It’s time to book your vacation. Some will choose France. Others don’t – because the French are enemies, Mr. Macron is a clown, and their food is wildly overrated. I’ve been hearing a lot about this lately and got a message. No need to repeat it, say, in the comments below, unless you find it cathartic – in which case be my guest.
France anyway. I live there, will be traveling the country this year and will book chambres-d’hôtes whenever the opportunity arises. They are, for that matter, my favorite type of accommodation, a good compromise: less formal than a hotel, more structured than Airbnb. I’m a fan and I wish you were too.
The term “chambres-d’hôtes” is best translated into English as “B&B” – though I think this underestimates the French version. Suggestions of ketchup, austerity and axe-faced housewives with a hit and miss attitude to hygiene remain in the term “B&B”.
Of course, many B&Bs in the UK are great now. I’ve been to one in Lancaster and know of many others. However, there remains a bedrock on which 21st century hospitality has apparently not caught on. At a boarding house on an estate near Stansted, I was asked to take my shoes off at the front door – before my landlady said hello.
Meanwhile, some seaside establishments still hide surprises for the sensitive. In one, the room was so small there was barely room for me and half a dozen cockroaches. In another case, searching for the TV remote revealed empty candy wrappers and a half-eaten sandwich under the bed and dirty underwear stuffed behind the sink.
I called the owner as I still couldn’t find the remote. He was going through the garbage. “Some people!” he said in a voice full of regret for the Fall of Man. He found another remote elsewhere in the building, I dumped the garbage in the garbage bag he had brought, and that resolved the matter to his satisfaction. “All’s well that ends well,” he beamed.
Things like that didn’t happen in any chambres-d’hôtes, even if I didn’t pay much. This may be because chambres-d’hôtes are more tightly controlled – or at least more strictly defined. They must have no more than five guest rooms, all on the owner’s property.
Breakfast must be included, and if a table-d’hôte dinner is offered (as is the case in about a third of France’s 21,500 B&Bs), there should be no choice. On the other hand, there doesn’t seem to be a precise definition of a British B&B – apart from the suggestion that they must be run by private owners rather than chains.
But that alone doesn’t explain why chambres-d’hôte sometimes feel more civilized. The reason may be that historically French people with tight holiday budgets have preferred camping. France’s 8,000 pitches make it the best camping country in Europe (and second in the world, after the US).
So it doesn’t have the same Wakes Weeks tradition of breezy seaside holidays and lodging owners treating vulnerable people as if they should feel damn lucky once they’re allowed out of Blackburn, Bradford or West Bromwich.
Elements of tradition have persisted (“Take off your shoes at the door,” “Come back before 5:00 p.m. only if needed,” and more). As things were different in France, the chambres-d’hôtes could be more liberal, casting the net more widely, up and down the social ladder.
Thus, French chambres-d’hôtes can be found in castles, country estates, homesteads, vineyards or bourgeois tenements rather than dilapidated (OK, “modest”) seaside houses. And since running a chambres-d’hôte is now quite fashionable, the owners I’ve met include former architects, lawyers, musicians, doctors, artists and what may be the most endearing aristocracy in France. elite? Of course. Thus, the standards of the sector are improving.
And quality doesn’t have to be ruinous. The average price for a double B&B per night at chambres-d’hôtes is around £80. The best may be more expensive, but I’ll keep my high standards as long as I have the money (which, I’ll admit, in some of the fancier places won’t be for long).
Whatever the setting, whoever the hosts are, sociability is key. Or a key. It must be. The clients of Chambres-d’hôtes are actually guests in the owners’ home. Second-hand formalities are not really an option. No matter how big and buoyant the house is, hosts need to welcome and get along with most people. Otherwise word will spread and they will go bankrupt. But in my experience, it often works quite well, especially if a table-d’hôte dinner is provided.
Ideally, hosts and guests should eat together. This way you meet people you would probably never meet – mountain climbers, teachers, Bulgarians, French families, British vintage car enthusiasts – and who, because they live in chambres-d’hôtes, are generally quite sociable. Very pleasant evenings can come.
At one o’clock on a mule farm in Auvergne, laughter nearly knocked me unconscious. The long and refined evenings with the count and countess in the chateau above the Loire valley showed what France had lost by conquering the summit ancient regime.
Meanwhile, high above Nice, a WHO employee recently returned from an official job in North Korea told us about his attempts to track down pizza in Pyongyang. If I were John Le Carré – or Spike Milligan – I would turn this story into a novel.
So yes, chambres-d’hôte are OK. There is hardly a place I have stayed for the last 20 years that I would not like to return to. Here are five of my recent favorites:
Château de Chantore
Bacilly, near Avranches in Normandy
You have crossed the Cotentin Peninsula. Mont Saint Michel rises on the other side of the bay. And you’re blown to your senses by 18pthe place’s 10th-century showstoper. This is the result of Chantore, a red brick and white stone country castle renovated with extraordinary elegance by two young people for whom it is a project full of passion.
No. 21st-eternal irony here, but silk, brocade, gilding, rich colors, portraits, period furniture and a general notion of nobility. The gardens, green spaces and lake provide something of epic tranquility (chateaudechantore.com; B&B doubles from £193).
Located just across the Baïse River, this bourgeois townhouse was once home to a major brand in the world of Armagnac distilling. It was recently taken over by the Belval family – they made their fortune in gyms and health clubs – and wonderfully transformed into chambres-d’hôtes.
There is a lovely garden to the rear and the warmest of Gascony is welcome (chambresdhoteslechai.com; B&B doubles from £91).
Charentay, Brouilly, Beaujolais
The approach – through a forest of trees – opens onto a mini-mansion, checked and improved by artist Dominique and architect Gilles for contemporary hospitality.
It’s a wonderfully immersive place – a great base for Beaujolais wine tours – with grounds stretching as far as your legs will take you (destination-beaujolais.com/chambres-d-hotes/l-ancre-vive-5734574.html; B&B doubles from £98).
Domaine de la Jarrige
St Vaury, Gueret, Creuse
This is your base in the little known county of Creuse, to the cheers of Limoges and the A20 motorway. This is highly praised France profonde in its deepest, greenest and most disarming form. Taken over in 2022 by a young couple from distant Alsace, La Jarrige is a 17-year-oldp-eternal stone homestead invested with panache, color and spa.
The bedrooms are in converted outbuildings, good kitchen in the main building. I’d still be there if I didn’t have to be elsewhere (domainedelajarrige.fr; B&B doubles from £96, with discounts for stays longer than one night).
Ferme des Iles
Autheuil-Authouillet, Evreux, Normandy
More of a rural kingdom – along the Eure River – than strictly a guest house, it is a wonderful area of fields, paddocks and forests, ducks, sheep and horses. The rooms – in a nobleman’s country house and a nearby barn – are huge and filled with neo-rustic imagination. In addition to regular rooms, accommodation is available for groups.
Whatever the case, if there are six people who book in advance, the owner Sophie Borel will set up a table-d’hôte for dinner. It will be as lively as you want. The next day, you can visit Monet’s garden in nearby Giverny. Or Rouen, which is not much further. Or just hang around here (lafermedesiles.com; B&B doubles from £101).