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.

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