Sunday, March 13, 2005

Spring is here, and it just has to be Paris

Spring is here, and it just has to be Paris

Ready for that seasonal trip to the French capital? We choose three hotel destinations where style and comfort are guaranteed

Published: 13 March 2005

InterContinental Le Grand
The location
Right next to the Opera House at the top of the Avenue de l'Opéra, one of Paris's grand boulevards, which leads down to the Louvre and the Seine. The InterContinental Le Grand, built in 1862, in the era of Napoleon III, re-opened in 2003 after an 18-month refurbishment designed to place it firmly at the top of the list of Paris's smart hotels. The smell of varnish still lingers on the newly polished doors and banisters while the lobby is full of huge vases of fresh lilies. You enter up a flight of stairs through doors opened by staff in top hats and tails before checking in at the spacious reception. The lobby boasts bentwood furniture and Oriental screens and leads to the cafe and bar, which feature a glass ceiling and a huge chandelier. It's worth walking up and down the grand staircase to examine the classic paintings and soak up the ambience. The internal decor draws heavily on the neighbouring Opera House and pictures of stars of the opera and ballet, including Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev, hang on the walls.
Apart from its wonderful location and the fact that some rooms overlook the Opera House? Well, there's also the majestic Cafe de la Paix. The huge chandeliers, glass canopy and delicate sky-blue murals on the ceiling make this the grandest of Parisian grand cafes. Famous names who have supped here include the future Edward VII, Emile Zola and Oscar Wilde, who, so the hotel literature reports, dreamed he saw an angel in the conservatory terrace.
The comfort factor
The hotel has 482 rooms. Mine focused on a king-sized bed so high it's a wonder they don't provide a stepladder to help you climb into it. Above the bed hung a beautiful silk screen while the windows were framed with velvet curtains and regency armchairs. The bar and lobby have huge, comfy sofas and are surrounded by lush palms and foliage.
The bathroom
Sleek lines with separate shower and bath. Soaps and lotions from Audley's of London.
The food and drink
The Brasserie de la Paix offers outstanding food and service in one of the city's loveliest settings. It really is worth treating yourself here. Starters include Shetland Islands smoked salmon with blinis and fresh cream, while among the main courses on offer is grilled turbot with caramelised onions. The prices are bearable, given the standard and location, with dishes starting at around €40 (£29). Drinks are expensive: beer checks in at €8 (£6) and a late-night Viennese hot chocolate at €7 (£5).
The people
A good mix, from international executives, to small, affluent, Japanese tour groups and the odd Indian film star. For everyone else, it's a place to come for that special anniversary celebration.
The area
The Opera House across the road opens its doors for visits and tours. A walk to the Louvre and the Tuileries takes only a leisurely 15 minutes.
The access
There are ramps and elevators for every staircase and ten rooms have been designed for disabled travellers so far, with more under renovation, though they provide wider baths rather than special showers.
The damage
Walk-in rates start at a finger-burning €740 (£542), but the hotel is currently offering rates on its website from €370 (£271) per night. Presidential suites are strictly for those readers who picked the right numbers in last night's lottery: the price is €3,270 (£2,400) per night.
The address
InterContinental le Grand, 2 Rue Scribe, 75009 Paris (00 33 1 40 07 32 32;
Mark Rowe

La Tremoille
The location
Tucked behind the Champs Élysées, off the Avenue George V, in the upmarket 8th arrondissement. Do you like your Parisian grandeur to have a contemporary edge? This 19th-century cornerhouse offers exactly that, following an extensive refurbishment by its owner, The Scotsman Hotel Group. Careful attention has been paid to its Haussmann-style façade and to preserving period details inside. Yet the furnishings and decor are thoroughly 21st century, using a fashionable palette of muted colours - browns purples, greys and white - with tactile textiles such as mohair, fake fur and silk.
A cool, intimate retreat in the right part of town. In the Sixties, the hotel was on the jazz scene and film stars such as Tony Curtis and Marlene Dietrich called it a home from home. Today it doesn't feel like a party house, though Hollywood greats, including Richard Gere and Johnny Depp, still check in.
The comfort factor
There are 93 rooms and suites, with satellite TV, DVD and internet access. A clever touch: each room has a hatch that can be opened from outside, so meals can be discreetly delivered.
The bathroom
In sparkling porcelain and marble, ours had a walk-in shower, bath and separate loo, and was supplied with Molton Brown toiletries.
The food and drink
The hotel employed the talents of Sir Terence Conran to design the restaurant and bar, Senso, which serves a French gastronomic menu.
The people
Well-off Europeans - and those stellar guests.
The area
The Arc de Triomphe and the Eiffel Tower are within walking distance. The hotel has a small gym, sauna and offers beauty treatments.
The access
Children welcome. Some pets too. Full disabled access.
The damage
From €410 (£286) per room per night.
The address
La Trémoille, 14 rue de La Trémoille, 75008 Paris, France (00 33 1 56 52 14 00;
Kate Simon
Kate Simon travelled to Paris with Eurostar (08705 186 186;, which offers return fares from £59.

Hotel Westminster
The location
In the immensely posh Rue de la Paix - Paris's equivalent to London's Bond Street - which runs north from the Place Vendôme to the Opéra. A short stroll, in other words, from the Tuileries Gardens and the Louvre.
The hotel
Traditional, with dim lighting and hushed, discreet service. It isn't in the absolute top tier of Parisian hotels, but it falls not far short. In many respects, it still resembles the 19th-century hotel that it once was, with antique carpets, giant flower displays and marble columns in the hall, and flowery bedspreads, heavy drapes, chandeliers and chaise-longues in the bedrooms. Other decorative features in my room included block-print wallpaper, gilt picture frames and period etchings, not to mention a leather-topped desk and an antique bronze clock. The whole place has been refurbished and redecorated to a high standard under Pierre-Yves Rochon.
A more affordable and classy substitute for the Ritz (which is just round the corner).
The comfort factor
A few guests have complained about bedrooms being too small, but otherwise, it's comfortable. Despite the hotel's central location, most of the 100 rooms are almost soundproof. And rooms offer all the facilities of a top-notch hotel, including high-speed internet connections and British newspapers delivered to your door with breakfast.
The bathroom
Lots of marble, and plenty of natural light, with windows overlooking the central garden-courtyard. The beauty products are expensive brands such as Bulgari and Carven. Some of the bathrooms have old-fashioned dressing tables.
The food and drink
This is one of the hotel's best features. Le Celadon restaurant (00 33 1 47 03 40 42), with its damask wall hangings and pale green Chinese porcelain (and decent-sized tables), has a well-deserved Michelin star and is a place to enjoy the meal of a lifetime. A three-course meal from the fabulously creative à la carte menu is unlikely to cost less than £100 per head, including wine, though there is also a superb set menu (called Plaisirs Gourmands) with an oriental aspect for about £45. At the weekend, the restaurant changes its style and its menu, transforming itself into Le Petit Celadon, which is more relaxed and slightly cheaper and simpler; a three-course menu of about £33 is offered, including wine and coffee. Service (in English and French) is flawless.
The people
The Dukes of Westminster, among others, have had a tradition of staying here since the end of the 19th century (the hotel had named itself the Westminster as long ago as 1831, during one of Paris's more Anglophile periods). Other celebrity guests have included footballer Eric Cantona, rock star Prince, and actor Jean-Claude Van Damme. More ordinary clientele include British merchant bankers and anybody who prefers discretion to publicity.
The area
You can smoke a cigar and browse an antique book in the Duke's Bar, while admiring its huge gothic fireplace, giant leather furniture and wallpaper resembling green baize. Or, if you don't like the idea of an English gentleman's club in Paris, go up to the Westminster Fitness Club, a workout centre under a glass-ceiling, with a view over the rooftops of the city.
The access
Pets and children welcome. Restricted access for wheelchair users.
The damage
Through Great Hotels of the World, small classic double rooms are currently available for about £100. Prices for suites cost up to about £600.
Call Great Hotels of the World on 0800 0324254;
The address
Hotel Westminster, 13 Rue de la Paix, 75002 Paris (00 33 1 42 615746;
Jeremy Atiyah

Sunday, March 6, 2005

Tilting at windmills in the land of the high plains drifter

Tilting at windmills in the land of the high plains drifter

The 400th anniversary of 'Don Quixote' is cause for celebration. Jeremy Atiyah tours La Mancha to see if the setting for Cervantes's classic is the best venue

Published: 06 March 2005

No wonder the tourist board of La Mancha sniffs an opportunity: this year is the 400th anniversary of the publication, by Miguel de Cervantes, of the first part of The Ingenious Hidalgo Don Quixote of La Mancha.

Few books have been so successful in raising the profile of an otherwise unknown land. The spindly figure of Don Quixote on his ageing hack, Rocinante, accompanied by the portly Sancho Panza on the back of a donkey, is an image that has penetrated the consciousness of the whole world. And the indelible backdrop to that image is the flat, dusty plain of La Mancha, distinguished only by its windmills.

Many of us, over the centuries, have laughed (or cried) at the absurdities engendered by Cervantes's plot-line. Others have gone further. Don Quixote, with his delusions of grandeur, has been seen as the embodiment of all human folly; his story has been described as an allegory, setting forth the eternal struggle between the ideal and the real; between the spirit of poetry and the spirit of prose. The Romantics went so far as to see Don Quixote as a tragic, heroic figure, a man of virtue who yet suffered the greatest defeat of all, public ridicule.

But all agree: Don Quixote's spirit is a triumph of fantasy over fact. And the latest campaign to lure tourists to dreary La Mancha is commendably in keeping with that spirit. Why, after all, did Cervantes choose it, over all the regions of Spain, to be Don Quixote's homeland?

One of the keynotes to the book is struck when the stolid, humourless Sancho informs his "knight" that he has only a donkey on which to ride. "About the donkey," we read, "Don Quixote hesitated a little, trying to call to mind any knight-errant taking with him an esquire mounted on donkey-back; but no instance occurred to his memory."

As it is with his squire's donkey, so it is with the chosen location for Don Quixote's planned heroics. To anyone who knows Spain well, the mere style and title of "Don Quixote of La Mancha" gives the key to the author's meaning. Quite simply, La Mancha is the last place in Spain that would evoke ideas of chivalry, adventure, glamour or romance. It is, in short, outstanding only for its dullness.

Consider the alternative locations where Cervantes might have placed his hero. The author himself had been born in the opulent and sophisticated city of Alcala de Henares, northeast of Madrid. He had spent his youth abroad, around the Mediterranean, fighting the Turks (this included a four-year spell as a prisoner in Algiers). During his later life in Spain, he lived in grand cities, including Seville and Valladolid.

Spain offered desolation in all directions. But it was never dreary. To the north sparkled Leon, Burgos and all the great cities of Castille's Golden Age. Around Madrid, the cities of Salamanca, Toledo, Aranjuez, Segovia were splendid in culture and relics of the past. To the west and south lay the melancholy but impressive solitudes of Estremadura and Andalucia. Any of these lands might have been ideal locations for a genuine romance.

But a satirical romance? Only La Mancha would do. It offered no redeeming feature whatsoever. It lacked any hint of nobility or dignity; it was an in-between land; a land that had once been - as it should have remained - a border region between the Christian heartland of Castilla, and the Moorish land of Andalucia (the Arabs had called it al-Manshah, "dry land" or "wilderness").

In Cervantes's day, the few towns and villages that broke its monotony were uncultured and populated by bumpkins. In short, La Mancha, as the knight's country and scene of his chivalries, was wholly consistent with the pasteboard helmet, the tired old hack, the squire on a donkey, and all the other incongruities between Don Quixote's imaginary world, and the world in which he actually lived.

The unfortunate - or fortunate - fact in the 21st century is that La Mancha remains almost exactly as Cervantes described it 400 years ago. It is a severe land, freezing cold in winter, broiling hot in summer. It is devoted to agriculture, inasmuch as unfavourable environmental conditions allow. Villages such as El Toboso (home of the knight's fair-maiden-cum-country-wench, Dulcinea) and Argamasilla de Alba (claimed as Don Quixote's own village), are prim, adequate little places, distinguished only through their supposed connection with Quixotic episodes.

Only a fortuitous drawing of Spain's political boundaries has succeeded in lending any glamour to La Mancha. In 1979, the Autonomous Community of Castilla-La Mancha was created, fusing the flat plains of La Mancha with the more exciting region to the north, centred on the stunning Unesco world-heritage cities of Toledo and Cuenca.

But if truth be told, neither of these is remotely characteristic of La Mancha. Far more characteristic are Albacete and Ciudad Real, the region's biggest cities, legendary throughout Spain for their tedium (though the latter at least boasts a Museum of Don Quixote, inaugurated in 2002, designed for children and scholars). As for rustic Valdepeñas, down the road, it offers bodegas and wine-tasting. Its wines are best known for being regrettable.

None of this is to say that La Mancha has given up hope. Don Quixote is galloping to the rescue, lance at the ready! Over these plains, for the benefit of tourists, the regional authorities have been busy developing the so-called Don Quixote Route, an ambitious tangle of criss-crossing routes and paths, 2,500 kilometres in length, connecting sundry towns from Toledo to Albacete.

They claim that their land has its own poetry. Its grass grows green for a month in spring (they boast), before scorching to a golden stubble. Tourist brochures describe its monotonous roads as lined with trees; they speak of a village, here and there, tanned by the sun, casting the silhouette of its belfry upon an azure sky; they speak of the occasional hermitage on some isolated crag, exalting in the meagre shade of a cypress; they mention a tower crumbling in the blood-red light of evening; or parched torrent beds like lizard tracks.
To appreciate all this, we are told, the Don Quixote Route is best journeyed on foot or by bicycle; or even on the back of an old, enfeebled horse. It all sounds so marvellously romantic.

It is a grand illusion, one suspects, of which Don Quixote himself would have been proud.


How to get there
British Airways (0870 850 9850; flies from Heathrow and Gatwick to Madrid from £69, from Manchester to Madrid from £96 and from Birmingham to Madrid from £99. Renfe, the Spanish National Railways, (00 34 902 24 02 02; offers regular train departures from Madrid to Toledo, Cuenca, Albacete and Ciudad Real taking one to two hours.

Where to stay
Hotel Abad, Real del Arrabal 1, Toledo (00 34 925 283500; is in a former blacksmith's shop dating from 1815. Many of the original features have been retained including the wooden ceilings, wall beams and brickwork. Doubles without breakfast start at €101 (£72).

Further information
The Spanish National Tourist Office (020-7486 8077;
Special events are taking place throughout the year to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Don Quixote, including exhibitions, opera, readings and food festivals. For more details, go to


Cervantes's Madrid
The 400th anniversary of Don Quixote has put La Mancha on the map, and Cervantes's Madrid connections are also there to be explored. The Plaza Mayor is the meeting point for one of the city's tourist office's regular guided walks "Cervantes and his era". Tours cost €3.10 (£2.20) for adults and €2.50 for children. Alternatively, Carpetaniamadrid, a group of professional historians, offers fascinating literary-themed walks (€7 for adults and €5 for students).

Further information: Madrid Tourism (00 34 914 294951;; Carpetaniamadrid (00 34 915 314018;

The Barcelona of 'Shadow of the Wind'
Carlos Ruiz Zafon's bestseller drips with period atmosphere, evoking the Barcelona's post-civil war streets The Ramblas puts in frequent appearances, as do various hidden-away calles that are little changed to this day. Els Quatre Gats, a neo-Gothic restaurant that plays a key role in the story, still exists. The book reaches its climax in the sea air at Barceloneta. Meanwhile, the city has organised a programme of events to celebrate Barcelona 2005 Books and Reading Year.

Further information: Barcelona Tourism (00 34 932 853834;; Els Quatre Gats (00 34 933024 140;; Barcelona Books and Reading Year (00 34 933161 000; www.anyllibre

From top to bottom with Laurie Lee
As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning is Laurie Lee's account of the journey he made as a young man through pre-civil war Spain. "I had a knapsack, blanket, a spare shirt and a fiddle, and enough words to ask for a glass of water," he writes. His journey started in Vigo in Galicia and ending in Almuñecar on the Mediterranean coast, via Valladolid, Segovia, Madrid, Toledo, Cordoba, Seville, Cadiz and Malaga.
Further information: Galicia Tourism (00 34 981 542500;, Andalucia Tourism (00 34 901 200020;

Papa's Parador
No foreign writer had Spain in his blood quite like Ernest Hemingway, with his hymn to bull-fighting that is Death in the Afternoon. If such a spectacle is not to your taste, head for the Parador de Ronda in southern Andalucia. It overlooks El Tajo, the dramatic 120-metre gorge said to have inspired the cliff scene in For Whom the Bell Tolls.

Further information: Parador de Ronda, Plaza de Espana (00 34 952 877500) has doubles without breakfast from €144; Ronda Tourism (00 34 952 187 119;

Robert Graves's Mallorca
The village of Deia, which was home for most of the poet's adult life, is a delightful cluster of honey-coloured buildings perched on a northern hillside above the sea. It's been a favourite haunt of artists and painters for centuries. The elegant La Residencia hotel offers wonderful views, while nearby Valldemossa is famous for its deserted Carthusian Monastery, La Cartuja. It is where Frederic Chopin and George Sand spent the winter of 1838-1839, chronicled in Sand's 1855 Un Hiver Majorque (A winter in Mallorca).
Further information: Hotel La Residencia, Son Canals, Deia (00 34 971 639011; has doubles with breakfast from €252; Mallorca Tourist Office (00 34 971 712216;

Thrill of Seville
Seville's atmospheric Moorish streets and the stunning Giralda form the backdrop for Arturo Perez-Reverte's 1999 thriller The Seville Communion. The story, involving the papal emissary and investigator Father Lorenzo Quart, is played out in the bars, grand residences and churches that dot the city.
Further information: Seville Tourism (00 34 954 221404;