There are few monuments in Paris with which I have such an emotional relationship as with the Samaritaine, this old department store on the Pont Neuf. It was the time before low-cost airlines, when I still traveled from Germany to Paris on long night bus rides, in love with the city and with a man. Our meeting place was always the small, round roof terrace of the department store, an absolute insider tip that few knew about. Just seeing the opulent mosaics, wrought ironwork and sublime Art Nouveau frescoes with the peacock wheel under the glass dome made my heart beat faster, the beat increasing with every step up the narrow spiral steel stairs. The higher one climbed, the louder the ventilation and heating systems roared like on a luxury steamer. At the top, I felt like I was on the observation deck of an ocean liner, with the sea of Parisian buildings below me: the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame, or the Concièrgerie within reach. It was my Titanic feeling of impossible love, long before the movie was released.
I was entranced by an even more hidden room of dusty 3-D showcases, where miniatures of 19th-century city scenes were recreated in deep perspective detail: To admire them, you had to get down, a child's-eye-level attraction that La Samaritaine's founders, the Cognacq-Jay couple, had in store for its youngest visitors. I wonder if these charming gimmicks anno 1870 have survived the renovation?
The Samaritaine was closed for 16 years, and for its new owner, the luxury group LVMH, the renovation became an unintentionally pharaonic project. Lawsuits under historic preservation laws and citizens' initiatives, who wanted to preserve their beloved La Samaritaine in its old form, repeatedly interrupted construction work.
The "Cheval Blanc" hotel, the fifth hotel under the aegis of the world's largest luxury empire, will move into the complex, which covers several blocks. Anyone who has had the divine pleasure, as I did at the Cheval Blanc Randheli in the Maldives, knows that the standards set here are in a different league, in a class above First. With only 72 rooms and suites, designed by New York star designer Peter Marino, including a Dior spa, it will probably be the new spearhead of the city, which is truly not lacking in luxury hostels - the night from 1500 euros upwards.
It's no understatement to say that a new temple of French national pride is opening here, as most of Paris' big luxury hotels have long been in Arab hands. I can't wait to discover how old and new come together here now. And whether I'll find my old favorite corners again.