Alastair Sawday: Back to the France I fell in love with
In 1994, Alastair Sawday visited Burgundy to start his first 'Special Places' book. Eighteen years later, he went back to find out whether the French B&B has come of age
Wednesday 26 September 2012
Most of us enjoy good company, but where can you find yourself at the dining table sparring happily with a Senegalese chef and his lovely Parisian TV-producer wife, a former finance minister and his spouse, and a laid-back mini-château owner? The answer, of course, is in a French B&B. This happened for two nights running, and it was hard to leave.
I first met Soisick in her delectable Burgundian manoir 18 years ago, when I was looking for special places to put into the first Sawday's book. In the autumn of 1994 I tentatively knocked at the door of Manoir de Tarperon, a modestly imposing house, expecting a frosty reception from an old retainer. But the door was flung open to reveal a gorgeous, Gitanes-smoking, 29-year-old Parisienne called Soisick, a glass of wine at the ready and jazz spilling from the house. She had just inherited it, and had bravely decided to go it alone as the first B&B owner in the area.
Since then, as she says, the world – including her husband – has travelled to her door, and they live in a curiously cosmopolitan society. Upon our return this year, my wife Em and I felt at home the minute we arrived and were soon sloping across the field in our swimming costumes to try the little river. Drinks before dinner and then a vast meal, our conversation enlivened by the wine and by gentle differences of opinion on every subject. The next day found us pootling around lush Burgundy and having lunch in Flavigny – where Chocolat was filmed. We finished up with a stroll around the exquisite Abbaye de Fontenay.
This year our little publishing company has come of age, and to mark its 18th birthday, we were in France again to visit one of "our" first hotels and three of our original Special Places B&Bs, travelling on Eurostar, also 18 this year. How things have changed.
The hotel we revisited is in Troyes, a miraculously preserved medieval city whose houses still retain their great timber beams and whose mayor has cleaned and revitalised the place in a very French way.
Since I first encountered it, Hotel Champ des Oiseaux has been rebuilt and restored by the Compagnons du Devoir, a French institution that takes young people and gives them hope and work by training them in old and almost forgotten skills such as oak- carpentry. It was moving and impressive (and seductively comfortable). We had a memorable 24 hours in Troyes, and will return one day to be re-inspired by the mighty cathedral.
Back in 1994 it was not easy to meet the French at home. Spontaneous "come-in-for-a-drink" invitations were unusual. Bed and breakfast as a concept was barely off the starting blocks, so our first book was a shot in the dark. Since then there has been a minor social revolution in France, with B&Bs opening everywhere. The French have flung open their doors.
I never fail to be delighted when hearing that British travellers are the easiest visitors, the most open-minded and the least demanding. I have heard it so often that I now believe it. Soisick, in Burgundy, is adamant about it, as are Christine and Philippe in their grand and isolated farmhouse in Boulancourt, east of Troyes in the Haute-Marne. Farming is tough (isn't it always?); Philippe looks after 50 acres without a soul to help him and depends on massive machinery and good luck. It is Christine who provides the extra margin, with her limitless kindness and hospitality to a constant stream of British travellers. The area isn't France's most luscious, but people come because they love the deep silence, the rural honesty and the rare pleasure of being made to feel utterly welcome.
Reading the 1994 description of our third B&B, the gentle Villa Les Rose, run by Madame Christaens, near Verdun in north-eastern France, I am reminded how expectations have changed. "Beds are excellent and bathrooms are being renovated," runs one line. French beds in those days usually sagged, and English travellers would use the traditional long bolster (still going strong) to protect each other from violent nocturnal contact.
Bathrooms were unpredictable, often alarming. Now they are often magnificent – though I confess to enjoying old-fashioned bathrooms, perhaps with a bidet on wheels and a screen to separate the bath from the bed. And the France of Billy Wilder – "a country where the money falls apart and you cannot tear the toilet paper" – is now just a legend.
Madame Christaens is going strong, now widowed but devoted to the company her visitors bring – especially the British, who make up 70 per cent of her guests.
In 18 years France has become more prosperous, more European – and more stressed. The computer age has allowed the stresses of urban life to penetrate to the remotest corners of the countryside. The growth of international travel means that B&Bs have to work harder to compete with those who are slicker and better-resourced – and to hang on to their short-haul guests. It is difficult to find anyone locally to help, as young people gravitate to cities. Good local shops are fewer, as can be seen in almost any French village, most of which now depend on supermarkets.
But our owners continue to produce and cook their own food, make their jams and breads, do their own thing. And still the British keep coming, bless them, and our French owners love them for it. The entente is still very cordiale, perhaps even chaleureuse.
Sawday's has created a special collection of 18 French B&Bs that have been in the guide since the beginning. See the full collection at sawdays.co.uk/originals
Alastair travelled to Troyes with Eurostar (08432 186 186; eurostar.com). The journey takes around five hours, with a change of train and station in Paris from Gare du Nord to Gare de l'Est. The current lowest fare of £89 return is significantly cheaper than it was in 1994.
Alastair stayed at Manoir de Tarperon in Aignay le Duc (from €72 per night); Hotel Champ des Oiseaux in Troyes (rooms from £150 per night); Domaine de Boulancourt in Longeville sur la Laines (from €75 per night); and Villa Les Roses in Clermont en Argonne (from €60 per night). All prices include breakfast and are based on two sharing.
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