Sipping our champagne at St Pancras railway station, before boarding the Eurostar train to Paris, you could say that there is a little excitement bubbling for these London parents on their first break à deux for a year. From central London to central Paris in just over two hours, and a very quick taxi later and we’re outside the rather unassuming Résidence Nell. The journey all seems too effortless… Just the start we could hope for on a Mr & Mrs Smith weekend away.
Blink and you might miss the 17 apartments and studios on Rue Richer, just south of Montmartre. We make it inside, and we’re greeted by a bookcase bulging with dusty tomes by French literary heavyweights such as Albert Camus and Victor Hugo. We ask at reception who the lady is in the striking pastoral artwork that takes up one whole wall. ‘Madame Nell,’ comes the response with a chuckle. In Louis Malle’s 1978 film Pretty Baby her namesake runs an elegant brothel, but whoever this one is, her eyes have a knack of following you around the room, just like a certain character in the Louvre. Mrs Smith is convinced that when all is quiet she looks sure to settle down to her copy of Les Misérables… And a witty trompe l'oeil touch comes in the taffeta of Nell's skirt seemingly bursting from the wall to form a real bench seat, so you too can sit with her in that parkland.
Away from reading in her spare time, Madame Nell inhabits a rather wonderful residence. Space is a valuable commodity in Paris, as we all know, but Nell treats guests to a bedroom, bathroom and even an open-plan kitchen, diner, living space. Hotel rooms, however splendid they are, can be places where you only intend to lay your head, but this arrangement genuinely feels like you are in your home from home. Here these Smiths can revel in luxurious lie-ins, without the whimper of a small child broadcasting over an intercom; not to mention laidback breakfasts overlooking the rooftops of the 9ème arrondissement.
Now Paris wouldn’t be Paris without Patrick Jouin – design experts reckon you can’t walk 350 metres of the city without encountering one of the style maven’s works, be it architecture, street furniture or industrial design (he’s also a master of handicraft and scenography). Résidence Nell is très Jouin: contemporary, function-led and elegant. The apartments aren’t crammed with furniture, but what’s there is high spec: Alessi, Kartell, and Ligne Roset pieces, some designed by Jouin himself. Apart from a few madcap touches in the reception area – a pistachio-green wall by the entrance, a mounted reindeer bust on a wall, and that clever 18th-century-style painting with bookshelves built into the canvas – the aesthetic is one of white simplicity. The philosophy is similarly fuss-free; don’t expect a flotilla of staff, just a dedicated concierge on hand to book restaurants and shape your holiday how you like.
Arriving on Friday (ahem, and it being my birthday), we toast a well-stocked minibar with a chilled half-bottle of Billecart-Salmon champagne. Allow me then to segue through a romantic dinner at the chichi Pamela Popo in the Marais, to Saturday morning when an old acquaintance who we haven't seen for a while, for good reason, makes an appearance for both of us. Ah yes, a hangover. Nell, however, looks after you in your fragile state. She gives you breakfast, with a selection of pastries, breads and jams. She offers you space and light to collect your splintered thoughts and gives you a warm cuddle in the form of the heaviest and most luxurious robes I think we have ever come across.
Saturday of course involves wandering around the endlessly interesting galleries and boutiques of the Marais before we go on to dinner at Montmartre’s oldest restaurant Le Bon Bock… Solid French cooking without eye-watering bill at the end is just the ticket*. (*And if you’re a fan of the origin of idioms, one theory for the emergence of this expression is that it is a corruption of the French word ‘etiquette’. I digress…) We moot the idea of clubs or late-night bars, but yawning, time spent in our Parisian pied-à-terre is what’s most alluring to these off-duty parents.
Sunday at Résidence Nell hotel treats us to another lazy morning and then a wander to the renovated Musée D’Orsay. The converted Beaux-Arts railway station is stuffed with works by Impressionism greats, such as Monet, Degas, Manet and Van Gogh. Parfait. And merci, Residence Nell for allowing us to have such a special weekend. With unfussy and friendly service from unfailingly polite staff, Nell takes you into her bosom, rewarding you with a peaceful and spacious apartment with all the touches you might hope for (chocolates on the bed, loo roll origami, fresh orchids) and some you might not… The sheer space of the living area, a fancy espresso machine and even a dual ceramic hob if you feel energetic enough to cook. The trouble is that all these features and facilities mean that it would be ideal to bring our small human to next time, should we struggle for babysitters. Hmm. But maybe we’ll keep this as a little secret between us and Nell.