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€6m for Proust’s favourite hotel

As France introduces its first five-star hotels we look at one establishment aiming for the top

THE GRAND Hotel Cabourg, Calvados was opened with great ceremony on July 7, 1907, and immediately attracted its most famous guest, the writer Marcel Proust.

After reading in the July 10 issue of Le Figaro of the hotel’s state-of-the-art electricity and central heating, Proust, a chronic asthma sufferer, abandoned his usual summer hotel in Deauville, with its smelly gas lighting and smoky log fires, in search of cleaner air.

Accor, the present owners, is creating a group of “remarkable hotels” with a new label, MGallery. This is one of them: remarkable for its situation, looking directly onto the sands and the sea (unlike Deauville where the view is a long way off), for its unique, listed architecture, and for its historic and literary associations.

At present the hotel is rated four-star deluxe, which was France’s top designation until a change in the law introduced the possibility of five stars.

The manager, Gérard Sagnes, welcomes the change: “The French tourist industry needed this. The previous “four-star deluxe” category was far too confusing for foreign tourists used to the five star system.” He hopes to carry off a five-star rating once a six million euro renovation scheme is finished.

Marcel Proust spent seven summers here, between 1907 and 1914, penning major parts of A la Recherche du Temps Perdu (In Search of Lost Time).

The second and most romantic section of the novel, A l'Ombre des Jeunes Filles en Fleur (In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower) is set right here in the hotel.

If you have never read it, there is no better place to dip into it. Step inside the hotel, with its massive pillars and the old reception desk where Marcel’s grandmother bargained for a good price, look out on to the esplanade where he observed in detail young girls passing by. You are in “Balbec,” as Proust renamed the town. And if you do not have a volume handy, there are plenty of quotations posted around the town.

Just over a 100 years on, the hotel is being totally renovated, one floor at a time. In the bedrooms, chintzy floral designs have ceded to thoroughly modern black and white Japanese furnishings.

The glass-fronted dining room, nicknamed “the Aquarium” by Proust, now looks as he knew it again. Returned to its former size, with fresh pastel blue and white walls and stucco hand-painted by professional artists, the result is both bright and spacious.

“We know mostly from postcards of the time what the dining room looked like,” said Mayor of Cabourg and Proust specialist, Jean-Paul Henriet. “The archives were all lost when the Germans took over the hotel as their HQ.”

Mr Sagnes is enthusiastic about the renovation. “I have four children, aged 12 to 20. When we moved here two years ago, I thought they'd find the place old-fashioned. Not at all, they simply love it. And young couples are flocking here. Of course, we needed to change some features, make bathroom taps modern while keeping the basins, for example. We are adapting a turn of the twentieth century setting to the tastes of turn of the twenty-first century customers.”

On the top floor, however, you can still stay in a “Marcel Proust bedroom,” a reconstruction of a room a 100 years ago: brass bed and plum-coloured furnishings, and the waves reflected in a glass-fronted bookcase.

People come today for the total peace, for the calm of the sea stretching away into the distance. The sands are ideal for walking, for beach surfing, sunbathing or simply gazing. That is just what Proust did on his first morning - he looked out and fell in love with those rolling waves.

Proust’s health improved in Cabourg. He slept all day and wrote at night. In the evening, said Dr Henriet, he would come down and eat a light supper, usually a sole and a cup of café au lait. Very often, he made his way down the long corridor to the adjoining casino for part of the night (the corridor has long since been closed).

The casino, completed in 1909, and for years a theatre, is celebrating its own two hundredth anniversary with fireworks this August. It too has had its moments of glory. The corridors of the hotel are lined with autographed photos of international artists. The entrance to the casino is through the backstage of the former theatre.

As you walk in, you look straight up at the red velvet balconies and the extravagant stucco figures and can imagine for a moment what Edith Piaf, Charles Aznavour or Gilbert Bécaud felt as they walked onstage. The foyer has been converted into a restaurant and bar looking both ways, out on to the sands and through to the gaming tables.

Cabourg is a haven of peace, but there is plenty to do. Traditionally associated with horses, it has trotting races, including nighttime fixtures, well into the autumn. Early in the morning, you will catch sight of horses and riders exercising beside the water. After the spring horse show, the University Theatre Festival and the Romantic Film Festival in June, the summer months are packed with open-air concerts, art exhibitions and beach games.

Built as a new resort in the second half of the nineteenth century Cabourg is a unique Second Empire and Normandy revival town, packed with splendid mansions. It is so unique that Dr Henriet has recently applied for a conservation order on the entire area.

“The fan-shaped town centre, with the hotel at its hub, is an architectural unit and needs to be kept that way,” he said. “We have to protect everything in it, not just houses but gardens, sculpture, old trees, even walls” - and no doubt retaining the town as Proust knew it was part of his thinking as well.

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