Le Couvent d'Hérépian
This review is taken from our guidebook, Mr & Mrs Smith Hotel Collection: France.
It’s a hellish scene. The sweat glistens on the red, bullish neck of our tattooed host, as he plunges his shovel once more into the fiery depths of the oven. Tension electrifies the over-heated air, and snarled curses send terrorised staff running from the kitchen. The shovel emerges, bearing a pizza of the kind known as Sergio. It shares its name with the restaurant and, presumably, also with the demonic cook, who cackles heartily as he flings the dish towards one of his nervous customers.
In Hérépian, a charming 1980s timewarp of a village in the Languedoc-Roussillon region, this mozzarella-topped manifestation of fire and fury appears to be the main Friday night attraction. Mrs Smith and I wolf down the remainder of our food and knock back the rest of a bottle of rosé, before we scuttle, giggling like naughty nuns, back to our convent.
It’s the second time we’ve gone from hell to heaven in a single day. It is perhaps when you arrive in less-than-rosy circumstances that a hotel has a chance to show its true colours, and I feel we can reliably vouch for Le Couvent d’Hérépian. After a sweat-soaked, infuriating few hours spent beside a broken-down hire car, and an afternoon of golden sunshine wasted in trilingual negotiations at a garage, our final resting place needed to be pretty special if our moods were to be lifted.
Our first impressions of Le Couvent were delightful, the austere 17th-century façade giving way to an interior that more than lives up to the fantasy of a fairy-tale castle, filled with chandeliers and candlelit stone staircases, and the whole building somehow enveloped in a delicious chocolatey fragrance. The bar, lounge and suites are stylishly and comfortably kitted out, and the pre-stocked, in-room iPods are a great touch. I particularly appreciated the honesty bar when, following our day of automotive tribulation, I was able to storm in silently and dilute my frustration with alcohol without feeling the need to make small talk with bar staff or sit around looking pleadingly at passing waiters.
The hotel’s staff are extremely considerate, treating us with an unfailing kindness and sensitivity. When Mrs Smith clumsily smashes to smithereens one of the soap dispensers in our meticulously coordinated bathroom, the manager, Fabrice, says it is pas grave and immediately inquires whether anyone has been hurt. When our breakdown forces us to cancel a spa appointment at short notice, the masseuse sympathises and sweetly offers to squeeze us in the next day. When we arrive back from an ill-fated trip to the coast – involving 5km traffic jams and erratic air-conditioning – we are greeted with charcuterie and sympathy, followed swiftly by a delicious fideua? (a noodly version of paella) and a glass or three of local red.
On Sunday we are woken by the peal of bells from the village church, but even the splendid sun-washed mountain view that fills our open window takes its time in outmatching the softness of our mattress. In the patchwork of gardens below, the neighbours busily tend their vines. This encourages us to get active or, at least, to stumble sleep-drunk down to the garden terrace, where we eat a breakfast of perfect crisp croissants, local hams and cheeses, and home-made fig jam. After this feast, I sit back and await my massage, watching swallows criss-cross a moon that’s outstaying its welcome in the deep-blue sky.
I feel a twinge of guilt about the levels of our weekend indulgence when I think of Le Couvent d’Hérépian’s earlier inhabitants. The nuns who lived in the sturdy stone structure back in the 1600s would have been unlikely, I reflect, to have spent many of their days attempting to consume their own body weight in red wine, or eating quantities of dairy produce that would make the Milky Bar Kid worry about gallstones. But the genius of Le Couvent is that its owners have managed to sustain the aura of a religious retreat, while packing in all manner of epicurean delights.
Nearby spa town Lamalou-les-Bains doesn’t stand much of a chance with us, not when we have de-stressing sessions booked here, in Le Couvent’s own mini-spa, where massage and calm are dispensed in a treatment room and a diminutive hydrotherapy pool, housed in stone vaults and looking out over the garden towards the mountains.
I head to the the spa after breakfast, allowing a little time to elapse and requesting moderate handling. The half-hour of gentle, expert kneading that ensues leaves me with barely the will to pour my apricotty, almondy bulk into the small blue-tiled pool. Afterwards, aware that there are only a few hours to go before we have to leave, I step out into the garden in my fluffy white robe to take one last breath of it all, catching a waft of scent from the blooms cascading out of giant pots on the lawn. Like those nuns, I’m finding it all rather heavenly. The trials of the day before, along with the crowds and noise of our life at home in London, seem four centuries away.
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Smith extra at Le Couvent d'Hérépian
A bottle of Chateau de Raissac