An American in Paris… On New Years… During the Age of COVID!

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Paris: The sprawling metropolis may be the city of lights, but today it’s also the city of COVID. In fact, the entire country of France is embroiled in a debate over the future of COVID restrictions. Upon recently traveling to France for a personal matter, I soon discovered how so many of the draconian restrictions placed on the country have remained with us to the present.

This writing serves as a guide for a visit to Paris in the age of this never ending pandemic. The first word to the wise for those considering a visit to France or any part of Europe at this time: bring three times the amount of money you need in cash. For me personally, I usually carry three times the amount I need to begin with. So let’s just say, prepare to spend six times the amount of money you plan to. Why, you might ask? I found out in a most unfortunate way— I caught the virus.

The easiest part was recovering. The most frustrating element of catching COVID in Europe is undoubtably the amount of money you’ll spend on hotels isolating, and moreover, the impossible boredom that comes with it (no matter if you’ve recovered or not). But let’s focus on the positive— the happier facets of the trip. As someone who has visited France many times in the past, I’ve seen all quarters of the country.

Although especially charming in the spring, specifically April (as the song goes), Paris remains a delightful place throughout all seasons. The Christmas and New Year’s holidays dot the city with a dazzlingly beautiful display of lights and a charm seen only in Paris. Perhaps nowhere else is this truer than at Place Vendôme where visitors can dine at the Ritz in the footsteps of Ernest Hemingway and company. His mark was so indelible that one of the many bars located at the Ritz is named in his honor (Bar Hemingway). The fabled history of the Ritz begins with the extraordinary story of the “king of hoteliers, and hotelier to kings,” César Ritz. The youngest of 13 children, César was born in 1850 in the Swiss village of Niederwald to a family of poor peasants.

Showing an interest in hospitality at an early age, he apprenticed as a sommelier at a hotel in Brig at the age of 15. This didn’t last long and he was dismissed by his boss who declared, “You’ll never make anything of yourself in the hotel business. It takes a special knack, a special flair, and it’s only right that I tell you the truth – you haven’t got it.”

Young César ignored those words, moved to Paris, and worked at several restaurants and hotels throughout his teens. During this time, he met famous French chef Auguste Escoffier, who became his best friend and invaluable mentor. By the time the grand hotel opened in 1898, César Ritz was already known to the world’s most important people. In addition to the social and literary elites of Paris, including 27-year-old Marcel Proust, royalty and business tycoons flocked to the opening—and were not disappointed. It’s hard to imagine a hotel—much less a luxury hotel—without an en suite bathroom in each room, but the Ritz was the first.

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In addition to a bathtub, each room also had electricity and a telephone— completely unheard of at the time. Other inventions attributed to Ritz include the king-size bed, indirect lighting, wall-to-wall carpeting, and closet lights that turn on when the door is opened. The swankiest place in Paris naturally attracted royalty from the start. One story tells of the Duke of Windsor, Edward VIII getting stuck in the bathtub—with his lover—and had to be pried out by valets. Shortly after, all bathtubs were replaced with oversized ones. Another royal, the Marquise Luisa Casati of Milan, reportedly kept two cheetahs in her suite, along with a drugged python that she wore round her neck. Perhaps due to her lengthy stays at the Ritz, she died $25 million in debt.

Many of the most famous artists of the time practically made the Ritz their home. Cole Porter requested grand pianos at all hours of the day and night, and American gossip columnist Elsa Maxwell ordered dinner for 200 at two o’clock in the afternoon. Many other writers frequented the Ritz in addition to Ernest Hemingway, including Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald, Noël Coward, Proust, George Bernard Shaw, Somerset Maugham, and Graham Greene. Always bucking the norm, Oscar Wilde hated the modernity of the hotel, writing: “A harsh and ugly [electric] light, enough to ruin your eyes, and not a candle or a lamp for bedside reading.

And who wants an immovable washing basin in one’s room? I do not. Hide the thing. I prefer to ring for water when I need it.” When the Nazis occupied Paris, they requisitioned all the grand hotels, but French civilians living at the Ritz were allowed to stay, Coco Chanel among them. The infamous Hermann Göring slept in the Imperial Suite surrounded by gems and priceless artwork that had been confiscated from the Rothschilds and other Paris Jews. The staff continued to run the hotel, turning a blind eye to the fine wines and Champagnes being drunk by the Nazis, along with the likes of Fois Gras, at a time when food was in short supply.

As noted above, Ernest Hemingway was a fixture at the Ritz bar, so when the Americans marched in to liberate Paris, Hemingway took it upon himself to liberate the hotel from Nazi occupation—with only a jeep and a motley crew of military stragglers. His alcohol fueled commando stormed the hotel and accomplished their unofficial mission, then proceeded directly to his old hangout, the Petit Bar. In 1994, it was renamed Bar Hemingway in his honor. It has been said by Hemingway that, ”When in Paris, the only reason not to stay at the Ritz is if you can’t afford it.” For Ernest, Paris was the Ritz Hotel, and vice versa— and that proves true as well for many other celebrities over the years from Humphrey Bogart to Princess Diana.

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By the 1970s, the hotel was showing its age and was purchased for $30 million by Mohamed AlFayed. He restored the hotel over ten years, spending $250 million and the Ritz once again took its place as the grandest of the grand hotels. But for those who find the Ritz out of their budget, there are many other locations around town just as iconic to enjoy an evening of Christmas or New Year’s fun. The left bank has it famous cafés and restaurants, including one of my favorites, Le Petit Lutetia. On the Champs Élysées, one can also find nearby Georges V as well as the famous bar Le Fouquet’s, both highly sought after and appealing locales.

But, of course, not everything in Paris can be said to cater only to the wealthy. Beefbar Paris, Brasserie Julien, Jules Verne and Ciel de Paris all offer a unique Parisian experience in terms of the architecture, service and food— all at a wide range of prices from the very economical to the finest of dining. Although the COVID-19 pandemic upended the annual fireworks display this year in Paris, a New Years Eve trip down the Seine River nevertheless proved to be a delightful experience, even without the annual show.

Prices for such a trip range from an economical $150 per person to $1000 and above. Each boat usually comprises live entertainment, a DJ party afterward, all the major monuments of Paris, and of course, the finest of French cuisine. Our particular New Year’s cruise kicked off with an extra large bottle of champagne. The dinner service consisted of an apertif, duck liver, steak, vegetables (Amuse-Bouche, Foie Gras, Pave de Veau, Jus Truffe, Mikado de Legumes, Assiette de Fromages Affines) and a delicious chocolate dessert. The loveliness of Paris is addicting, but unfortunately beyond the grasp with anyone in the confines of quarantine.

Regardless of the amount of days spent in France, either in public spaces or in a private location for quarantine, all trips must come to an end. It is a departure that is often the most stressful and the most foreboding of any journey. But in COVID times, such a departure entails even more challenging hoops to run through. A negative COVID test is required two days before departure, and picking out the right test given language barriers can sometimes be difficult. The best resources are an airlines website and the French government health service. Be sure to check with the Centers for Disease Control about requirements for entry into the United States as well as rules may change.

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Throughout your entire journey in France, you’ll be asked for a French health pass (don’t worry, for US citizens, those fully vaccinated may simply carry their vaccination cards). Although a third vaccination shot may be required by many establishments seeking to maintain strict protocol, most can get by with two shots, even at high end destinations like the Ritz.

Aboard the plane on both ends of the journey most carriers continue to conduct food service and drink service. Mask wearing is strictly enforced for those not actively eating or drinking, although you’ll be safe with a glass of water or soda in your hand for most of the flight if a face covering bothers you. My carrier, Air France, offers the finest first class service and additionally provides an excellent economy class service as well.

Although first class obviously furnishes far greater amenities in the realm of comfort and sleep, travelers in coach will nevertheless still be delighted by the filling meal service and wide array of movies, television series and albums available on the inflight screen. Upon arrival in the United States be prepared to submit not only your COVID vaccination information but also a negative test to immigration and customs at the airport.

Traveling in the age of COVID may not seem to be the optimal situation, but with proper planning and the right amount of cash in a budget, a family vacation or personal getaway can be very doable. New Year’s Eve may be over and COVID might not be going away, but that won’t stop true Francophiles from jumping the pond to Paris. Are you one of them? If so, what better time to plan your visit than Valentine’s Day, February 14?

Be sure to refer to these links for more information about accommodations and experiences on your stay:

http://ritz-paris.parishotelsfr.com/en/

https://www.grandhoteldupalaisroyal.com/en/

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https://www.regina-hotel.com/en/

https://www.fourseasons.com/paris/

Bar Hemingway (Paris) – 2022 All You Need to Know BEFORE You Go (with Photos) – Tripadvisor

https://www.hotelsbarriere.com/en/paris/le-fouquets/restaurants-and-bars/fouquets.html

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