Approaching Saint-Alban, chemin du Puy, France, 2009.
Where to Sleep ~ Chambres d’Hôtes
Among the possibilities of hébergement (lodging) in France are the many Chambres d’Hôtes. These are similar to what Americans call a Bed & Breakfast. They have become my preferred evening stop, and whenever possible, I seek them out, especially in small villages, and the countryside.
Chambres d’Hôtes are personal residences whose owners rent private bedrooms. There may be as few as one, but no more than six rooms, with any combination of en suite or shared bathroom facilities. I’ve stayed in places with just about every combination, and almost without exception, they have been clean, comfortable and very accommodating.
Although sometimes they are very modest, occasionally quite “up-scale”, the best of them are like spending an evening at your favorite aunt’s home – warm and inviting. I like them because they provide a very personal experience of down-to-earth, ordinary life in France. The rooms reflect the tastes of the hosts and often have touches of local or home-crafted decor. The bathrooms will be supplied with lots of soap, shampoo and towels – just like home.
: : : On left is a chambre d’hôte in Séviac, near the ruins of a large mosaic-paved Gallo-Roman estate, south of Montreal-du-Gers.
Virtually all of them serve a typical French breakfast. Many also serve supper (making them table d’hôtes), which is a communal, family-style meal with all of the typical French courses. The meal is usually optional, at additional cost, and in rural areas may be the only meal available. But they’re great! Here you have the opportunity to meet and converse with the family and other guests, who are often not fellow randonneurs (hikers), but may simply be other citizens out for a tour of the country. As you would expect, the meal is served at a particular hour, not to order, but they will often inquire when would be most convenient, within some range, such as between 6:30 to 8:00.
My hosts have always been friendly, attentive, and sensitive to my ability (or lack of) to converse in French. Depending on my apparent level of fatigue, they either carefully try to discuss or explain a given subject of conversation, or politely leave me as much as possible to eating my dinner. Even in my earliest, most novice days of speaking French(ish), I’ve always learned new things, have been entertained, and received some sort of local color and knowledge. The women in particular seem adept at interpreting what I’m trying to say, repeat it correctly for the table, and then reply. (Perhaps this because they’re mothers and have more experience interpreting baby talk…)
Reservations are strongly recommended, if not essential. These are small, personal operations that are just one part of the proprietors’ lives. Weekend accommodations in particular can be scarce, because many French people flee their urban homes for la campagne (the countryside), there may be nearby, local festivals, or the owners may be off on personal business themselves. Call ahead.
A typical experience is this: You arrive and are greeted warmly. You may be offered something to drink – juice, coffee, perhaps a glass of wine. After introductions, you’re shown to your room. If dinner will be served, you’ll be told about it. If not, they’ll tell you about local eateries. (some chambres d’hôtes are outside of town, and depending on the distance, your host will offer to drive you to a restaurant and then pick you up afterward). I have often been asked if I need any laundry done. This should never be expected, but when it is, it’s a wonderful surprise, for which there is rarely any charge – it’s just how you treat a guest!
: : : On left above, a room reserved for pilgrims on the chemin du Puy, with a display case of owners’ pèlerinage souvenirs, below.
Generally you’ll be given a key to the house, so you have freedom to wander, but it is very common that the bedroom doors do not lock, at least not from the outside. Your room will be undisturbed. The French tend to be very private, and are very respectful of your privacy. After showing you your room and making sure all is well, they may vanish in a flash, never to be seen again, perhaps until breakfast the next morning.
If dinner is served, it will be at a single table and usually starts with potage (some soup), followed by an appetizer of charcuterie, pâte, and crudités (sausages, potted meat, and raw vegetables), then a plat principal (main course) of meat or chicken accompanied by vegetables, followed by salade, dessert and fromage (cheese). A basket of baguette (French bread) is always close at hand. All the while, wine will flow freely, and you’ll probably end with a digestif (after dinner cordial) of some sort, often very potent homemade eau de vie. You’ll be full, satisfied, happy, and ready for bed (if your eyes are still open after the long day’s trek). In the morning, breakfast is served at your leisure. This will almost certainly be the same breakfast served everywhere in France – a croissant, plenty of baguette, an abundance of butter and fresh homemade preserves, juice, and a hot beverage (coffee, tea, or chocolate).
: : On left above, some fellow randonneurs begin the evening meal with potage at Le Relais Arc en Ciel in Bach, on the via Podiensis. Below, a typical charcuterie plate.
Then the quick formality of paying the bill, which you should expect to pay in cash. No tips are necessary, but it would be nice to offer payment for any special services.
And then a warm farewell and you’re off for another day on the trail. If the chambre d’hôte is far from the trail, and they had picked you up the evening before, they’ll drive you back to the same spot so you can resume your walk. As a last gesture, I have often been given a small parting gift of a snack, “a little something for the trail”.
: : : On left above, my very friendly hosts Dominique and Gérard PEROL at Chambres d’hôtes+++ La Pérolière) in Saint-Romain-le-Puy, Rhone-Alpes, France.
: : Highly recommended by Longwalking.