Courtney Whitaker explores the complex history of Hotel Lutetia in Paris
Century-old cherubs dance across the ceiling as I sip my Jardin de Provence.
It is a medley of whisky, lemon, Lillet blanc, Chartreuse and herbs, and the flavours evoke feelings of a summer garden in the South of France. Except I'm actually in the Hotel Lutetia's Bar Josephine, and I am sitting below an intricately frescoed ceiling canopy of gardens, grapevines, laden fruit trees, and animals. And I'm not in the South of France, I am on the Rive Gauche in Paris.
The frescoes, by artist Adrien Karbowsky, date back to 1910 and were uncovered during a recent restoration of the hotel. It took a backbreaking 17,000 hours of work to free them from seven layers of paint. As light streams through the bar's floor-length windows, the details in the paintings become clearer, and so does the story they tell. Words are visible among the grapevines: "Ceres" (the Latin goddess of agriculture), and "La Moisson" (harvest), among others.
The complex history of the grand hotel Lutetia is another story altogether.
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The entrepreneurial Parisian couple Marguerite Boucicaut and her husband Jacques-Aristide transformed Le Bon Marche into one of the first luxury department stores in Paris. "The Good Market" - now owned by the LVMH group - remains one of the prime high-end shopping spots in Paris today, and houses some of the world's finest marques.
Marguerite then asked her husband to build a luxury hotel nearby for friends and suppliers. But sadly, the Boucicauts never lived to see the grandeur of the Hotel Lutetia come to fruition. Eventually completed in 1910 by the family's heirs and investors, this imposing structure has seen more than its fair share of transformations.
In 2014, the building underwent a mammoth three-year, approximately €200 million ($350 million) renovation; 233 smaller rooms were transformed into a 184 larger rooms and suites, the sandblasted exterior was restored, and a roof was removed from an interior salon to create an open-air courtyard (exposing the building's original, subway-tiled inner walls).
"Lutetia" was the name Julius Caesar bestowed upon the Roman city we now call Paris, so it seems a fitting title for such a grand hotel. Much fanfare surrounded the Lutetia's unveiling in the early 1900s and its Art Nouveau exterior, which was beautifully decorated with vines and clusters by sculptors Leon Binet and Paul Belmondo. As the only grand hotel on the Rive Gauche at the time, it quickly became a stomping ground for those from the arts and science worlds; an upmarket but discreet place for great minds to meet.
Sadly, the Lutetia's heyday was punctuated by WWI and later, WWII. Like many hotels in Paris, it was requisitioned by German forces and used to house troops and officers; it even became a counter-intelligence headquarters for the German army. The story goes that, when word of the impending German occupation reached the ears of hotel workers, a quick-thinking staff member secreted much of the hotel's precious fine wine collection in a tunnel behind a wall, which would, thankfully, never be found by the Germans.
When World War II ended, the Germans left the hotel as swiftly as they'd arrived and - at the orders of General Charles de Gaulle - the Lutetia would once again become a place for good. It welcomed up to 2000 displaced war refugees each day, and became not only a hotel, but a place of refuge where loved ones were reunited.
Over the years, the revived Lutetia would play host to many famous names: James Joyce wrote Ulysees here, Matisse and Picasso were both in residence, as was Josephine Baker, and the Taittinger family (of Champagne fame), who owned the hotel for a time. De Gaulle even honeymooned there. Gerard Depardieu, Catherine Deneuve, and the late Pierre Berge of Yves Saint Laurent were all guests of the hotel.
When we check into the newly renovated Lutetia it is all soaring marble columns and floors, with its original revolving door restored and intact, another beautifully frescoed reception ceiling, and an imposing Art Deco chandelier. A sleek, wood-panelled hallway leads us to our luxurious junior balcony suite. The history of the building is palpable as we wander the hotel's corridors and I wonder who might have wandered these same floors decades before me.
A navy-and-white colour palette with touches of marble and brass compliment the Art Deco detailing and gorgeous parquet floors in our massive suite. Not a detail has been missed in this immaculately designed space, and it is a perfect marriage of historical restoration and luxe modernity.
French doors open to a small balcony, where we can enjoy the comings and goings of the ultra-chic Boulevard Raspail and watch locals basking in the warm Parisian sunshine in the aptly named Square Boucicaut, flanked by Le Bon Marche.
The Sevres-Babylone Metro station is just across the boulevard, and from our suite we can occasionally feel the soft rumble of trains more than five floors beneath us; a reminder we are in one of the largest, most cosmopolitan cities in the world. The chic Saint-Germain-de-Pres area is just outside doors of the hotel; the Sorbonne is also nearby, as are the Musee Rodin and Luxembourg Gardens, making the Left Bank a truly different experience to the other side of the river.
Along with Bar Josephine, two ground-floor restaurants complete the hotel's dining offerings - the Brasserie Lutetia, helmed by three-Michelin-starred Gerald Passedat and a Le Saint Germain Restaurant, offering a bespoke dining experience under chef Benjamin Brial. There is no shortage of relaxing spaces to enjoy on this level, including the inner terrasse and a cosy library, while the basement level, which was dug in below the building during the renovations, houses a spa, a heated swimming pool, and a gym.
The Lutetia's emblem is proudly emblazoned in marble and mosaic on the floor of the reception area. It depicts the ship that is on Paris' coat of arms, with the Latin words "Fluctuat nec mergitur": She is tossed by the waves but does not sink. The city's motto became well-recognised as a symbol of resilience following the Paris terror attacks in 2015.
This ship also works beautifully as an emblem for the Hotel Lutetia; she has gracefully weathered the test of time and has lived to tell the tale.