16 Nov 2008: Philippe Starck chose the revitalised 20th arrondissement for his quirky new hotel. Can it change Amy Raphael’s idea of the capital?
An American friend of mine recently reminded me that when we first met, a good decade ago, I was very down on Paris. He remembers me clearly informing him before his first visit to the city that ‘it’s always raining and the streets smell of dog shit’. I am now deeply ashamed of such a banal statement. What was I thinking? Perhaps part of my youthful indignation arose from not wanting to appear a tourist in a city swarming with visitors. Or maybe I was grumpy after too many attempts to impress haughty Parisians with my A-level French. Whatever, I didn’t have particularly fond memories of the capital.
Until, that is, I went back last month. This time I stayed not on the Left Bank of the Seine but in the 20th arrondissement, east of the Marais and Bastille. The 20th is variously described as racially mixed, poor, rebellious, authentic and out of the way. With its cheaper rents and neighbourhood feel, it certainly attracts a cosmopolitan crowd of affluent young bourgeois-bohèmes known simply as ‘bobos’. The area is what guide books refer to as ‘up and coming’, which can be read either as challenging or exciting. It might even be comparable to New York’s Lower East Side 10 years ago: edgy but going upmarket, fast. And where better to stay than in a multistorey car park converted into a hotel?
Mama Shelter is Philippe Starck’s latest foray into hotel design and we know by now that he embraces quirkiness, be it tiny rooms without a view in the Paramount in New York or music playing underwater at the pool in the Delano in Miami. Here in his native Paris, he’s gone graffiti mad. There may be no ‘Mama Shelter’ sign outside the hotel (just a bored doorman dressed in black) but in the lobby, the restaurant, the lift and the bedrooms there’s writing everywhere. ‘Let’s trash the place!’ incites a slogan on the bar ceiling. ‘Can we hire a room by the hour?’ asserts another above reception. This hotel obviously wants to be très cool.
It is certainly brilliant value. Which is just what Serge Trigano, son of Club Med founder Gilbert Trigano, wanted to achieve when he discovered the car park back in 2001 – a place that was comfortable, affordable and ‘in the Paris known to locals’. Prices start at an impressively low €79 (even tacky hotels on the Left Bank aren’t this cheap) and each room not only has a fridge, microwave, excellent beds with top-quality linen, and Kiehl’s unguents to use in the vigorous shower but also an Apple iMac TV and free wi-fi. The fact that the carpet is black with white writing all over it fades into insignificance. And anyway, the idea is not to be locked away in one’s modestly sized room, but to hang out in the bar with its mix of the beautiful young alongside older business types.
Better still, get out and explore the neighbourhood. If you must go west to touristy Paris, Gambetta metro station is a 10-minute stroll away or the 76 bus that stops right outside the hotel takes only 15 minutes to the Marais. Otherwise wander around the area and see what you find. Right opposite the hotel is the celebrated electro-rock club La Flèche d’Or. The most obvious local attraction is, of course, Père-Lachaise cemetery, which is not all about tormented fans paying homage to Jim Morrison. There are countless other famous people buried here (Chopin, Colette, Piaf, Proust, Wilde) but there’s also a poignant memorial to the resistance fighters of the Second World War and the Communards’ Wall, where, in 1871, 147 combatants of the Paris Commune were shot and thrown into a trench.
Beyond the cemetery, in avenue du Père-Lachaise, there’s a little knot of shops that are testament to the transformation of the 20th. Zazoubara is a delightful shop selling unique pieces of jewellery, textiles, homeware and children’s clothes and toys. The owner tells me that just over a year ago: ‘This area was nothing’. And she points out Chez Betty, a small wine bar on the opposite corner that sells great wine and decent food for a good price. And a few doors down, there’s La Vie Claire, a tiny organic food shop crammed with fresh local produce and at least 20 types of honey.
There are restaurants very close to Mama Shelter (including the cosy, mid-priced Restaurant Paris in the cobbled rue St Blaise, less than a minute away, and any number of cheap couscous places) but it’s surely worth taking a 20-minute walk or a short taxi ride to the 11th arrondissement to marvel at rue Paul Bert. This was, after all, voted by Le Fooding guide as the best food street in Paris. This unassuming thoroughfare boasts Le Bistrot Paul Bert, with its first-class bistro fare and excellent wine list and, next door, the seafood heaven that is L’Ecailler du Bistrot. Opposite is Le Temps au Temps which not so long ago, a friend who lives nearby informs me, had lace curtains at the window. Now its interior is pleasing wood, the tables number just seven or eight and the food is incredible. I had a small bowl of chestnut soup so rich yet so delicate that I can still taste it now.
If you do decide to walk from the hotel to rue Paul Bert, you will find several fantastic book shops on your way (down rue de Bagnolet and onto rue de Charonne). Mama Shelter offers a perfectly good breakfast, but the fridge and kitchenette mean you can keep your budget right down. On the corner of rue de Bagnolet and rue des Pyrénées, a hop and a skip from Mama Shelter, there’s Au Pain Doré, an artisan boulangerie-patisserie. Or, a few minutes up rue des Pyrénées, on the way to Gambetta metro station, you’ll find the upmarket supermarket Franprix. Almost opposite is Naturalia, an organic health food shop with a good selection of fresh fruit and food to go.
In these economically uncertain times, Mama Shelter is about the cheapest way to have a few days in Paris without worrying about all those hidden costs. And, I have to confess, the sun shone most of the time I was there. In fact, the only time it rained was when I spent a few hours on the Left Bank, reminding myself of what the Eiffel Tower looked like in the mist.
• 00 33 1 43 48 48 48; mamashelter.com. Doubles from €79
How to get to Paris for £59
Paris still prides itself on its budget hotels. Plan carefully, and you can ensure that getting there doesn’t break the bank either.
In essence, Eurostar operates like a no-frills airline; the earlier you book, the less you should have to pay. The cheapest fare to Paris or Brussels is £29.50 one way (£59 return) and is released 120 days before travel. If you want to travel on Friday or Sunday, Eurostar’s busiest days, you should book these as far ahead as possible. These dates sell out fast, and Eurostar prices rise with demand although it has a commendably easy-to-use search engine, which will tell you which trains are still offering the cheapest fares.
However, like budget airlines, these fares are non-exchangeable and non-refundable. Fully flexible returns cost £309. Somewhere in the middle are Eurostar’s semi-flexible tickets. They cost £229, and you can change dates for £22 each. Those aged under 26 get a discount. Fares start at £49 return while under-12s can get flexible return fares for between £50 and £60.