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  1. Luxury
May 24, 2019

Hotel Plaza Athenée Paris review: ‘I became rapidly a moral relativist’

By Spear's

Christopher Jackson defies George Clooney and takes great pleasure in staying at the Paris branch of the Dorchester Collection

A few days before I was due to arrive at this hotel, part of the Dorchester Collection, George Clooney announced to the world that he would rather I didn’t go at all. Clooney’s indignation has an elaborate chain of causation: the collection is owned by the Brunei Investment Company, the investment vehicle for the State of Brunei. And Brunei has a discriminatory policy against homosexuality.

Clooney is certainly right about the broad policy point, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he was right in his announcement. As much as one admires the urgency of his message, when one boycotts a hotel, one doesn’t boycott its owner – the Dorchester Collection comprises around one per cent of the Sultan’s wealth – so much as a group of employees. Many of these will be hard-working people with families to feed.

Throughout my stay, the Dorchester’s unenviable PR team were writing and refining their response, and gave the appearance of moving through the seven stages from anger to acceptance. The back-and-forth culminated in the following: ‘We understand people’s anger and frustration but this is a political and religious issue that we don’t believe should be played out in our hotels and amongst our 3,630 employees.’ The statement finished with a sort of clarion call: ‘We love what we do.’

And pace Clooney, throughout my stay this last point was much in evidence. I tried to summon up his Bono-ish self-righteousness but the quality of the place kept intervening. My suite, for instance, was beautifully furnished, and overlooked a serene courtyard which doubles up as an exhibition space.

The moment I felt inclined towards anger about the political situation in the Abode of Peace, I was reminded that the beastly Dorchester had not been quite so beastly on the specific point of placing Moët in my room. I became rapidly a moral relativist.

Downstairs, there’s the fine three-star Michelin restaurant Ducasse, which doubles up as the breakfast room in the morning. It’s a room which (with one of the city’s premier attractions currently under Lombard Odier-financed reconstruction) feels more like Versailles than Versailles itself. The ceiling drips with Swarovski crystal.

One’s breakfast is arranged in rows of muffins and Disney-fluffy pancakes.

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Beyond, Paris itself. The Athenée is especially well-located if shopping is your priority. Dior is at the end of the street, with the Champs Elysées a mere three-minute walk away. It isn’t currently possible to shop there on Saturdays: every weekend, the so-called Gillets Jaunes protest against Macron.

But despite the signs of damage – every other window is smashed in – the street is vibrant on every other day; Q1 2019 was actually good for Paris.

The Yellow Jackets have this in common with Clooney; each reduces the complexity of things to a simple answer. But Clooney’s rage is superior, of course, to protesting a complicated revision of the French tax system with TVs thrown into shop windows and cars set on fire.

Even so, each fails to realise that the way the world works – taxes, the holdings of the rich – doesn’t always admit a straightforward response.

The Isle de Paris is a taxi away. When I was there, Notre Dame was still standing in its entirety. I chose not to go in, thinking it would always be there. But on a gorgeous spring day, the buttresses flew, like stone spider webs, in and out of the cherry trees; afterwards, when the flames were raging on TV, I realised how lucky I’d been to see it then.

The following day I took a trip out to Versailles, and found myself despising it; a visit here ends all one’s perplexity about why the revolution was so sudden and ferocious.

This is a place large beyond utility, and it is an interesting question as to how often in history barbarity has arisen as an innate response to the rococo.

More interesting are the Catacombs, just south of the Jardin du Luxembourg. Here one enters a Dantescan underworld: skulls are heaped on skulls, femurs on femurs. One realises the enormous underpinning – the human cost – propping up Paris.

All cities are monstrous sacrifices, telling of numbers beyond our imagination. Perhaps it is this which we really mourned when the Notre Dame fire came: all that unsung human effort rendered nil. We mourned not destroyed stone, but human life come to nothing.

In another sense, Paris is in continual bloom. I adored all over again the magnificent forest of pillars at Saint Severins, the nave materialising as a kind of ceremonial clearing. Shakespeare and Co is still there, ranked with excellent books; one’s purchases always greeted with a reassuring Shakespearean stamp. The city goes on – unblushing, yes, but somehow unreconciled to itself, and insistent on its daily rearrangements.

The Athenée is a consoling place to return to at the end of a long day’s reckoning with the city. There’s the curvaceous blue bar where the beautiful élite gather, looking like they would scorn even the request for a lighter.

There’s also a downstairs Spa area; my only sadness is that it lacks a swimming pool.

Is Clooney naïve? He would say that moral energy on this point is necessary, for us not to be mired in thinking about how complicated things are.

And in any case, time spent feeling sorry for the Dorchester is unnecessary since it will obviously bounce back – has, in fact, clearly bounced back in the interval between my stay and the composition of this article.

Christopher Jackson is deputy editor of Spear’s

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