Marcel Proust once wrote: “The real voyage of discovery consists not of seeking new landscapes, but of having new eyes.” Words full of insight. But it is doubtful that the author of À la Recherche du Temps Perdu (Remembrance of Things Past) imagined that his oft-cited quote would be used to brand “literary-themed” hotels 100 years after the first publication of his defining work.
The rise of the belles-lettres establishment, celebrating France’s literary culture, and even that of its neighbours, is the latest marketing sensation in the French capital, as hoteliers come up with ever more innovative – or desperate – ways to attract guests.
Sandwiched between a fast-food restaurant and a kebab house opposite the Gare de l’Est, the Le Marcel hotel has ideas well above its station. Born and raised in the chic 16th arrondissement, Proust would have spent little time in this, the gritty 10th, other than while passing through to catch a train.
But Le Marcel does not let the lack of links to the great man spoil the promotional plot: “Marcel Proust’s spirit hovers all around,” says the hotel brochure. “The Marcel dresses up in indigo. This color (sic), a major element of romantic literature, is present everywhere in slight touches to recall that infinity is ubiquitous.”
The rooms are named after some of Proust’s most famous characters: the Saint Loup, after Robert de Saint-Loup, the boyhood friend of the narrator in À la Recherche du Temps Perdu; Guermantes, the duchess whose glamour seduces the young protagonist; and Swann – all characters that feature in the seven-volume work. There is, of course, a room named the Madeleine, after the cake that sparks the narrator’s prolonged bout of recollection.
In the neighbouring 9th arrondissement, Les Plumes hotel pays tribute to literary lovers: George Sand and Alfred de Musset, Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud, Juliette Drouet and Victor Hugo. Set on the Rue Lamartine, named after the Romantic poet Alphonse de Lamartine, the hotel even has literary quotations etched on the shower glass. And in L’Hotel in the St Germain des Prés district, guests can sleep in the room in which Oscar Wilde died.
One of the first literary-themed hotels was the Le Pavillon des Lettres, which opened in 2010, a stone’s throw from the French president’s residence at the Élysée Palace, where 26 rooms pay tribute to writers including William Shakespeare, Émile Zola and Franz Kafka.
Whatever the conceit, it appears to work; Le Marcel is full, and Laurence Guilloux, director of the recently opened four-star R Kipling hotel, says its leather armchairs, fireplace and library are popular both with the “young and dynamic” and “older couples who like the ambience … it’s about creating a character, a personality for each hotel”.
It has been a good year for Paris hotels of all kinds, especially the high-end luxury establishments. Despite the economic recession and a slight drop in numbers on 2012 – a record year – the city’s tourist authorities say 2013 is set to be “one of the tourist grands crus” for the capital. A fall in French guests has been compensated by an increase in British, American and, above all, Asian visitors.
Georges Panayotis, founder and chairman of the marketing and tourism research company MKG Hospitality, said the luxury hotels had done particularly well, justifying the investment in renovations many had undergone.
“Despite the difficult economic contest, the French hotel business has shown a remarkable resistance,” he said. The emergence of author-themed hotels, he said, had shown the willingness of Paris hoteliers to raise their game in the face of international competition and demonstrated that the “investments are justified and profitable”.
“The idea of themes, of innovation, of specialising, not just in hotels but restaurants, is all part of this,” he said. “We’re going back to the basics of the quality of service and welcome à la français.”Outside the Gare de l’Est, a group of young Britons was heading for the hotel they had chosen on the internet because it “looked clean and was good value”. Would they choose a literary-themed hotel next time? “If it wasn’t too expensive, why not?” said Josh, a business student from Southampton. “Sounds fun. Maybe for a romantic weekend rather than a trip with friends, though.”
Had he and his friends heard of Marcel Proust? “Er … no.” Rudyard Kipling, Victor Hugo? “Of course.”
The French exception culturelle does not sleep easily with unabashed commercialism, but Gallic hoteliers have clearly decided that writers sell rooms. Even if some people have no clue who they are.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010