Travel: France: A tale of two French hotels

You long for the cosy, ramshackle auberge. Your children clamour for a modern hotel with pool and games. There's only one way to settle the dispute - try both. By James Ferguson
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
WHY DO old-fashioned French hotels have wallpaper on the ceiling? Who decided that a bolster is more comfortable than a pillow? Who is that lunatic who invariably rides his souped-up Mobylette around your hotel at three in the morning? These are some of the great mysteries that French hotels present - and some of their most indelible features.

I like these places, the ones in small towns with questionable plumbing, creaking staircases and lights timed to go off as you fumble with a giant key. I stayed in them often as a child and acquired the taste then. But my children despise them, peering longingly at the modern blocks which cluster alongside motorway exits, with names such as Mr Sleep and Quick Etape. These are the hotelier's version of the out-of-town shopping mall, purpose-built, anonymous and always the same.

On a recent trip to the south of France, we agreed a compromise: one night outbound in a modern hotel, one returning in a traditional auberge. I was sure the children would see sense and learn to appreciate the charm of the old. Emilie (12) and Patrick (5) accepted the deal, on condition that the modern hotel was "the one with the dolphin". In other words, a Novotel.

We duly arrived at an industrial suburb of Troyes where, among hypermarkets and warehouses and next to the airport, stands the local Novotel. From the outset, it was a triumph of child friendliness - a dolphin toy was handed out at reception, there was a Sega Megadrive game, there was a pool and playground. Our family room was spacious, modern and functional, with television, minibar and all the paraphernalia of an American motel. The children loved it. Dinner was even better. They were given "Dolphi" models to build, could fill in a form choosing their own cold starter, and had excellent chips. The grown-up food (lamb and pike-perch) was also delicious. The next morning, there was a vast buffet breakfast (children get to eat free).

Ten days later, we were on our way back, crawling along the motorway amid millions of returning skiers. As night fell, the usual panic began to rise, but we make it to the cathedral city of Laon and the three-star Hotel Banniere de France, where only two double rooms remained free. We took them, noting the flowery beige wallpaper, yielding beds and cramped bathrooms. Suitcases had to be heaved up a staircase and then seemed to fill the rooms, which were strangely warm and stuffy for mid-April.

The restaurant closed at nine, so we had to hurry. It was a formal occasion, presided over by a lugubrious waiter. The children's menu, alas, was misconceived. Vegetable soup or a plate of plain crudites and a chewy hamburger hardly fulfilled expectations. The waiter winced at the mention of ketchup. The parents' meal was above average, but proved no better really than Novotel. Only the creme caramel earned genuine approval.

The night was filled with strange creakings and rumbling pipes, and at 3am, the man on the moped made his deafening appearance. Nobody slept well and we declined breakfast. The bill was slightly higher than Novotel's. In a last-minute gesture, the melancholic waiter gave the children a handful of sweets each.

Emilie and Patrick remain convinced that new is better, that places such as the Banniere are "grunge". At their age I would certainly have thought the same. Perhaps they will one day develop a taste for the old inn, but I suspect that Novotel's bright atmosphere and friendly efficiency will spell France in their childhood memories as much as wallpapered ceilings do in mine.

James Ferguson paid pounds 159 return from Folkestone to Calais on Eurotunnel (0990 353535). A family room, dinner and breakfast for four at the Novotel Troyes Aeroport, Barberey (tel 00 33 3 25 71 74 74) cost Fr 1,030 (pounds 105). Two children under 16 stay for free in their parents' room. Two double rooms and dinner for four at the Hotel Banniere de France, 11 rue Franklin- Roosevelt, Laon (tel 00 33 3 23 23 21 44) cost Fr 1,106 (pounds 112)