The high-speed train from Paris usually takes just under four hours to reach Avignon, the gateway to Provence. On leaving the city, most travelers drive southeast into the Vaucluse. However, if you cross to the west bank of the Rhône River, you enter the department of Gard in the region of Languedoc-Roussillon. Bounded by the Cévennes mountains to the north and the Mediterranean to the south, Gard offers much of what American travelers love about Provence but with the added allure of being an unspoiled and uncrowded area, where the traffic on the plane tree-shaded back roads usually amounts to little more than a tractor or two.
True, visitors flock to Nîmes (pop. 150,000), an ancient and atmospheric city of great charm, as well as to Uzès, one of France’s most beautiful towns, and to the first-century Pont du Gard, the highest and most dramatic of Roman aqueduct bridges. But much of Gard remains a serene, village-dotted landscape planted with orchards and vineyards.
We arrived in time for lunch on a shaded terrace overlooking the pool. Afterward, we toured the property, which was created from 18 old stone houses. On a previous visit, eight years prior, the hotel had displayed a traditional Provençal design scheme of chintz fabrics and heavy wooden furniture. Since the renovation, however, it has acquired a new visual identity that is much lighter and more contemporary. Our Terrace Junior Suite was painted white and came with limestone floors, a white writing desk, a cream-colored sofa and sea-green throws and pillows. The limestone-faced bath had a single stone vanity and a combination tub and shower, while a private terrace was appointed with a table and chairs and two sun beds.
After an excellent dinner of deep-fried stuffed zucchini flowers, and lobster roasted with tandoori spices, we joined the other guests at the poolside open-air Cinéma Paradiso for a showing of “Casablanca.” (Movie screenings are staged regularly during the warm-weather months.)
Overall, Le Vieux Castillon is a charming property with a relaxed atmosphere and friendly service. It is a good choice for anyone wanting a hotel with a swimming pool within easy reach of Uzès, 10 miles away.
The way the hotel is created from a group of old houses in a charming medieval village; the lovely swimming pool.
The valet parking system backs up when the hotel is busy.
Complimentary bicycles are provided for guests who wish to explore the surrounding area.
“Oh little town of Uzès!” wrote the French novelist André Gide, a keen observer of French social snobberies. “If you were in Umbria, Parisians would be visiting you in herds!” Suffice it to say that Parisians have well and truly discovered Uzès since Monsieur Gide’s lament, and that the town and environs have become a popular choice for their second homes.
The heart of Uzès is the Place aux Herbes, a square shaded by plane trees and surrounded by arcaded buildings, where open-air markets are held on Wednesday and Saturday mornings. Located down a nearby side street is the nine-room La Maison d’Uzès, a hotel within a magnificent stone mansion that was once home to the Chambon de La Tour family. It’s a perfect base from which to flâner, a wonderful French verb that means to stroll idly with no specific purpose.
We had first stayed at La Maison d’Uzès in 2013 and were looking forward to seeing how the property had evolved in the subsequent years. The welcome from the young team at the reception desk was warm and gracious, and, having checked in, we climbed the spectacular stone staircase to our Chambre Prestige on the second floor. With a high beamed ceiling and smooth dark-red tile floors, this spacious room had a mostly cream and gray décor, an impressive stone fireplace, a pair of beige armchairs and wonderful views of the town from three tall casement windows. The bath was equipped with a soaking tub with a handheld shower and a single sink.
At the property’s Michelin-starred La Table d’Uzès, chef Christophe Ducros offers a menu of refined contemporary southern French dishes, including a delicious smoked octopus and miso-braised eggplant, ceviche of red prawns with apricots and haricot verts, and roast lamb with black garlic, which we enjoyed for dinner in the courtyard. The young sommelier served us an excellent assortment of wines by the glass, including several from the Domaine de L’Aqueduc, the best local wine producer in nearby Saint-Maximin. Other amenities include a small spa that offers a variety of treatments using L’Occitane products and features a Roman bath with a water wall, chromotherapy and a steam room.
“You must come back in January during the truffle festival,” remarked the young woman at the front desk as we checked out. This was a tantalizing suggestion for which we were very grateful, since it sent us on our way with an ideal reason to return.
The historic character of the hotel, the beautifully decorated guest rooms; the excellent restaurant.
The lackluster breakfast and slow service.
The hotel is located on a pedestrian-only street with no access by car. The municipal parking garage nearest to the hotel is Parking Q-Park Uzès Gide, 26 Boulevard Charles Gide.
Few cities live more intimately with their distant history than Nîmes. The town is studded with spectacularly well-preserved Roman monuments, which date to the first century, when Emperor Augustus made it the capital of his empire’s Narbonne province, owing to its strategic location on the Via Domitia, the Roman road linking Italia to Hispania (Spain).
The last time we visited Nîmes, we stayed at the charming Hôtel Jardins Secrets. On this trip, however, we were eager to experience the comprehensive renovation of the five-star Maison Albar Hotels - L’Imperator, a grand establishment dating from 1929, where Ernest Hemingway once wrote in the bar, Picasso drew, and Frank Sinatra romanced Ava Gardner. All these notables had come to the city for its famous feria, a bullfighting festival held every year for six days at Pentecost and again for three days in September, when matadors take their chances in the city’s Roman coliseum.
This 53-room hotel (plus eight private villas) has an ideal location in the heart of Nîmes, within walking distance of most of its major sights. On arrival, we were immediately impressed by the way the hotel had been given a contemporary décor without compromising its historic atmosphere. The vintage bullfighting posters and a historic Otis cage elevator have been maintained, but the look of the lobby is now stylishly sleek and colorful.
The young front desk staff proved exceptionally informative and charming, and while our bags were being brought upstairs, one of them showed us around the property. L’Imperator boasts the largest private garden in the city, an outdoor pool, an indoor pool and a Codage spa with a hammam.
Upstairs, our spacious Junior Suite had high ceilings, oak parquet floors, full-length windows with French doors leading to Juliet balconies and views of the plane trees lining the Quai de la Fontaine in front of the hotel. The décor, by Paris-based Argentine architect and designer Marcelo Joulia Naço, included two indigo velvet armchairs and a couch in a sitting area, a writing desk and a large bed made up in white Italian cotton sheets. A brass-framed porthole window brought daylight into a beige limestone-faced bath, which came with double vanities on a stone counter, an oversized soaking tub and a separate walk-in rainfall shower.
The hotel’s Bar Hemingway mixes excellent cocktails, and these we sipped in the garden at a table beside a splashing fountain. Afterward, we dined at the hotel’s L’Impé brasserie, which overlooks an interior garden, and enjoyed an excellent meal of zucchini salad with fresh goat cheese, mint and tapenade, followed by a local specialty, brandade de morue, a fluffy preparation of soaked salt cod whipped with potatoes and seasoned with garlic and pickled lemon. The wine list featured a reasonably priced selection from Gard and elsewhere in southern France, which had been drawn up by the hotel’s talented young sommelier.
The following morning, we walked through Nîmes to the recently opened Musée de la Romanité. The museum, which stands across the street from Nîmes’ two-tiered stone coliseum, was designed by Brazilian-born architect Elizabeth de Portzamparc, who has explained that its draped-glass tile façade was inspired by Roman togas. The museum houses a superb collection of ancient Roman art.
After an excellent lunch at La Pie qui Couette, a counter-service restaurant (reservations recommended) inside the city’s lively covered food market, we returned to L’Imperator for a quiet afternoon in the spa and beside the pool. Later, we dined at Duende, the hotel’s gastronomic restaurant, which is overseen by Michelin three-star chef Pierre Gagnaire, who appointed Nîmes-native chef Nicolas Fontaine, his former sous-chef in Paris, to execute the menu he designed.
Featuring local recipes and produce, including a deconstructed bouillabaisse, cod cheeks with violets (not the flower, but an iodine-rich Mediterranean shellfish), and red tuna with foie gras and caramelized onions, the tasting menu was a spectacular gastronomic experience. The wine pairing was also brilliant and included what may be the best rosé I’ve ever had, a 2018 Nénu Collioure, which was fresh, distantly saline and mineral rich.
Before leaving, we asked to visit one of the private villas, all of which benefit from the services of the hotel. These accommodations would be ideal for a family and are furnished with the same contemporary décor as rooms in the main hotel building. Overall, L’Imperator is exceptionally stylish and comfortable, and it is now our recommended address in Nîmes.
Excellent location; impeccable service; attractive, comfortable rooms; and two outstanding restaurants.
Turn-down service was insufficiently thorough.
Le Napoleon, a sumptuous café that’s a landmarked historic monument, is just a five-minute walk from the hotel at 46 Boulevard Victor Hugo.
An hour’s drive south through rolling vineyards brought us to the formidably fortified town of Aigues-Mortes. Surrounded by stone ramparts, this port was constructed in the 13th century by King Louis IX, as the embarkation point for crusaders heading to the Holy Land. It never became the rival to Marseille that the king intended, but it is a unique and atmospheric place today. The ramparts offer views of the striking mauve-colored salt pans of Les Salins du Midi, whose La Baleine brand of sea salt is a favorite all over the world. La Plage de l’Espiguette, one of the most beautiful wild beaches on the French Mediterranean coast, is just a few miles southwest of town.
The place to stay in Aigues-Mortes is the new 14-room Hôtel des Remparts, which opened in June 2018 and enjoys a perfect location within the walled town, next to the access stairways onto the ramparts. The family-owned and -run property occupies a former military barracks that has been painstakingly renovated to create a hotel of real charm. On arrival, the terrace out front was filled with people enjoying drinks in the shade. Inside, the spacious lobby lounge had limestone floors, exposed stone walls and tall casement windows. It was an airy, welcoming space with tweed-upholstered furniture and dark wood étagères filled with books and decorative ceramics. A charming woman at the front desk checked us in, showed us the small indoor pool and offered to help with restaurant recommendations and reservations.
Our ground-floor Deluxe room was reached via a graveled walkway and came with a small private deck with two canvas armchairs and a table. Inside, we found oat-colored stone walls, limestone floors and a small sitting room with a couch and a writing desk. The bedroom had very high ceilings and a large bed made up with high-quality Italian sheets. A claw-foot soaking tub was augmented by two stone vanities tucked into niches. Quiet, stylish and comfortable, it was exactly the kind of room that I hope to find at a small independently owned and run property in France.
The hotel has no restaurant, but an excellent breakfast is served on the terrace, plus a limited menu of snacks and tapas later in the day. A small spa offers treatments with Eclaé products, which are made with beta carotene-rich pink algae from the salt pans nearby.
Spacious stylish rooms; very friendly bilingual service.
The lack of a restaurant.
Park in public lots A or B and have the hotel validate your ticket for complimentary parking.
Located just inside the department of Hérault, 15 miles to the west of Aigues-Mortes, the quiet beach town of Palavas-les-Flots has suddenly become fashionable. Its newfound beau-monde celebrity is due to the opening last June of the 72-room Plage Palace hotel, which is owned by the Costes brothers, who also own more than a dozen stylish Parisian restaurants and whose Hôtel Costes in Paris is a fashion-world favorite.
The Costes brothers settled on Palavas-les-Flots, because it’s where they spent their childhood holidays. Doubtless, they’re also wagering that this low-key stretch of the French Mediterranean coastline, long popular with middle-class French families, is ripe to be redeveloped as an upscale littoral.
We drove past the hotel several times, since it is unmarked and hidden by tall shrubs and pines and a weathered wooden fence. Once we found the entry, we were greeted by a porter who escorted us down a boardwalk to the reception.
Service at most Costes establishments in Paris is notorious for being haughty and abrupt, but the young team at the front desk were warm and welcoming. A nice woman from Montpellier took us around before showing us upstairs, pointing out the glamorous restaurant and bar, which were designed by Parisian interior decorator François-Joseph Graf; the beach club, with its white-terry-covered sun beds and umbrellas; the beach ba; and the 90-foot saltwater pool, set at the edge of the sand. Around the pool a soundtrack of low-key lounge music was playing.
Happily, upstairs, our Luxe Junior Suite Seaview was blissfully quiet. Sliding doors led to a private balcony with full-length white privacy curtains and a glass half-wall that allowed a view of the waves rolling in from the Golfe du Lion.
The cubist-style hotel architecture was the work of Paris-based Buttazzoni & Associates, but the interiors were done by Paris designer Imaad Rahmouni, who says that the décor of summerhouses on America’s East Coast provided him inspiration. Our room, in a soothing color scheme of sand, oyster and white, featured an armchair and a dark wood-framed rocker, along with a very comfortable bed made up with Bergen Linen sheets. The bath came with gray-painted wood paneling and gray tiles, a claw-foot soaking tub, a walk-in rainfall shower and custom-made amenities by Paris perfumer Olivia Giacobetti.
After a swim in the sea, we lounged by the pool with our books for a relaxing afternoon, which was diminished only by the irritating lounge music. Presumably, this ambiance is calculated to appeal to the Costes’ younger fashion-conscious clientele. Before dinner, we spent an hour in the spa, which features two hammams with striking black rock walls, inlaid with mosaics.
Ultimately, our only real disappointment with this property was its restaurant. The menu, an array of dishes familiar to anyone who’s been to one of the Costes’ Paris restaurants — carpaccios, tartares, grilled fish and steak, with only a gardiane de taureau (bull’s meat braised in wine) providing a local reference point — was aggressively priced and the portions were small. Worse, the service was exceptionally slow and disorganized. (An alternative is provided by the excellent seafood restaurant Le Vivier in Le Grau-du-Roi, a 20-minute drive away.)
Attractive and very comfortable rooms; striking seaside pool and beach club.
Dire service in the restaurant.
There is lounge music by the pool, which some may find as irritating as we did.
We concluded our trip to the Languedoc in the city of Montpellier (pop. 285,000), the capital of the Hérault department, located 9 miles to the north of Palavas-les-Flots. There, we stayed at our recommended 10-room Baudon de Mauny, a charming property set within a limestone mansion dating to 1777. This historic family-run hotel is located in the heart of the delightful Écusson neighborhood and provides an ideal base from which to explore the old town and its chief attractions such as the Musée Fabre fine arts museum, the Cathédrale St-Pierre and the Jardin des Plantes.
Our Junior Suite blended a traditional look with contemporary comforts and featured vivid wall coverings, high molded ceilings, polished flagstone floors, comfortable period furnishings and modern amenities. Full suites are augmented by separate sitting areas and kitchens. Some rooms can be combined to form two-bedroom apartment-style lodgings that are ideal for families. Public areas include an 18th-century drawing room, a bar and a breakfast room in a 14th-century glass-enclosed courtyard. Although the hotel has no dining room, numerous delightful cafés and restaurants are located within easy walking distance.
From Montpellier, we took the high-speed TGV back to Paris, arriving at the Gare de Lyon five hours later. (Some trains cover the 465 miles in as little as three-and-a-half hours). The ease with which it is possible to exchange the Mediterranean world of Languedoc-Roussillon for the northern European ambiance of the French capital is one of the wonders and delights of modern travel.
The combination of contemporary design and classic architecture; the ideal location; the delicious breakfast; the tranquil and hospitable atmosphere.
Access to the hotel in the old town can be tricky, and parking is hard to find.
If you plan to arrive after 8 p.m., you will be provided with a door code to let yourself in.