. It is like being enveloped in cotton candy, with yard after yard of fabrics covering the plush banquettes and chairs in pastel blue, yellow, and pink, harmonized with the restored floor mosaics, the thick custom-made carpet that made me want to hug the artisan weavers, and table- and glassware in elegant celadon, mauve, and peach.
Lunch here is light and modern (there's even a spa selection for those counting calories), with simple dishes like an open-faced crab-and-avocado sandwich on organic bread or Scottish salmon cooked à l'unilatérale. At around 3 p.m., it's teatime in the Winter Garden, with traditional varieties from Le Palais du Thé and herbal infusions from Herboristorie du Palais Royal, two nearby shops. One afternoon, the Jardin d'Hiver's director, Franck Jaulneau, gave me a "crash course" in tea (as a longtime food critic, this was something I knew embarrassingly little about). Don't come if you're in a hurry—the temperature of the water must be just so (to avoid burning the leaves) and each tea must be infused for the right amount of time.
Dinner is grand, very grand, in the glorious restaurant, Le Meurice, a gracious and elegant space of antique beveled mirrors and large bay windows, interspersed with marble half-columns, overlooking Rue de Rivoli. It is the one room left virtually unchanged by the restoration. Under chef Marc Marchand, who came to the Meurice in 1990 and captured its first Michelin star in 1992, the restaurant is perfection. Marchand, who was born in a small town in Burgundy in 1955, is a thoughtful man who does not allow his cooking to distract from the personality of the 18th-century-style space.
You might start out with the sea scallops, which are artfully paired with truffled whipped potatoes, or a sweet crabmeat salad alongside a bright-green purée of broccoli. I adored the turbot (fresh from the famed Brittany village of Guilvinec), roasted to perfection and accompanied by warm grilled fans of fennel and a tiny fresh salad of shaved fennel and arugula. But then there is also the astonishingly full-flavored and rich pig's foot with truffle-potato cake—or a divine roast chicken with baby spinach, Belgian endive, and a hillock of warm polenta. My favorite dessert was the chilled lemon mousse, which is served with a refreshing gelatin-marmalade.
After all this, one definitely needs a visit to L'Espace Bien-Etre, the hotel's new spa. My three-hour session began with a young and perky female personal trainer, Laurence, to whom I gave a copy of my regular weight-training program. As I warmed up on the state-of-the-art rowing machine, Laurence began to put together my complementary workout. I trained with weights, machines, batons, and bands, finishing up with a session in the pristine white-marble steam room infused with eucalyptus. A quick dip in the whirlpool to soothe fatigued muscles and I was delivered to the red-haired Graziella, my masseuse. There was a crushed Cabernet scrub (a heavenly mixture of grape seeds, honey, sea salt, and grape-seed oil), and then a warm shower, a deep and welcome massage, and a soothing facial called "teint de pêche," which left my face feeling (and looking) like a delicate, tender peach, and left me ready for another night and day at the grand Hotel Meurice on Rue de Rivoli.
Hotel Meurice , 228 Rue de Rivoli, 75001 Paris, France; 33-1-44-58-10-10; fax 33-1-44-58-10-15; www.meuricehotel.com. Rooms from $420 to $8,500. The hotel spa, L'Espace Bien-Etre, is open to the public daily, including holidays, from 9 a.m. to 10:30 p.m.; package rates from $140 to $200. Lunch and dinner at Le Meurice range from $60 to $200; there is also a $130 tasting menu.
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