Monday, 15 September 2014

Chambres d'hotes in France

The choice between hotels and bed and breakfast used to be a simple one: hotels were expensive, B&Bs were cheap.

That's not the case any more. On my recent trip in the Auvergne and Pyrenees, I found that prices for chambres d'hote (French B&B) varied from 56 to 90 euros - above what we could have got from some of the cheaper hotels, whether never-refurbished 1950s hotels by the station, or new Ibis Budget and similar chain hotels.

However, we got more for our money. Chambres d'hote almost always include breakfast as part of the bargain; most hotels don't. And while those breakfasts can be cursory - though never, in my experience, less than a big cafetiere full of coffee, hot milk, a big tranche of baguette, butter and jam - they can also be absolutely exceptional. Kudos to Anna at La Talamo in Talmont, on the Gironde, who provided us with the first two autumn figs from the fig tree in the courtyard, a taste of Portuguese ewe's milk cheese with quince paste, four different really marvellous jams, and even an apres-breakfast espresso to pick us up before we started the big drive home.

For the same price level, chambres d'hote offer better and sometimes quirkier furnishings. I've stayed in medieval buildings, including the medieval pilgrims' hostel in Vezelay; mountain cabins with pine everywhere and delightful handmade pomanders; rooms full of antique French furniture, with the handles on desk drawers and the seats of chairs rubbed smooth by generations of hands, and that patina that comes with being loved and used and waxed and polished regularly. By comparison, many hotels at the same budget have furnishings that were all the rage in the 1970s (though I haven't yet found a complete avocado bathroom suite), and haven't been touched since. Or else they offer corporate grey or corporate beige, which may deliver cleanliness on budget but is, if over-indulged in, destructive to the soul.

And we got some memorable visits. A little chambre d'hote at La Sacoume, near Saint-Bertrand de Comminges, included in its charms a friendly rabbit, naughty pony, and laconic donkey, and a landlady who told us more about village life in the Pyrenees than you'd ever have found out from a book. With her delightful menagerie (not to forget the chickens), it was no surprise that she had a picture of the animal-loving Saint Francis of Assisi on the wall. In Saint-Saturnin, we were treated to an impromptu melodeon recital with our breakfast ("I've only really learned one tune," our host apologised, but he had learned it pretty well).

Another advantage; you'll find there's a chambre d'hote in many small villages that don't have a hotel. Getting out for a walk before breakfast you get to see the place before the day-trippers arrive. You get to see the pattern of local life. I remember one stubbly gent carrying, very delicately, a pink-wrapped, ribbon-trailing box of patisseries; a bearded bloke carting a load of baguettes up a steep cobbled street; two old farmers drinking a nip of cognac in the local bar at eight in the morning; an elegant lady on a bicycle with her dog trotting beside, and her basket slung over the handlebars.

The downside? Chambres d'hote service isn't as seamless as you'd expect in a hotel; the owner may have popped out to do some shopping or you may have to stick your head round the garden gate when there's no answer at the front door. You may not get free wifi or a coffee machine. And in quite a lot of places you'll need to speak French, at least to a basic level - though it's surprising how many owners are keen to practise their English. But if you're travelling France on a less than four-star budget, I would recommend staying in chambres d'hote.

Tuesday, 2 September 2014

The value of a really good guided tour.. and a film: Clermont Ferrand

I generally avoid guided tours. I'd far rather discover a place on my own. And so often, the guided tour turns out to be someone repeating what they've read in Lonely Planet.

But a really good guide? That's different.

We were lucky enough to make it into the cathedral at Clermont-Ferrand half an hour before a free guided tour. Even more fortunate to encounter one of the cathedral staff who was trying to gather together a quorum for the tour. As so often, very few of the many visitors could be bothered to join up, even though it was free. But we did.

The first five minutes were not inspiring. I'd already guessed the west end was Viollet-le-Duc, dated the architecture of the choir, got a rough feel for the architecture. Lots of dates. Lots of dates in French, and I was stumbling because he said quatorze cent quatre vingt neuf instead of mille quatre cent quatre vingt neuf, and my brain flashed up blue screen of death for a second before I worked it out.

But then this distinguished looking gentleman told us to follow him; and it was like going through an attic with someone who could open every box, pull reams of fabric out of the old wardrobes, find the tiny jewel boxes under the old Scrabble boards and Lego sets. Had I noticed the stained glass? - Yes, but I hadn't identified the subjects, which he explained, taking time (and this was important) to make sure that everyone had found the right tiny medallion - two along, three up. You could hear the slight 'ah' as people found it, see the little hint of a smile. (I knew nothing about Saint Austremoine - a distinctively Auvergnat saint, the first bishop of Clermont, whose relics are now at Mozat. I knew about his companion Saint Nectaire, but only, I'm afraid, because of the cheese.)

We learned that the First Crusade was first preached here at Clermont - though not in this church, which is much later. We learned how the black volcanic stone of which the cathedral is made oxidises with time, becoming grey. We were told how the founder of the new work, Bishop Hugues de la Tour, was inspired by the Sainte Chapelle in Paris, a marvellous, luminous Rayonnant work in which the stained glass almost seems to elbow out the stonework. And we learned that this church, ancient as it is, had no fewer than three predecessors; the second destroyed by Saracens and Vikings.

Those castle keeps that ornament the stained glass are those of Blanche of Castile; I'd recognised those from Chartres cathedral, where she dedicated one of the great rose windows. What I didn't know was that Louis IX not only donated the windows, but held the wedding of his son Philippe and Isabella of Aragon here - and that there's a nineteenth century stained glass window showing the wedding.

Along the way, several myths were expounded and then demolished. Our guide turned out to be one of those people who doesn't take things on trust. "Some people say," he would start, and would take his genteel but ruthless scalpel to the story. No urban myths, no romantic notions. We would get unvarnished truth.

All this in forty-five leisurely minutes. We weren't rushed; everyone got a good look at the points of interest.We saw how the mouldings of the arches and pillars changed ever so slightly at the point where the original architect, Jean Deschamps, handed over to his son Pierre (that was something I hadn't noticed). We saw fine mural paintings from the fourteenth century.

At the end of the tour, I walked out on to the steps that fall away from the west front to the old streets of Clermont, and looked at the plain of Limagne in the distance. The day was overcast, but the grey light still made me blink, after the dim, awesome spaces of the black cathedral.

I hadn't expected to spend an hour inside the tourist office. But I didn't know about the film.

Let me explain. A little while ago, a visionary mayor, a local film maker, and a few other people had a bright idea. Rather than just writing a brochure showing the five great Auvergnat Romanesque churches (Saint-Saturnin, Saint-Nectaire, Issoire, Orcival, and Notre-Dame-du-Port in Clermont), they'd make a film about them. And this film would also be provided with a magnificent cinema in the basement of the tourist office, with plush wood and leather benches and a huge door that pivoted softly closed, and a massive screen filling one wall.

We enquired. When was the film showing? Right now. Instantly. Just for the two of us? Well, why not?

And so we were enthroned in splendour, just the two of us, to watch the film.

I was looking forward to enjoying forty-five minutes or so of my favourite game, recognising churches I'd already visited. "That's Bessuéjouls!" - on the pilgrim path to Compostela - "and that's Autun!" - Gislebertus' instantly recognisable carving of the three Magi asleep - "and that's Conques!"

But a few minutes in, it dawned on me that this was actually a very good film, too. For instance, it used illustrations from manuscripts to demonstrate ideas about cosmology, proportion and geometry, and then overlaid them on to photographs of the churches to show how, for instance, the spaces of the choir and transept can be inscribed into a square and a circle, and how that fits ideas about the physical universe (which is square, and in which four is the major number - four elements, four cardinal directions, four humours) and heaven (which is circular, and perfect).

There were cross-sections of the churches, plans, and elevations, showing how the Auvergnat churches are built with quarter-circle vaults over the aisles to take the weight of the stone roofs, and how the central towers are supported by a massive rectangular structure from which the apse and the radiating chapels gradually fall away, giving a distinctive pyramidal massing quite different from Romanesque churches elsewhere.

The camerawork was superb. There were shots of tiny rural chapels, as well as the great abbey churches; there was a sequence of simple shots showing just the texture of the Auvergnat stone used in the building, from rusty red to grimy black Volvic stone, through all the colours of cream and sand and ochre.

In short; you can tour all five of the great churches in two and a half days. Or you can watch the film, in forty-five minutes. Or you can do both; which we did.