The question I'm most often asked

The question I'm most often asked about travel is this: Can you recommend a charming small hotel in Paris? I don't get asked for the name of a "charming small" hotel in London, New York or Shanghai.

Where charming hotels are concerned (and you might say "romantic" as well) Paris has the market cornered.

I was in Paris a few weeks ago doing my favourite Paris thing, wandering aimlessly around the Left Bank (a wonderful way of getting the subconscious to tick over) and I must have come across dozens of small hotels tucked away on narrow streets, many of which I had no idea existed, despite this being my old stomping ground.

The Left Bank still contains a network of old streets, dating from mediaeval times, before Georges-Eugene Haussmann created the boulevards in the 19th century.

Some hotels have been inns for centuries and modern decoration can't quite obscure the ancient character of the buildings. Like old wine cellars, they sometimes emit a certain mustiness - but this is what we call "charm".

For a hotel to have charm, we need an emotional attraction to it, whether it's nostalgia for another era or an appealing aesthetic that suggests cosiness, such as shabby chic furnishings and stone fireplaces. Charm suggests the hotel has warmth and personality, in the decor and through the hospitality of the management.

Charm can be found in such idiosyncrasies as a deathlessly slow elevator, clumsy hand-held shower attachment, closet-sized bedrooms and strange, hard pillow rolls. Imperfections sometimes make for better memories.

This last time in Paris, I stayed at the Hotel Le Senat on rue Vaugirard - yes, you could call it a charming hotel, brilliantly located at the gate of the Luxembourg Gardens, a few minutes away from St Germain. Vaugirard is the longest street in Paris and in the streets winding off it, I noticed dozens of hotels I hadn't known existed. Peering through the windows, many looked appealing, with rustic beams across the ceiling, exposed stone walls and welcoming front parlours.

Many years ago, I investigated a number of small Left Bank hotels, turning up unannounced and asking to see rooms. Good hotels will do this happily for you if they have the time. I can't recall them all, but one hotel stood out, the Hotel de Nesle, on the rue de Nesle.


It was one of the wackiest hotels I've ever visited, with each room individually hand-painted with murals themed around Ancient Egypt, Africa, Arabia and French art and literature. There was a bucolic garden on the roof and the breakfast room was hung with bunches of dried flowers. What stood out most was that Madame, who ran the hotel, accepted guests only if she liked the look of them.

It was incredibly cheap. You had to have a sense of adventure to stay there (and not be too fussy about the plumbing). Checking TripAdvisor, I see it still exists, although you can make reservations and I'm not sure if Madame is as picky about her guests or if it has had an update.

If you've stayed there recently, do let me know.

Often the most charming thing about charming hotels is that they're cheap. I have a friend who always stays at the Hotel Saint Andre des Arts, on the street of the same name near St Germain des Pres and the Buci street market. It is one of the less expensive hotels in town, so my friend is going to be cross that I've let the secret out.

My three favourite romantic hotels in the pricier bracket but worth a splurge, are the sexy L'Hotel on rue des Beaux Arts, where Oscar Wilde lived and died (the bar was once his bedroom); Pavillon de La Reine, on the Place des Vosges in the Marais, which was once the residence of a Queen; and the Hotel Daniel near the Champs-Elysees, which has beautiful garrets where a 19th-century novelist would feel at home. You do run the risk of a Fawlty Towers approach to hospitality but in my experience the vast majority of small hotels offer friendly, personal service, especially if they're family-run.

Paris doesn't have the monopoly on this but when it comes to hotels du charme, it has more of them than anywhere else on earth.

The writer stayed at Hotel Le Senat courtesy of Creative Holidays.