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.