Budget in price but sweeping in style ...
Only the sharp talents of Danielle Steel could do justice to the story of the Armenonville. The tale sweeps across the 20th-century, from elegance and Russian nobility, via revolution, golf and a fall from grace, to a revival in reduced but charming circumstances. Music by Michel Legrand.
The place was built in the early 1900s for an aristocratic Russian lady. You can see the style which she thought appropriate to her status - something between a big villa and a little Palladian mansion, with column’ed porch and carriage-stopping splendour. Come the 1917 revolution, she lost the property. New owners transformed it into a golf school, for it was then surrounded by adequate greensward.
Blowing up buildings
It is no longer. The golf school gone, the Armenonville eventually became a down-market hotel. At the same time, apartment blocks sprang up all around to hem it in. Then, a decade or so ago, Rita Moreilhon took it over with her son. They couldn’t do much about the surrounding flats. (“I asked the council if I could blow them up; they said ‘no’,” smiles Mme Moreilhon.) But they’ve done pretty much everything else humanly and financially possible to restore dignity and elements of grace to the hotel.
Grandeur has been brought back from ‘faded’ to something a lot fresher. The monumental marble staircase leads to 13 bedrooms which are now worthy of it. Nothing too fancy, mind: this is a two-star. Smaller rooms are light, simple and practical. Bigger ones have absolutely adequate comfort and vintage touches – a fine armchair here, a period portrait there. The biggest has a balcony, on top of the porch, overlooking the quite magnificent garden.
You are, though, not going to suspect any of this as you approach by way of an unpromising alley off the Avenue des Fleurs. (Blink and you’ll miss it, so go steady; it’s by the bus stop.) You seem to be heading for the unremarkable apartment blocks when the alley opens out to reveal the Armenonville as a remarkable stately oasis in the town-scape. It’s like finding a pearl among whelks.
Before are those gardens, featuring every Mediterranean essence known to man, along with a kids’ play area, metal sculptures and plenty of tables and chairs. The summer aromas are bewitching, not least at breakfast time. Behind is the white mansion. To one side is the car park. (Just a word about this. If you know Nice, you’re not going to believe it … but the parking here is free. This is a significant advantage. Park your car for 24 hours in a Nice public car park and you’re in for €24. Most other hotels, if they have parking at all, charge at least €18 per day. Here it’s free and behind locked gates. So you’ve got peace of mind, and you’re better off by the price of one reasonable lunch per day.)
And, inside, in a lobby straight from the 1920s, there’s the warmest possible welcome and a suggestion of finesse. Mme Moreilhon is a very classy lady. If there are apartment blocks near at hand, well, hell, you’re in the middle of the city. What did you expect? I warrant you’ll forget them once you’re settled in. Senior Hungarian diplomats, who take a break here every year, aren’t noticeably bothered by them. The sea is 10 minutes away, the centre 15 and the old town 20 and the Armenonville’s neighbourhood is utterly respectable. What more could you possibly want, at these prices?