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If staying in a hotel feels too impersonal and the idea of couch-surfing on a stranger’s sofa is altogether too personal, a bed and breakfast is the perfect middle ground.
Although the practice varies from country to country and the accommodation itself ranges from boutique hotel-style luxury to a fairly plain bedroom with no ensuite, bed and breakfasts the world over have the advantage of giving visitors a more local experience.
In France, the chambre d’hôte is a long-standing tradition, as much of a part of the landscape as the Eiffel Tower.
The French do hospitality well: every bed and breakfast I have visited in France has provided me with the bare minimum of a comfortable bedroom and an abundant breakfast.
But many go above and beyond this, with their (almost always female) owners providing restaurant recommendations, tourist information, home-made goodies on the breakfast table and good conversation.
But what is the cost for all this tailored hospitality in addition to board and lodging? Here comes the surprise: it’s often far less expensive than a hotel.
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Bed and breakfasts in France, or chambres d’hôte are my preferred places to stay while visiting the country.
Admittedly this is partly because the only other options accessible with my fairly limited budget are dull two star hotels, which all seem to share the same mismatched decor and tiny bathrooms.
The real appeal, however, is the chance to meet new people and catch a little glimpse of their lives. I’ve stayed in a number of bed and breakfasts in the Normandy and Rhone Valley areas of France, from city apartments to working farms and almost everything in between.
On my latest trip to the Rhone Valley, for example, I stayed in three properties that couldn’t have been more different.
Bed and breakfasts in France
Chambre d’hôte number one of the week was Home Sweet Home, a duplex apartment in central Lyon owned by a sweet sixty-something lady with a passion for travel.
Downstairs was a treasure trove of African objets d’art, and the travel theme crept upstairs to add a global touch to the guest bedrooms. Although on the small side, the three chambres were well-decorated in cream and brown tones. Important amenities included a good-sized mirror, a dressing table and even a mini flat-screen TV.
One thing I remembered on arrival, after two years away from France, is that the hostess will always ask what time you want breakfast, and sometimes even whether you prefer tea or coffee.
Although this is more restrictive than rolling out of bed when you feel like it and wandering down to the hotel buffet, guests have to remember that their hosts have lives too. For some proprietors their chambres d’ hôte provide their main income, for others it is just a lucrative sideline to their day job.
The up-side is that breakfast will most likely be far tastier than packaged hotel offerings: at Home Sweet Home, I awoke each morning to the scent of freshly baked bread rising in the oven, tempting me downstairs.
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Our next chambre d’ hôte, La Reclusière, was in Vienne, a small city near Lyon located on the Rhone River.
Our impeccably dressed hostess welcomed us and led us inside her home – which we soon discovered was a temple to the twenties.
The sumptuous mansion set in a walled garden two kilometres from the town centre offers guests a tranquil escape (swimming pool and elegantly striped sunloungers included).
La Reclusière is filled with art deco objects and other period pieces, some of which – like the huge juke box by the breakfast table, with a tray of coins for visitors’ use – were real collectors’ items.
Our three-person bedroom turned out to be an enormous suite occupying half of the first floor of the house; the bathroom – complete with twin sinks and a glamorous roll-top bath – was bigger than my own bedroom!
As chambres d’ hôte go, La Reclusière is definitely at the luxury end of the scale, with added extras including complimentary bottled water and bathrobes. Understandably, a stay here comes with a higher price tag: rooms start at €120 per night, but given the peaceful setting, beautiful decor and high standard, it’s still a reasonable outlay for a romantic mini-break.
From the lap of luxury we moved on to more earthy delights: a former farm in the heart of wine-producing territory.
La Farella has just one chambre d’ hôte and three self-catering cottages or gites, making it perfect for family holidays, especially when you factor in the swimming pool and the abundance of space for kids to roam around.
As our car pulled up outside La Farella, I was reminded of rule number two of bed and breakfast-ing in France: stick to your arrival time. When you’re booking chambre d’ hôte accommodation, the owner will ask you roughly what time you will be arriving.
Although again this is slightly inconvenient, with a little planning (and sticking to that plan), you can turn up on time and everyone will be happy. Unfortunately I forgot the time I had specified by email, meaning that we had to wait around a bit for the owner to return home.
Our hostess was a little surprised to see us in her driveway ahead of schedule, but welcomed us with local wine and fruit juices.
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That evening, following her recommendation, we headed down the road to the nearest restaurant, expecting a rustic, country affair. Instead, we found a stylish eatery serving beautifully presented seasonal food, accompanied by an extensive selection of local wines – the one we chose was produced within walking distance of the restaurant.
The next morning, we sat down outside for the most impressive breakfast of our trip: croissants, fresh bread, home-made jams, yogurt, cheeses and cherries picked from La Farella’s orchard that morning.
Our friendly hostess also chatted with us every morning and suggested places to see nearby, even giving us a map and some discount coupons. After a few days out in the middle of the countryside, we left feeling relaxed and well-fed – and with barely a dent in our wallets, at €80 per night for 3 of us.
If you want to try a bit of local travel, whether your destination is a busy city or a rural retreat, bed and breakfasts in France, or chambres d’ hôtes are an excellent and often budget-friendly choice.
A good starting point is the local tourist office website; these often contain a list of links to local bed and breakfasts. Some websites are available in English, but for others it’s helpful if you can understand some French – and if not, Google Translate can come to your rescue. Another useful websites resource is Chambres d’hôtes France.
If you do decide to go down the bed and breakfast route, here are a few tips to make things easier:
1. Some chambres d’ hôte are more like intimate hotels where you barely see your hosts, whereas others are a little more like homestays. B & B’s websites usually offer clues as to their style; pick the one that suits you.
2. Sometimes, particularly in rural areas, owners also offer their guests an evening meal if they choose (table d’ hôte). These can be memorable chances to sample local cooking and get to know your hosts, as I found at Ferme du Gros Chêne in Normandy. If you want to take advantage of this service, you must reserve at least a day in advance to give your hosts chance to prepare. Make sure to specify any dietary requirements (vegetarianism in particular isn’t very well-known in France!).
3. Remember that you are staying in someone’s home rather than a hotel, and the services offered will be different. You won’t get a concierge for example, but you will be able to get great recommendations from someone in the know.
* Photos courtesy of proprietors’ websites and Kate Turner.