‘Is it a bit much?’ asks Mrs Smith, eyeing the wall and screwing up her face inquisitively. We’re in room 16 at the gorgeous fin de siècle boutique hotel L’Hôtel in Paris, and the wall in front of us is a bit, well, shrine-like. Faded sepia photos of Oscar Wilde jostle for space alongside framed newspaper clippings and 19th-century cartoons of the great man, and a slightly eerie figurine that is supposedly meant to be the author and poet, but looks more like an evil Michael Ball, grins at us malevolently from the top of the writing desk. If this were in any other room in Paris, then it would undoubtedly be, as Mrs Smith says, a bit much. But we are in the room where Oscar breathed his last. ‘There is, I suppose, only one thing worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about,’ I suggest.
Wilde is talked about a lot here. After polite society slammed its doors in his face following his 1895 trial for homosexual offences, he came to what was then the Hotel d'Alsace, disgraced and penniless, to try and shake off the ill health that had dogged him for years. He failed, and shuffled off this mortal coil in the very room where Mrs Smith is now plugging in her phone charger. As a teenager, I was a bit of an Oscar obsessive – like many men my age, I came to him through a fervent devotion to the Smiths – so I am ecstatic to be spending the night in his deathbed. Mrs Smith isn’t so sure. ‘What if the room’s haunted?’ she asks. To be honest, I can’t imagine that a floppy-haired, lily-wearing phantom is going to be much to worry about.
You can see why Wilde chose L’Hôtel – it’s all very ‘Parisian’, in that gilded absinthe den, frou-frou dancing girls, under-the-counter ‘art’ books sense of the word. The lobby, with its leopard-print carpet, antique screens and original Jean Cocteau artwork, exudes fin de siècle glamour. And our room is just as decadent. The poet’s final words – ‘either that wallpaper goes or I do’ – may have been heeded (the beautiful and seemingly historic hand-painted mural of gold-leaf peacocks against a background of rich turquoise-green was actually finished at the turn of this century), but the combination of antique furnishings, gorgeous scalloped gold chandeliers and atmospherically faded, candy-striped wallpaper around the French doors to our private terrace is suitably 1890s.
Much as Mrs Smith and I would love to sample chef Philippe Bélissent’s two Michelin-starred cuisine in the hotel’s Le Restaurant, the menu – which includes a €50 scallop starter – is a little out of our price range. So we content ourselves with a glass of champagne in the jewel box-like salon bar, and eavesdrop on the conversations of those who, as Wilde might say, know the cost of everything and the value of nothing. Afterwards, we head out to the Latin Quarter for dinner at intimate, informal bistro Le Petit Prince de Paris, where a feast of fabulous, inventive French dishes – mousse-like seafood-and-courgette flan, a crème brûlee of camembert with onion fondue and andouillettes, roasted seabass and scallops in a saffron butter – comes in at less than the price of two starters back at the hotel.
That’s the thing about L’Hôtel. It is beautiful and it is more characterful than the entire five series of The Wire, but it’s also wincingly expensive. This is something you can easily forgive when you’re reposing in such wonderful surroundings and the never-less-than-superb service is removing all obstacles from your path; but when, as happened to us on our return from dinner, no one on duty has the faintest idea how to make your in-room DVD player work, you can start to question the prices.
Just as well, then, that the hotel is very good at masking any shortcomings with sheer charm. As we head down for breakfast the following morning – fresh fruit and yoghurt for Mrs Smith, cheese-oozing croque monsieur for me – the adorable, velvet-clad concierge asks us if we’d like to book an hour or two in the private pool downstairs. ‘Oh, I’d love to,’ says Mrs Smith regretfully. ‘But I haven’t brought anything to wear.’ The concierge smiles. ‘But madame,’ she says conspiratorially, ‘the pool is private. You don’t need to wear anything.’
That’s not a suggestion you’d hear in many British hotels, but it fits perfectly with the slightly racy ambience of this Left Bank lovely. So – after a wonderful couple of hours spent wandering the lane-like streets of the Marais, browsing boutiques and indulging my new-found love of mid-morning coffee and cognac – we make our way back to the rue des Beaux Arts for our swim sans vetements.
From the cylindrical hotel atrium, which corkscrews up towards the Parisian sky, we descend a spiral staircase towards the basement hammam, passing mosaics of tiny gold tiles as we go. The pool itself is ridiculously beautiful. With its heavy velvet curtains, terracotta floors and rough-stone columns, it looks like the bathing pool from Spartacus – the one in which Laurence Olivier informs Tony Curtis that he’s going to be his ‘body slave’ – and its Roman feel seems an appropriate extension of all the opulence upstairs.
As we float in the deliciously warm water, Mrs Smith lying back on me as steam plays havoc with her shoulder-length hair, I realise we haven’t said a word to each other for the past five minutes. We are beyond relaxed, and seem to have moved to a state usually only experienced by Trappist monks and opium eaters. Everything about L’Hôtel, from the twinkles of gilt at every head-turn to the rich crimsons, purples and pinks in each room and, of course, the tranquil subterranean pool, is a blissful reminder of a glorious and more colourful age. Hang the expense. Anyone who lives within their means, as Oscar Wilde once said, suffers from a lack of imagination.