Wed. Dec 1st, 2021


The Parisian waiter bends over the candle at an empty table and fiddles with it. He then repeats the ritual at each adjacent table. Eventually I realize what he is doing: he aligns the candles in a perfect line, just as the nearby Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel is perfectly in line with the Arc de Triomphe. The waiter prepares himself, triumphantly: he has perfected the café on the ground floor of Paris’ new Madame Rêve hotel. In this under-lit room of warm wood colors and eight-meter ceilings, almost everyone who walks along the oak floors looks beautiful.

The people who made up the hotel have the Parisian eye, which can fall on the tiniest stain in a room: a woman wearing the wrong colors, a tasteless bag sticking out of a stall, a foreigner having to speak loudly. An imaginary red warning flashes on the stain, and perfection is restored. In 2021, the Paris eye was applied not only to Madame Rêve, but to the entire 1st arrondissement. For better or worse, central Paris has undergone top-end cosmetic surgery.

The 1st is more or less the geographical heart of Paris and thus, probably, of the world. It is a tiny arrondissement, only 1.83 sq km, many of which consist of the Louvre, the Tuileries Garden and the Forum des Halles shopping center. The building that became Madame Rêve originally opened in 1888 as a giant, arcade post office, a kind of Haussmannian People’s Palace. At the time, the 1st was a crowded and thriving neighborhood with perhaps 70,000 inhabitants. There were fantastic parties and newly rich industrialists struggling for excitement. A few steps from the post office was the Bourse de commerce and the food market at Les Halles, the “belly of Paris”. Around the corner, but still within the arrondissement, the Samaritaine department store showcased the luxuries of the time.

Later, the arrondissement faded. The Stock Exchange has lost its greatness. The Halles market was demolished in 1971 and re-emerged as a hideous, mostly underground shopping center. Until recently, 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 square meter.

The exterior of the large 19th-century former post office building that is now the Hotel Madame Rêve
The Madame Rêve Hotel is housed in what was once a large post office with arcade, ‘a kind of Haussmann People’s Palace’.

The 1st’s marginalization continued with La Samaritaine’s closure in 2005. Meanwhile, the district‘s arcaded highway, the Rue de Rivoli, has turned into a fierce traffic jam with midsize shops. The post office was the last monument to go. It has a place in Paris’ popular culture as the city’s only “the Job”Which remained open nights. Everyone has stories that they arrive here five minutes before midnight to pay taxes and get the all-important stamp showing that you have exceeded the French state’s deadline. But as administration moved online and people stopped sending letters, the massive post office became redundant. It also 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 only 16,093 inhabitants.

Enjoy the sunshine in the Tuileries Garden. . . © Getty Images

. . . and cycling along the Rue de Rivoli, which was closed to cars after the pandemic hit © Yann Castanier / Hans Lucas / Reuters

The revival began with the second renovation of Les Halles in 2016, this time in a park and walkable mall with an open, shed. But the arrondissement’s full recovery has taken place in just the past 18 months. After the pandemic was hit, the Rue de Rivoli was closed to cars and in a cycling street with four bike lanes. Suddenly you could get to almost anywhere in central Paris within 10 minutes of the Louvre. Meanwhile, in a closed world hungry for beauty, the worldwide success of the Netflix series Call My Agent!, over a fictitious talent agency located at 149 Rue St Honoré in the 1st, has recovered from the arrondissement’s brilliance.

Last May, the Scholarship reopened, and now houses billionaire François Pinault’s contemporary art collection. A month later, The Samaritan, owned by Pinault’s billionaire rival Bernard Arnault, emerged from his 16-year-old makeover. Madame Rêve joined them in October. In 2024, the Fondation Cartier for Contemporary Art is scheduled to arrive, moving from the south of Paris to a new home on the Place du Palais-Royal, a five-minute walk from the hotel. Boosters of the 1st say it replaces the chicest section of the 8th as the city’s new “triangle d’or”- golden triangle. Given the wealth flowing in, “gold” can underestimate it. Apartment prices in the 1st have almost quadrupled this century to more than € 12,000 per square meter.

A view of the large roundabout at the Fair, which now houses François Pinault's collection of contemporary art

The Fair, a short walk from the Louvre, now houses François Pinault’s collection of contemporary art

Madame Rêve’s creator Laurent Taïeb has one thing in common with Donald Trump: the latter transformed Washington DC’s Old Post Office into the Trump International Hotel in 2016, which is currently being sold and renamed after being tarred by his presidency. But Taïeb, a former designer of cafes and restaurants, says: “My point of departure was to respect history and quote it.” Madame Rêve’s cafe, for example, retains the enormous ceilings and pillars of the old post office’s mailbox.

In Madame Rêve, Taïeb explains, the ground floor evokes the 1880s. The upper two levels, built on top of the former post office, carry the visitor back to the 21st century. Almost everywhere in the hotel you are sublimely aware of Paris. This is not one of those standard edition luxury palaces where you can be in Los Angeles or Macau. Half of the 82 rooms, all on the same floor, overlook the Haussmannian rooftops and the neighboring 17th-century St-Eustache church. St-Eustache is not quite Notre-Dame, and Taïeb could certainly have built a better church himself, but he praises the “ghost castle” aspect of it. Its other rooms overlook a soothing courtyard, as the new theme of Parisian architecture is the “vegetation” of this stone city. The rooms are decorated with 800 items of philately-themed art that Taïeb purchased from an anonymous collector. Very unusual for Paris, many rooms have terraces.

Sun loungers on ‘Le Roof’ at Madame Rêve, with views over St-Eustache and over the city © Jérôme Galland

Madame Rêve’s pride will be its rooftop bar, which opens next spring, and where you’ll feel like you’re in a Paris Disney movie. In a four-minute walk around the plant-filled, tree-lined roof, you can take in the Eiffel Tower, Notre-Dame, the Panthéon, the Sacré-Coeur Church, the Pompidou Center and also, unfortunately, the 1973 Montparnasse Tower. . . Taïeb, excited about the new trend of remote work, hopes Parisians and laptop-carrying nomadic workers will crowd the roof and the hotel’s two restaurants. And as if to claim acquittal for this palace of international consumption, solar panels on the roof will provide half of the building’s hot water.

A luxury bathroom with peach decor, bath and double sinks

Bathroom of the Madame Rêve Suite © Jérôme Galland

Inside, Taïeb’s eye and nose perfected every detail. The elevators and hallways are flavored with the hotel’s distinctive perfume, a blend (tell me) of rose and cedar wood. The lamp accessories are in the form 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 craftsmen to create vases and numerous other objects that used on a late 19th-century aesthetic. When you wander around the hotel, you sometimes feel that the only blot on this landscape is you.

I asked Taïeb, a disarmingly cheerful, hoarse-voiced naked man, if the beauty of his hotel was intimidating. “Of course,” he admitted. “It could be. But we tried to create an emotional path.”

The Madame Rêve Café. . . © Jérôme Galland

. . . where the decor felt distinctly 19th-century © Jérôme Galland

My path was more hedonic. In the cafe downstairs with its Sardinian chef and Mediterranean cuisine, I probably had the best squid I have ever eaten. The top restaurant, La Plume, which is about to open, will be Japanese-French. The highlight of my stay was a 90 minute massage in the spa. I do not think I have ever actually felt relaxed, but I have read in books about it and that is how it should be.

La Plume, the top restaurant at Madame Rêve, where the cuisine will be Japanese-French © Jérôme Galland

Every time I left Madame Rêve, I was attacked 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 walk in Paris, and hidden enough to remain one of this city’s least crowded places of beauty. Pinault’s collection at the Stock Exchange was quite enjoyable. Behind it, the Forum des Halles – the traditional entrance to Paris from the suburbs by local train – is an open garden where a much more proletarian crowd sits and eats takeaways. Les Halles went from blindness to democratic public space – a necessity in a city whose people are locked up in small apartments.

The new Samaritaine is more than a store. It strives, wonderfully, to be a Parisian monument. The staff member who helped me push through the crowd one recent weekday afternoon said that the “Samar” had picked up 1.5 million visitors in the first three months since reopening, far more than expected. The new store offers a mix of Parisian high style and “street”. The English word has become a term of praise in luxury 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 pedestrianized Rue de la Monnaie, Parisians sit in the sun and admire the store’s twin facades: one an impeccable example of art nouveau, its neighbor impeccable art deco. Only in Paris. Here’s a shopping experience that Amazon cannot replace.

The large staircase and glass ceiling of the La Samaritaine department store

The big step of La Samaritaine: ‘Here’s a shopping experience that Amazon can not replace’ © Stéphane Abourdaram / We Are Content (s)

When I said goodbye to the high life, I felt that central Paris had jumped from gentrification to plutocratization. Even many people in the 1 percent of French income can no longer afford to buy here. In another era, the post office and perhaps the Stock Exchange might have been converted into housing. Instead, virtually the only members of the lower orders still living in the 1st are the poor souls who freeze in sleeping bags on Rue de Rivoli at night. I put it to Taïeb that today’s arrondissement of millionaires and monuments is reminiscent of the inequality of the 1880s. “Sure,” he said. “But everyone can enjoy it. You can get a coffee in our cafe that costs about the same as in other Parisian cafes. Anyone can join the Samaritans. “

It is true. Paris is changing from a place to live, or even an open-air museum, into an open-air luxury department store to enter. You can regret the change, but no city could have accomplished it more elegantly.

Details

Simon Kuper was a guest of Madame Rêve (madamereve.com), where double rooms cost from € 500

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