The Parisian waiter bends over the candle at an empty table and fiddles with it. He then repeats the ritual at each adjoining table. Finally, I realise what he is doing: he is aligning the candles into a perfect line, just as the nearby Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel is perfectly aligned with the Arc de Triomphe. The waiter straightens himself, triumphant: he has perfected the ground-floor café of Paris’s new Madame Rêve hotel. In this underlit room of warm wooden colours and eight-metre ceilings, almost everybody striding along the oak floors looks beautiful.
The people who put together the hotel have the Parisian eye, which can alight on the tiniest blemish in a room: a woman wearing the wrong colours, a tasteless bag sticking out from a stall, a foreigner talking too loudly. An imaginary red alert flashes on the blemish, and perfection is restored. In 2021, the Parisian eye has been applied not just to Madame Rêve but to the entire 1st arrondissement. For good and bad, central Paris has undergone top-end cosmetic surgery.
The 1st is more or less the geographical heart of Paris and therefore, arguably, of the world. It’s a tiny arrondissement, just 1.83 sq km, much of which consists of the Louvre, the Tuileries Garden and the Forum des Halles shopping centre. The building that has become Madame Rêve originally opened in 1888 as a giant, arcaded post office, a kind of Haussmannian people’s palace. At the time, the 1st was a packed and booming neighbourhood with perhaps 70,000 inhabitants. There were fabulous parties and newly rich industrialists prowling for excitement. A few steps from the post office were the Bourse de commerce and the food market at Les Halles, the “belly of Paris”. Around the corner but still inside the arrondissement, the Samaritaine department store showcased the luxuries of the age.
Later the arrondissement faded. The Bourse lost its grandeur. The Halles market was torn down in 1971 and re-arose as a hideous, mostly underground shopping mall. Until recently, quite ordinary people could afford to live in the 1st. In early 2002, when I moved to Paris, apartment prices in the arrondissement averaged less than €4,000 per sq m.
The 1st’s marginalisation continued with La Samaritaine’s closure in 2005. Meanwhile, the quartier’s arcaded main drag, the Rue de Rivoli, degenerated into an angry traffic jam with mid-range shops. The post office was the last monument to go. It has a place in Parisian popular culture as the city’s only “la Poste” that stayed open nights. Everyone has stories of arriving here at five minutes to midnight to pay taxes and get the all-important stamp showing you had beaten the French state’s deadline. But as administration moved online and people stopped sending letters, the massive post office became redundant. It too closed in 2015. After that, you would come to the 1st for the Louvre, the Tuileries or work, but not for much else. In 2018 the arrondissement had just 16,093 inhabitants.
The revival began with the second conversion of Les Halles in 2016, this time into a park and passable shopping mall with an open, canopied roof. But the arrondissement’s full makeover has occurred in just the past 18 months. After the pandemic hit, the Rue de Rivoli was closed to cars and turned into a cycling street with four bike lanes. Suddenly, you could get from the Louvre to almost anywhere in central Paris in 10 minutes. Meanwhile, in a locked-down world hungry for beauty, the global success of the Netflix series Call My Agent!, about a fictional talent agency located at 149 Rue St Honoré in the 1st, restored some of the arrondissement’s glamour.
Last May, the Bourse reopened, now housing the billionaire François Pinault’s contemporary art collection. A month later, La Samaritaine, owned by Pinault’s billionaire rival Bernard Arnault, emerged from its 16-year makeover. Madame Rêve joined them in October. In 2024 the Fondation Cartier for contemporary art is scheduled to arrive, moving from southern Paris to a new home on the Place du Palais-Royal, five minutes’ walk from the hotel. Boosters of the 1st say it’s replacing the chicest section of the 8th as the city’s new “triangle d’or” — golden triangle. Given the wealth pouring in, “gold” may be understating it. Apartment prices in the 1st have already nearly quadrupled this century, to more than €12,000 per sq m.
Laurent Taïeb, creator of Madame Rêve, has one thing in common with Donald Trump: in 2016 the latter converted Washington DC’s Old Post Office into the Trump International Hotel, currently being sold and renamed after being tarred by his presidency. But Taïeb, previously a designer of cafés and restaurants, says: “My point of departure was to respect the history and to cite it.” Madame Rêve’s café, for instance, retains the immense ceilings and pillars of the old post office’s dispatch room.
In Madame Rêve, explains Taïeb, the ground floor evokes the 1880s. The upper two levels, built on top of the former post office, carry the visitor back into the 21st century. Almost everywhere in the hotel you are sublimely aware of Paris. This isn’t one of those standard-issue luxury palaces where you could be in Los Angeles or Macau. Half of the 82 rooms, which are all on the same floor, overlook the Haussmannian rooftops and the neighbouring 17th-century St-Eustache church. St-Eustache isn’t quite Notre-Dame, and Taïeb could surely have built a better church himself, but he praises its “haunted castle” aspect. His other rooms overlook a soothing interior garden, because the new theme of Parisian architecture is the “vegetalisation” of this hitherto stone city. The rooms are decorated with 800 items of philately-themed art that Taïeb bought from an anonymous collector. Very unusually for Paris, many rooms have terraces.
The pride of Madame Rêve will be its rooftop bar, which opens next spring, and where you will feel you are in a Disney film of Paris. In a four-minute stroll around the plant-filled, tree-lined roof, you can take in the Eiffel Tower, Notre-Dame, the Panthéon, the Sacré-Coeur church, the Pompidou Centre and also, unfortunately, the 1973 Montparnasse Tower. Taïeb, excited by the new trend of remote work, hopes that Parisians and laptop-carrying nomadic workers alike will throng the roof and the hotel’s two restaurants. And as if to claim absolution for this palace of international consumption, rooftop solar panels will provide half the building’s hot water.
Inside, Taïeb’s eye and nose have perfected every detail. The lifts and corridors are scented with the hotel’s signature perfume, a mix (I am told) of rose and cedar. The lamp fittings are in the shape of a woman’s décolleté with corset — a nod to the imaginary Madame Rêve herself, title character of Alain Bashung’s 1991 song. Taïeb brought in the best French craftspeople to create vases and numerous other objects that draw on a late 19th-century aesthetic. Wandering around the hotel, you sometimes feel that the only blot on this landscape is you.
I asked Taïeb, a disarmingly cheerful, hoarse-voiced bald man, whether the beauty of his hotel was intimidating. “Of course,” he admitted. “It can be. But we have tried to create an emotional pathway.”
My pathway was more hedonic. In the downstairs café with its Sardinian chef and Mediterranean cuisine, I had arguably the best squid I’ve ever eaten. The upstairs restaurant, La Plume, about to open, will be Japanese-French. The highlight of my stay was a 90-minute massage in the spa. I don’t think I have ever actually felt relaxed, but I have read about it in books and this is what it must be like.
Every time I left Madame Rêve I was assailed by Fear of Missing Out, but I dutifully explored everything within a seven-minute walk. The gardens of the Palais-Royal are possibly the best stroll in Paris, and sufficiently hidden away to remain one of this city’s least overcrowded beauty spots. Pinault’s collection at the Bourse was perfectly enjoyable. Behind it, the Forum des Halles — the traditional entryway to Paris from the suburbs by local train — is an open garden where a much more proletarian crowd sits eating takeaway lunches. Les Halles has gone from eyesore to democratic public space — a necessity in a city whose people are cooped up in tiny apartments.
The new Samaritaine is more than a shop. It aspires, fabulously, to be a Parisian monument. The staff member who helped me jostle through the throng one recent weekday afternoon said that in the first three months since reopening, the “Samar” notched up 1.5m visitors, far more than expected. The new shop offers a mix of Parisian high style and “street”. The English word has become a term of praise in upmarket Paris and can denote anything from street fashion to street architecture to La Samaritaine’s “Street Caviar by Prunier”, which sells caviar sandwiches or even burgers to take out. Outside, on the newly pedestrianised Rue de la Monnaie, Parisians sit in the sun admiring the store’s twin facades: one an impeccable example of art nouveau, its neighbour impeccable art deco. Only in Paris. Here’s a shopping experience Amazon cannot replace.
As I said goodbye to the high life, I felt that central Paris had jumped from gentrification to plutocratisation. Even many people in the 1 per cent of French incomes can no longer afford to buy here. In another era, the post office and perhaps the Bourse might have been converted into housing. Instead, practically the only members of the lower orders still living in the 1st are the poor souls freezing in sleeping bags on the Rue de Rivoli at night. I put it to Taïeb that today’s arrondissement of millionaires and monuments recalls the inequality of the 1880s. “Certainly,” he said. “But everyone can enjoy it. You can get a coffee in our café that costs about the same as in other Paris cafés. Anyone can walk into the Samaritaine.”
It’s true. Paris is morphing from a place to live in, or even an open-air museum, into an open-air luxury department store to drop into. You can lament the change, but no city could have accomplished it more elegantly.
Simon Kuper was a guest of Madame Rêve (madamereve.com), where double rooms cost from €500
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