This review is taken from our guidebook, Mr & Mrs Smith Hotel Collection: France.
If, God forbid, it transpired that a raging bull, hellbent on vengeance, were to break out of a bullfight taking place in Nimes’ mighty arena, it would be here, at Jardins Secrets, that I’d come to seek refuge. Even if the runaway beast were to knock down the door, charge past the swimming pool and career into the salon, stamping his hooves, I’d be quite sure to escape without having to pole-vault out of the window. Try as he might to find his footing on the waxed floorboards, my pursuer would only succeed in skidding on a kilim, goring the hangings, sticking his horns through paintings and silk cushions, and getting in a rare tangle with the chandeliers.
The sheer weight of the collectibles gathered at Jardins Secrets would bow a crazed bull’s head more effectively than any number of jabs from a picador’s spear. The communal areas of this charming bourgeois villa reveal a veritable little 18th-century museum – a private one, of course.
It’s a storehouse of diversions and pleasures, a maze of objects offering a thousand and one places for lovers to disappear together. The ambience is cocoon-like and otherworldly; I’m not saying for a minute that any of the rooms is haunted, but I half-expect to see Marcel Proust thumbing through some Dante, or Henry James polishing his lorgnette on the curtains – even a dashing Barry Lyndon sitting legs akimbo, his jerkin still bloodied following some duel or other. There’s certainly a good deal of romance and history in the air.
Back to the beginning of our tale: Jardins Secrets is hidden, naturally enough, on a discreet city-centre street. A simple copper sign – the sort you’d never notice if you weren’t looking for it – announces the hotel entrance. You find it, you ring, the door opens and you enter a miniature garden of Eden, with banana plants, olive trees, deckchairs and a pool. In the heart of Nimes, it’s a wonderful surprise.
Annabelle Valentin and her husband Christophe perfected their ultra-chic antique-laden boutique hotel five years ago. I say ‘perfected’, but the work is never finished: last year they added a new wing to the original building, an old coaching inn where horse-drawn carriages used to stop, with great picture windows and thick walls. The operatically designed annexe, built in the style of an Andalusian cloister, with columns and capitals, gave them several extra bedrooms, putting the running total at 14. With names such as Grisailles, Suite de Madame, Suite de l’Orangerie, Lolita and Madone, all are different, though all are marked by the same penumbral elegance. Some are so suffused with their pre-revolutionarypast that I feel like striking a Marat-like pose in the bath.
The interiors are far from conventionally Mediterranean, rather opulent with brocade and leather armchairs and overstuffed sofas, which go down well with a largely Anglo-Saxon clientele. Jardins Secrets has a definite appeal not only for trysting lovers, but also for whisky drinkers, cricket men, Dickens readers, and anyone partial to a mantelpiece stacked with atlases and art books. We come and go, during our stay, between the bar, hung with handpainted scenes of Hindustan, the red salon, the music room and the lobby, dominated by a Holy Virgin. Other rooms lead on from these, and all lend themselves to relaxing, dozing or, during Feria, relating tales of the day’s thrills. In the morning, each group of guests occupies its own salon, where breakfast is served by waitresses in Proustian black dresses and white aprons. Canaries chirrup softly from within their architecturally impressive cages. And by night, when it’s candlelit, intimacy, secrecy and seduction seem second nature.
Whereas Annabelle continues to scour the region’s brocantes for antiques, orientalist paintings, Chinese porcelain, pretty tea services – all of which is displayed without seeming to gather a single grain of dust – Christophe is the green-fingered one, the head gardener. (His home-made jams, served at breakfast, are faintingly good, some containing rose or violet petals.) A globetrotting former photographer, he learned his trade in Africa, where he was director of a hotel group in Sierra Leone. Before having to flee from rebellion and civil war, he tells me, he found himself face to face with a green mamba, that legend among poisonous snakes, which he coolly dispatched. Aha, so an escaped bull would be a doddle. Knowing we’re in safe hands, I sit back in my armchair and stretch out my legs – my well-tended, expertly massaged, scented legs, fresh from the superb spa and hammam concealed beneath the cloisters.
In spite of my torpor, and our protected, charmed environment, I jump a little. Is that the sound of far-off thunder? I imagine the mistral wind rising and hurling itself at the ancient stone monuments of Roman Nimes, sheets of steely-grey rain descending... But the sky is cloudless, ideal, azure. Nope, it was nothing but a passing TGV, rumbling along metallically somewhere in the neighbourhood. In these mysterious secret gardens, even the alarming beasts aren’t always quite what you expect.
Anonymously reviewed by Philippe Trétiack (Serious scribe)
Whenever you book a stay at a Mr & Mrs Smith, we'll invite you to review it when you get back. Read what real-life guests had to say in Jardins Secrets's guestbook below.
It has a really lovely garden with a pool, which would be perfect in summer, and all the rooms are set around a pretty courtyard. The bedrooms and bathrooms are very stylishly fitted out and the staff were very helpful. Many of the lounge areas are set up as they would have been in the 18th century, which gives it a rather mysterious air.
This is a lovely hotel, but it is very quiet (only 14 rooms) and quite eccentric. Some of the lounge areas are quite dark and don't seem to be used. Breakfast also seemed quite expensive at 20 euro per person.
Hannah, BlackSmith stayed on 14 Oct 2013
The owners were two of the most welcoming people I have ever met and their garden is the most beautiful I have ever seen, particularly given it's urban location. The cats are gorgeous and I was lucky enough to share a sun lounger with Sweetie for the afternoon. As soon as I walked through the entrance into the garden I could feel every agitation slipping away; it is impossible not to relax. The breakfast was incredible, particularly the homemade rose jam, made by the fair hands of the owners from their roses in the garden – my husban was enraputured by it! We stayed in Alick, which was the most incredible suite.
The only negative thing – and it's not even really negative – was that the lighting in both our bathroom and the bedroom was so flatteringly low that you need to make sure you have an honest companion to point out patches of foundation that you haven't applied properly!
Kirsty, SilverSmith stayed on 30 Jun 2013
I liked the cat and the tortoise, décor, ambience and friendly staff; very clean.
A heated swiming pool; €17 for a brew is a bit steep but other than that, delightful.
nick, BlackSmith stayed on 12 Jun 2013
The hospitality, the helpfulness of the owners in recommending excellent restaurants, their fascinating and extensive collection of art and furniture, the garden (a real haven) and the lovely and comfortable room.
A shower would have been a welcome addition to the bathroom.
JOHN, BlackSmith stayed on 11 Oct 2012
What a stunning secret garden, a great place to get away from the grubby heat of Nimes. A late afternoon snooze by the pool amongst the dappled sunlight is a must when you're staying here. Our room, Les Temps Des Secrets, was on the ground floor, perhaps request a different one as the room is quite dark and you can't really have the curtains open unless you want people to see you in your room. The upstairs ones would probably be better. Whilst in Nimes head to Le 9 for dinner in a beautiful courtyard with great local food. I had amazing mussels and some fish that I still don't know what it was. Beautiful setting and some of the friendliest service we had in France. We had lunch at a restaurant on the left hand bottom corner of Place Du Marches, if approaching from the Arenes. It was opposite the ice cream shop, very small but a great plat du jour, good rosé and none of the usual tourist rubbish. Sorry can't remember the name it had cute little white seating though. Also would highly recommend a trip to the Arenes, the audioguide is very informative and the structure is just amazing. Very impressive and worth the seven euros entrance all day long. Also, the covered market in Halles was much bigger than the one in Montpellier and good for wandering around, guessing what the produce is.
Rebecca, BlackSmith stayed on 27 Jun 2012