Paris: There's a Small, Secret Hotel

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Like generations of visitors before them, two young Americans discover those plain and tiny lodgings that are the cherished highlight of a visit to the City of Light

A one-star hotel in Paris? When we tell friends this is where we stay, they visualize a combination youth hostel and flophouse. The truth is quite different. For years we've billeted ourselves at a small hotel on the Left Bank and found it perfectly satisfactory. Besides, who can complain about a decent room in Paris, breakfast included, for $55? Our petit h(tm)tel not only makes the city possible, but a lot more fun.

The bed is comfortable, the shower is hot. No TV, no phone, but who cares? We are only there long enough to sleep. French doors open onto a tiny balcony. If the carpet is a bit threadbare and the chenille drapes look suspiciously as if they were bedspreads in a former life, the fireplace with marble mantel makes up for it.

Some disadvantages: The hotel has five floors and the elevator holds only two people, though a sign states it can accommodate four, plus luggage.

"The only way it could hold four people is if they were doing something you could get arrested for!" commented one guest.

The hotel is run by the dour Monsieur Marc, aided by a lovely young woman called Patricia, who speaks fluent English. So does Monsieur Marc, but he prefers not to. With a staff of two, who double as clerks, cleaners, and wait staff, the hotel runs on their schedule, not ours. On our last visit, we arrived at 2 p.m., zonked from jet lag. Our room wasn't ready.

"Come back in a couple of hours," said Monsieur Marc. "But they are tired!" cried Patricia. "Everyone is tired I am tired," sighed Monsieur Marc with a Gallic shrug.

Another drawback is the regimented breakfast in a small room across the hall from the tiny office. Featuring dusty ferns on a sideboard and a never-opened upright piano, it seats 12 at a time. But Monsieur Marc tells you where to sit and when. A choice of coffee, tea, or chocolate is served on a tray with croissants, crusty bread, and exactly four pats of butter and jam.

And don't ask for anything extra. One day a young woman inno cently requested a carafe of water. "What country are you from?" asked Monsieur Marc, fixing her with an icy stare. "The United States," she quavered.

But the pluses are many. The greatest is location; minutes from the M?tro, the hotel is near the Sorbonne, the Latin Quarter, and narrow streets bursting with cafes, shops, and markets.

The breakfast room is a gathering place for guests of all ages, many of whom are Australian and Canadian. They share information on sights, itineraries, and experiences and swap books and maps. A sense of adventure pervades our one-star hotel in a way that would be impossible in more upscale establishments where maids, plush carpets, and room service insulate guests from cultural realities.

At our hotel, guests are excited to learn that yes, not only can they afford Paris, but they can also explore the city, try out their faltering French, and enjoy authentic adventures. To stay here is an experience that reinforces one's independence, resourc efulness, and spirit of discovery.

The hotel's name? Ah, that would be telling Try the more expensive two-star Hotel Troyon near the Arc de Triomphe. We want to be able to stay here again, after all.

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