When you’re choosing a hotel in Paris, there are a lot of choices. You can stay in the toney First Arrondissement, near the Louvre, or the bustling Montparnasse district, with its restaurants and cafés. You can find a place in the quaint but touristy Latin Quarter. Or you can spend a night in the 18th century, as I did at the Hotel Caron de Beaumarchais.
Paris has a lot of history, and a lot of hotels. But there are few places that bring local history to life like the Caron de Beaumarchais. It first caught my eye on intoHistory, a website that specializes in historic buildings that now operate as hotels: “a typical atmosphere of Parisian residences of the 18th century,” it said. I had to see for myself.
So arriving in Paris on my recent European trip, I strolled down the Rue Rivoli in the Marais district and stepped through the blue-painted doors – right into the 1700s. Antique furniture, old paintings, a vintage harp and a 1792 pianoforte filled the lobby, along with a period card table set for a four-handed game. “Lobby” is not quite the word, however: It was more like walking into someone’s front room.
I was given a warm welcome, and an offer of a coffee, which turned into a full-scale breakfast in the small basement dining room. Drinking my coffee and eating French pastries off china decorated with the hotel’s elegant trademark, I read up a little on its history.
The hotel is named after Pierre Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais, author of The Barber of Seville and The Marriage of Figaro, which Mozart turned into his famous opera. De Beaumarchais lived just down the street during a more-than-colourful career that included a stint as music teacher to Louis XV’s daughters, several public feuds, and a career as a spy and arms dealer to George Washington’s revolutionary army.
The street itself – called the rue Vieille du Temple – is one of the oldest in the district, and a bit infamous, too. This was the spot where the brother of King Charles VI was assassinated in 1407 after leaving the home of his mistress, who lived nearby.
The building that’s now the Hotel Caron de Beaumarchais is several centuries old, but it was rebuilt in the 18th century, preserving the foundation and wooden beams. They’re easily seen: I could see the original stone walls in the basement breakfast room, and the beams adorn the ceilings of the 19 small but cozy rooms.
Breakfast finished, I wanted to see the rest of the hotel. And luckily, the owner, Alain Bigeard, was on hand, and he was happy to show me around. The Caron de Beaumarchais is his creation, down to the last wall fixture, and everywhere there were little details that show the touch of his hand.
His aim, he said, was to create a place where visitors could feel the culture of France the way they couldn’t at a big chain hotel. And the 18th century, the time of Louis XV and de Beaumarchais, was a period that cast the mould for what we consider classic French culture.
It was also a time when women were asserting themselves in society, in fashion and in the arts. And the hotel, he said, was designed especially for women – “and for love”. Now I knew it was truly French.
If Bigeard wanted to create a hotel that was both historic and romantic, he succeeded. Every room, every hallway, every nook and cranny was filled with antiques and decorations pulled from the past. An antique writing desk, a light fixture, a period painting, drapes made from luxurious fabrics, faux silk on the walls instead of wallpaper. And in each room, a framed collage containing pages from an original edition of The Marriage of Figaro, along with old letters written in elegant script and a cameo of de Beaumarchais himself.
It’s obviously a labour of love, and Bigeard confessed he still haunts the antique markets of Paris looking for pieces that could add to his portrait of 18th-century Paris. And sometimes there are lucky finds: “They sold it to me as a reproduction,” he said, pointing out a portrait of Marie Antoinette. “It turned out to be an original.”
Historic touches are one thing, but a hotel room has to be comfortable too. And my room (not the one shown here) was as comfortable as I had hoped, with a good bed, a TV, some closet space — often lacking in old French buildings — and an attractive, modern bathroom decorated with painted tiles.
The neighbourhood was a bonus, as well. I spent a couple of days exploring the Marais, once a high-class part of Paris but today a hip district with a gay area, a Jewish quarter and lots of cafés that fill up at night with Parisians out to have a good time. Just down the street, young athletes played volleyball on a strip of sand in front of the venerable Hôtel de Ville, Paris’ city hall.
My stay at the Hotel Caron de Beaumarchais was brief – it’s not a cheap hotel, and that’s all my budget could afford. But it was a fascinating place, and a find for someone who’s interested in history or French culture, or both. To sit on an antique settee and look out the window at modern Paris buzzing by was like time travel. That’s an experience you won’t get at the Marriott.