Some people really love staying in a hotel. For them, it's like a getaway from their homes and mundane everyday lives, and it feels like a bit of luxury, with the mini-bar and someone else who comes to clean the room and make the bed every day. (People typically live like pigs in hotels because they know someone else will clean it all up.)
I've stayed in my fair share of hotels, but to be honest most of them are pretty routine and boring stuff. There were the string of standard-issue business traveler hotels I stayed in during most of the 90's when I traveled frequently to the Carolinas and Texas for my job. I went to Atlantic City one time with a friend where they upgraded us to an oceanfront suite because the room above our original room had a plumbing leak that was coming through the ceiling and the casino ran out of regular rooms, and the suite included a bathroom with sunken jacuzzi tub and its own telephone... that was kind of different.
There were hotels in Boston and Florida and San Francisco and Chicago and Vancouver and Montreal and Phoenix and New York as I went to professional conferences or took some vacation time. There were Club Med resorts in the Bahamas and Martinique where the rooms were average, the goal being to get you OUT of your room to party and swim. At Circus Circus in Vegas, where I went with an ex-boyfriend and his friends prior to a wedding, the room was tired-looking and pitiful with its tacky clown theme. In Davos, Switzerland I stayed in a lovely little hotel that had down comforters and Murphy beds, and a snowy winter view of the Alps that I couldn't get enough of. And there was a sleek and modern hotel in a Frankfurt suburb where most of the Lufthansa flight crews stayed between shifts, and I lived there for two weeks on my one and only business trip to Germany.
Perhaps because of my extensive business travel experiences, I'm a bit on the jaded side when it comes to hotels. I mean, most hotels are nice enough as a rule, and rarely have I had to stay in a real hole-in-the-wall, and most of the time you can get breakfast included in the room fee. But most of the time when I travel I'm more interested in what's outside the hotel than what's inside it. In other words, I could care less about the hotel pool and whether or not there are any great shops in the hotel -- as long as it's clean and the service is decent, that's about all I really need. Besides, I don't usually sleep well in a hotel no matter how comfortable it is. So for me, a great hotel is rarely part of the big attraction of travel.
There is one notable exception and my favorite hotel story: the Hôtel Saint Germain des Près, on rue Bonaparte in Paris, 75006. Just steps from the Deux Magots, the ancient cathedral at Saint Germain, and the Seine, I had the pleasure of staying here on my first-ever trip to Paris in 1998. Maybe it was just that everything about that trip felt a little big magical to me -- after all, I'd waited almost 30 years to get there -- but this was one occasion where the hotel itself actually made the trip just that much more special.
When I was looking for hotels for my first Paris trip, I deliberately avoided all the usual Americanized hotels, as well as those that would just plain be out of my price range like the George V. I went looking for those little "hôtels charmants", the charming, ecclectic small hotels in historic old buildings. The ones with all the real Parisian ambience, that's what I wanted.
And I found it at the Hôtel Saint Germain des Près (which I'm now going to call the HSGdP to save on keystrokes and carpel-tunnel syndrome). It's in an 18th century building originally built as a townhouse, and I thought it sounded ideal. I booked the cheapest, tiniest room on the top floor, figuring I was only going to be there for three days (I was on a weekend layover during my two-week stint in Germany) so it didn't matter how big or small the room was -- I was only one person and it had a private bath and a room safe, so what more did I need.
I arrived at the hotel on foot, having taken the Métro from Charles de Gaulle airport, like a real world traveler, with only a backpack for luggage. (It's the least amount of luggage I've ever taken on a trip and I was so proud of myself for deciding to travel light!) The nearest Métro stop was right near the church and Deux Magots, and down the cobblestoned street I went, easily finding the hotel on the left-hand side of the street as you head toward the river.
I entered the lobby and was greeted by elegant European decor... Yippee! not a hint of a Holiday Inn anywhere! The concierge/receptionist had me checked in in moments, and directed me to take the lift (thank goodness I didn't bring any luggage because I don't think the lift could have fit me AND the luggage at the same time) to the top floor, where I would then have to walk up a winding staircase one more flight to get to my room. There were two rooms in the "attic" level, both had doors that were hand-painted and had the doorknobs in the middle of the door in typical old French style.
I opened the door (with a real old metal clé, too -- no plastic cards)... and couldn't believe my eyes. This room was everything I'd ever imagined an attic room in Paris to be. Sloping ceilings. Full exposed beams -- the real thing, too, not just something an architect nailed up to the ceilings and walls for dramatic impact. The entire room was done in ceiling to floor pink and white toile -- oh, so French! A double bed with European style pillows -- the big square kind -- a desk and chair with a mirror, a small closet in which I found the safe, a small television, and even an air conditioner (which I didn't need, it being a rainy April-in-Paris weekend). My tiny bathroom was done in blue and white tile and wallpaper, with a clawfoot tub and hand-held shower tucked under the sloped ceiling, which meant I couldn't actually stand up to take a shower but so what?
The room had a small window on either side and since it was on the top floor, I actually had plenty of light. Out one of the windows I could see the dome of the old Hôtel des Monnaies (the old mint). So I even had a bit of a view. All this, including breakfast, for a very reasonable price. I was in heaven.
I didn't spend much time in my hotel room (which looked a bit like this one only in pink and a bit smaller) because there was so much to do and see and only three days to do it in, including travel time back and forth to Frankfurt. It rained almost the entire time I was there, too. But nothing dampened my spirits because I was finally in Paris, the place I'd dreamed of visiting my entire life. Looking back, I think that the quaint, perfect, and very pink hotel room really set the tone for my "la vie en rose" experience in Paris that weekend.
I packed a lot into those few short days, and every night would return exhausted to the hotel, knowing I could cocoon up in my little pink attic room with the wood beams and fluffy pillows. I even managed to sleep well.
So, while most hotels are pretty mainstream and run-of-the-mill, just a place to hang your hat while you're away from home, the HSGdP taught me that sometimes a hotel CAN make or break your travel experiences. And this was one time when the hotel room was no disappointment.
In French, the word for "story" is "histoire", like the English for "history". Maybe that's appropriate for a hotel that has an actual history. A couple of years after that trip, I read Alice Steinbach's "Without Reservations" where she chronicled her year in Europe, starting in Paris. She wrote about her first day in Paris, and making a short pilgrimage to 36 rue Bonaparte:
When I came to Number 36, I stopped. The sign outside said: HOTEL SAINT-GERMAIN-DES-PRES. It was the small hotel where Janet Flanner lived in her early days in Paris, and I had come to pay my respects to her. Of course, she was no longer around--she died in 1978--but it's my belief that you can remain as close in feeling to the dead as you can to the living. Sometimes even closer.
I entered the lobby, an elegant, refined space that in all probability bore no resemblance to the modest surroundings in which Flanner lived in the 1920s. At that time it was a hotel where young American expatriates with talent but little money rented rooms. Still, it was from this hotel that Flanner began filing her fortnightly articles, signed with her nom de correspondance, Genêt.
Well, I finally made it here to thank you, my thinking voice said. So thanks for sharing with me your fifty years in Paris. I couldn't have asked for a better guide.
I've never read any of Janet Flanner's work, or even heard of her before I read this tribute in Steinbach's book. But reading this chapter in Steinbach's life, where she not only mentioned my favorite hotel but goes on to talk about other places on the Left Bank where I, too, had strolled on my first day in Paris... it was like being transported back in time. And I also learned that the HSGdP was once the home of talented but probably starving writers in its day. Maybe Janet Flanner even slept in the same room I did. And I remember reading somewhere that Henry Miller used to visit there as well.
Was that why I felt so comfortable in that tiny attic room? Was it being surrounded by the ghosts of famous writers past? Would staying there again make me want to write as well? (They have WiFi now.) I'll probably never know. But what I do know is that given the opportunity, I would absolutely stay there again and might even request the same tiny room -- out of nostalgia.
And maybe one day, some hopeful novice writer will make a pilgrimage to the Hôtel Saint Germain des Près to pay HER respects, thinking to herself: This is where the famous author Lisa Taylor Huff once stayed on her very first trip to Paris! God, I wish I could write like her!
*I ate breakfast in this very room, sitting next to the "winter garden" window with its painted screen, in the exact table and chair you see in the photo in the lower left corner of this montage.