Al Fayed’s Parisian jewel The Ritz reflects facets of high society
The Parisian dream of César Ritz, born in 1850 and a shepherd’s son from the Swiss Alps who gave the world some of its most renowned hotels, was to create something to which he could proudly attach his name.
Later this year, after a three-year closure, the first of his Ritz hotels, in the French capital’s sophisticated Place Vendôme, will reopen to show off the results of an “unparallelled restoration” estimated to cost in the region of €200 million (Dh811.3m).
The reopening was originally scheduled for summer 2014, but in March last year the deadline was pushed back to early 2015.
The hotel first opened in 1898, an occasion at which César Ritz commented: “It’s a small house to which I am proud to see my name attached.”
It will still bear Ritz’s name but ownership passed from the founder’s family to the Egyptian businessman Mohamed Al Fayed in 1979, placing him decades ahead of the recent wave of luxury hotel acquisitions by Middle Eastern individuals or institutions.
The Ritz boasts an supremely glamorous past in which the names of Coco Chanel, Cole Porter, Ingrid Bergman and renowned American writers from Ernest Hemingway to Scott Fitzgerald take starring roles.
Hemingway once wrote to a friend: “When I dream of afterlife in heaven, the action always takes place in the Paris Ritz.”
For the Italian actress Sophia Loren, it was simply “the most romantic hotel in the world”.
On a more sombre note, it was from the Ritz that Princess Diana and Mr Fayed’s son, Dodi, were driven to their deaths in a car crash beneath the Pont de l’Alma in 1997.
On its own less than modest self-assessment, the Ritz has always been “the epitome of elegance and the understated luxury of French art de vivre … a gathering place for the greats of this world, royalty, artists and writers”.
But for some latterday guests, the charm has faded in recent years, perhaps not surprisingly given that the last renovations were completed 28 years ago.
Comments at the Tripadvisor.com website immediately before closure included much praise, but also reservations about what the French call rapport qualité prix – value for, in this case, a lot of money.
“The rooms are very nice – loved the bathrooms – but they are looking tired,” one visitor from Singapore wrote.
“I can understand why they are doing the renovations. When you are paying over US$1,000 a night for a room you would expect things to be top of the line.”
The Ritz says such concerns are being addressed as the renovations will show once it reopens.
“To preserve its heritage,” the hotel’s website says, “the Ritz Paris is benefiting from an unparallelled restoration, not to begin a second life but to continue its legend.”
The challenge of bringing a historic grand hotel into the 21st century has been met with “newly created spaces, high-tech comfort and a renewed commitment to classic roots”.
A new tunnel will allow publicity-shy guests to enter discreetly from the garage. A retractable roof will “transform the winter garden into a leafy year-round patio”. And the Ritz says guests will be offered a spa “entirely rethought in a contemporary spirit”.
Paris high society, and affluent visitors to the City of Romance, may eagerly await the autumn reopening.
But one question remains. Does Mr Fayed have the stamina to lead his reborn Ritz into its new era?
Having sold his London store, Harrods, to Qatar Holdings in 2010, and the capital-based Fulham Football Club to the US-Pakistani billionaire, Shahid Khan, in 2013, he can expect renewed speculation that, at 86, it may be time to sell his Parisian jewel, too.
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Published: March 5, 2015 04:00 AM