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THE NEW WAVE OF: Small Paris Hotels : Fluffy towels, friendly staffs and larger rooms are some of the amenities in a recent crop of romantic, well-priced lodgings

September 19, 1993|CHRISTOPHER REYNOLDS | TIMES TRAVEL WRITER

PARIS — You can't argue with the Eiffel Tower, the Seine and the Louvre. For generations, they and the history that surrounds them have lured travelers by the millions,even if the journey meant braving summer hordes and then sleeping in a small hotel that was unclean, or unspacious, or unfriendly, or unaffordable, or some combination of those.

Now an American in Paris doesn't have to face those compromises. After six days of traipsing from hotel to hotel a few weeks ago, I can report the emergence of a new crop of romantic, smallish and reasonably priced Parisian lodgings. In a city where a cup of coffee in a sidewalk cafe can easily run $5, a clean room for two with private bath in a convenient neighborhood can commonly be had these days for less than $140 nightly, and often less than $100.

That's substantially less than in recent years. Those numbers would put Parisian lodging prices on a par with those in Manhattan--except that in Manhattan, taxes add another 20% or so to the bill. In Paris, taxes are already included in the room rates.

The second inducement in Paris at the moment is the season: Fall will arrive in a few days, bringing the city's annual summer tour-bus gridlock to a close, summoning merchants and restaurateurs back to duty and generally delivering Paris into the hands of Parisians--and smart travelers.

There are simple market forces behind the Parisian hotel upgrading effort: Recession-hardened travelers, whether from across the English Channel or across the Atlantic, will walk away if they don't find value for their money. There's also a direct challenge by the French state at work here: The government agency that grades hotels (one to four stars are awarded, depending on an establishment's physical amenities) raised its standards two years ago.

And so the rooms and closets are growing. Elevators are gaining ground, even in ancient buildings. Even in budget lodgings, most new rooms include bathrooms, thus eliminating the frugal traveler's long-lamented stroll down the hall for relief. Thick bath towels seem to have replaced thin (though the toilet paper may still remind Americans of paper towels, and shower curtains remain a rarity). Built-in blow-dryers are coming into wide use, as are double-paned windows to reduce street noise. Even in the most resolutely old-fashioned places--the tattered yet fetching Esmeralda on the Left Bank, for example--a fax machine can be found somewhere in back, humming amid the antiques and lace runners.

One particularly pleasing discovery was the recently expanded Libertel chain. Most of the 17 properties throughout Paris were bought up from independent owners in the last three years and renovated to be clean and bright, yet decorated to retain individual personality (I saw two of them). The hotels range from 25 to 70 rooms each, and carry two or three stars under the French government system. The prices: roughly $75-$135 nightly, depending on the location. (In the July and August just past, Libertel offered rooms throughout the chain for a remarkable $89-$99 nightly; there's no word on whether that discount will be repeated next summer.)

A few more bits of happy, though less quantifiable, news: In most of my wanderings, attentive and multilingual service prevailed. And in most establishments, virtually no French was necessary. As long as a traveler is suitably humble, even less-than-fluent employees are likely to volunteer their English.

"I am a good dog," one beaming desk woman assured me when I briefly left luggage with her. Watchdog , I thought. But I was so grateful, I didn't dare correct her.

*

The methods of my survey were not scientific. Sticking to the newly opened and the recently renovated, I looked through about two dozen places. (A handful of recommended veteran small hotels can be found on Page L13.) I didn't get to every address I wanted to--there are some 12,000 hotel rooms in Paris--but in each of the hotels listed below, I walked through rooms and talked with staff members. In every case, I tested the staff attitude before I disclosed my mission.

Generally, I stuck to the most tourist-friendly arrondissements , as the 20 districts of the city are known. To get a sense of where a hotel is, take the last two digits of its postal code and match them up with the numbers on the arrondissement map included here.

If you go looking for stratospheric prices and rude service, of course you will find them. I wasn't particularly looking, but nevertheless found the unyielding woman at the Hotel L'Angleterre on the Left Bank who wouldn't show me a room. I found also the sour man at the Atlantis Saint-Germain des Pres, who, well, threw me out. But they were exceptions.

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