This boutique hotel in Nîmes is a tranquil oasis, secluded and yet set in the heart of the town. From the songbirds in the walled garden and the paraphernalia carefully placed in the communal areas to the individual styling of the bedrooms, every detail of Jardins Secrets has been considered to create a romantic atmosphere.
Double rooms from £302.51 (€340), including tax at 10 per cent. Please note the hotel charges an additional local city tax of €1.98 per person per night on check-out.
Rates exclude breakfast, €25.
Classicists and Roman architecture enthusiasts will be in their element. Nîmes is littered with relics and ruins from the empire’s glory days, such as the amphitheatre, the Maison Carré temple, and the awe-evoking Pont du Gard, a drive out of town. Fashion-trivialists will already know how the city’s signature fabric, serge de Nîmes, gave its name to a certain workwear fabric…
At the hotel
Spa with hammam, gardens, free WiFi throughout. In rooms: flatscreen TV, bottled water.
Our favourite rooms
With its green and purple colour scheme, stained-glass window by the bath and over-the-top chandeliers, the bold decor of Alick sets our hearts aflutter. Jannette feels lighter and brighter, with eggshell and black tones, and musical notation adorning the lampshades and long curtains. Both look out over the cloister. Double deluxe Grisailles (named for its 18th-century chiaroscuro painting) and junior suite L’Orangerie have garden views.
The heated outdoor pool is set in the pretty walled garden.
As though the hotel weren’t relaxing enough, the diminutive but magnificent Source des Secrets spa offers Chinese, Japanese and ayurvedic massages by the plunge pool.
Cots can be supplied for €40, extra beds for €80. You’ll have to bring your own babysitter, though, and remind youngsters to be respectful of the many delicate objets d’arts and pindrop-peaceful gardens.
Jardins Secrets is a 20-minute drive from Nîmes airport (roughly €25 in a taxi). A shuttle bus from the terminal will take you to the train station, which is a three-minute walk from the hotel. Other local airports are Montpellier and Marseille.
Nîmes is linked to London, Paris and Lille by the Eurostar (www.eurostar.com). Reaching Montpellier by train will take half an hour; to Marseille, it’s an hour and a half.
The hotel is in the centre of Nîmes, five minutes from the amphitheatre. Take the A9 from Paris or the A54 from Marseille. Watch out for the one-way system; head for Place de la Libération, then turn down Rue Monjardin, which will take you to Rue Fénelon on your right. Take another right on Boulevard Talbot, the second right up Avenue Carnot, and then one final right onto Rue Gaston. Parking at the hotel costs €30 a day.
Worth getting out of bed for
Classicists and Roman architecture enthusiasts will be in their element. Nîmes is littered with relics and ruins from the empire’s glory days, such as the amphitheatre, the Maison Carrée temple, and the awe-evoking Pont du Gard, a drive out of town. Fashion boffins will already know that the city’s signature fabric, serge de Nîmes, gave its name to a certain workwear fabric.
The courtyard restaurant of Bar Le 9 on Rue de L’Etoile has a romantic and relaxed atmosphere, and serves excellent fish dishes (+33 (0)4 66 21 80 77). Le Lisita, on Boulevard des Arènes, is the city’s restaurant du jour, but the enchantingly named Le Darling on Rue Madeleine (+33 (0)4 66 67 04 99) is hot on its heels, serving inventive amuse-bouches and artistically jus’d main dishes. Aux Plaisirs des Halles on Rue Littré serves delicious Provençal cooking on a beautiful terrace (+33 (0)4 66 36 01 02; closed Sundays and Mondays). The bistro-style Jardin d’Hadrien, on Rue Enclos Rey, has a shaded garden and works miracles with local beef and lamb (+33 (0)4 66 21 86 65).
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.