Each of my favourite hotels tells a unique story and invites you to be a character in it. Checking in is a ‘choose your adventure’ tale – at the Savoy in London I imagine I have an assignation with Bosie while Oscar is out of town, at the Algonquin in New York I’m savouring the first martini of lunch while I wait for Dorothy Parker and pals to join me at the infamous Round Table. The Hôtel Monte Cristo in Paris conjures the grandly mischievous spirit of Alexander Dumas and his epic adventure story – for a weekend you too can frolic in the 19th century (with all the benefits of 21st-century finesse and fewer worries about the plague).
Your adventure begins as soon as you saunter into the neighbourhood. The hotel is on a mercifully quiet street in the fifth arrondissement, the still-very-much-beating-heart of Le Quartier Latin and infinitely preferable to opt into the buzz than try to sleep off a hangover in the midst of it. One of the city’s oldest areas, it would still feel familiar to Dumas and his contemporary, Victor Hugo. Neighbourhood highlights include Café Lea on the corner if you want to revisit your student days and read Sartre ostentatiously over a beer; nearby Café Saint Menard for bistro staples and casual art-deco cool or take a seat outside Poissonnerie Saint-Medard and enjoy six oysters and a glass of Chardonnay for €9.50.
The quartier’s mostly cobbled streets run from this stronghold of the Sorbonne right to the Seine where it’s louche, literary spirit is personified in the world’s finest bookshop: Shakespeare and Company. This favoured haunt of famous writers – from Baldwin to Burroughs; Nin to Dumas – faces Notre Dame. The shop invited me to give a reading from my new book and I arrived the morning after the great fire. Smoke hung in the air along with sweet spring lilacs. Fellow writer Adam Biles and I began the night with a recitation of Hugo who made the cathedral the star of his Hunchback of Notre Dame. The Count of Monte Cristo is one of Shakespeare and Co’s evergreen titles – not bad for a novel published in 1844.
A thoughtful 19th-century chinoiserie aesthetic with well-chosen antiques stops this relatively new retreat feeling box-fresh. As you walk in you’re greeted by a wall of stuffed birds, each staring beadily from an ebony-black perch. They’re fantastically colourful and somehow even more exotic described with their French names. The ibis rouge is a leggy scarlet lady, the touraco de livingstone is a jealous green courtier and the egret blanche is a pious nun stooped in prayer.
Dumas stands behind reception (in oil painting form; happily they drew the line at making a concierge don a wig and breeches – you can take a theme too far). He, the grandson of an aristocrat and a Haitian slave who became a general of Napoleon’s empire as well as a celebrated scribe. Like Byron, Dumas embodied the true spirit of the Romantic era in his work and life. Says the hotel brochure: ‘the recklessness, the fertility and unreasonableness of this man were phenomenal…his ideas, his passions, his journeys.’
On the desk, a handsome leather-bound volume of Le Comte de Monte-Cristo leans against an antique pharmacy urn marked ‘opiate’. Drugs feature heavily in the novel’s Byzantine plot, where a man is wrongly imprisoned before escaping and making a fortune in the Orient then returning to take his revenge. We can imagine Dumas took his research seriously (as all writers should).
The hotel has the feel of several townhouses smooshed together; each room named for a character from the novel (a book so long they could open a chain). We were in Mercedes, one of several love interests. Mr Smith and I had booked a Boudoir room but, due to a mix-up, were immediately upgraded to a junior suite. More such mix-ups, please.
The boudoir was shower-only though it looked big enough for two. The junior suite has a bath you can fit three in. Dumas would approve. Exotic plants – rubber and fig – sprout from heavy chinoiserie pots throughout the hotel lending it all a leafy feel, and the rooms are equally lush with greenery.
From our window we could see the top of the dome of the pantheon, the great tomb where France inters its greatest writers. In 2002 Dumas’ ashes were placed here – transferred in a coffin covered with a blue velvet cloak embroidered with ‘One for all, all for one’, the motto of his three other famous creations. Here he rests alongside Voltaire, Rousseau, Hugo and others. It’s a five minute walk from the hotel and the crypt is a cool oasis of contemplative calm in a city short on quiet. I like to imagine them all arguing over their works for all eternity.
All the hotel furniture is fringed or velvet or both encouraging constant lounging. An in-room espresso machine, discreet flatscreen and air-conditioning that actually works are welcome modern comforts. The cosmetics are all amber-coloured and spicy, almost smoky and spa quality. For a small hotel it has a surprisingly long lap pool in the basement with a sauna overlooking it – ideal for recovering from Parisian excess.
Continental breakfast – the usual suspects but all fresh and good – is served in the bar until 10.30am or you can order it to your room. When it’s not serving breakfast the 1802 bar is awash in rum. Or, more precisely, ‘rhum’ from exotic locales including Haiti, Martinique and Guadeloupe. Classics are served with substituted with said spirit and they work very well – the negroni with Mount Gay black was a moody triumph. Sipping rhum among palms in the seductive half-light you might almost be in another place and time. A time when clinking glasses with Dumas himself would not be out of the question…
This review was first published in 2019 so some hotel details may have changed. All pictures shot on a separate visit by Louis AW Sheridan
Damian Barr is a writer and salonnier. His award-winning memoir Maggie & Me and acclaimed debut novel You Will Be Safe Here are published by Bloomsbury and out now. You’ll also find him hosting Shelf Isolation on BBC Scotland and his own (wonderful) literary salon at the Savoy where guests have included Maggie O’Farrell, Diana Athill, Okechukwu Nzelu, John Waters and more.