It is time to book holidays. Some people will choose France. Others won’t – because the French are the enemy, Mr Macron is a clown and their food is wildly overrated. I’ve heard a lot of this in recent times and have got the message. There’s no need to repeat it in, say, the comments below, unless you find it cathartic – in which case, be my guest.
Anyway, France. I live there, shall be travelling about the country this year and, whenever the opportunity arises, shall book into a chambres-d’hôtes. They are, and this is the point, my favourite species of accommodation, a good compromise: less formal than a hotel, more structured than Airbnb. I’m a fan, and would like you to be, too.
The term “chambres-d’hôtes” translates best into English as “B&B” – though that, I think, undersells the French version. There linger about the term “B&B” suggestions of ketchup, exiguity and hatchet-faced landladies with hit-and-miss attitudes to hygiene.
Obviously, many B&Bs in Britain are now terrific. I’ve stayed in one in Lancaster and know of many others. But there remains a substratum where 21st-century hospitality apparently hasn’t caught on. At a B&B on a housing estate near Stansted, I was asked to take off my shoes at the front door – before my hostess had said hello.
Meanwhile, some seaside establishments still harbour surprises for the sensitive. In one, the room was so small that there was barely space for both me and half a dozen cockroaches. In another, a search for the TV remote revealed empty sweets wrappers and a half-eaten sandwich under the bed, and dirty underwear jammed behind the washbasin.
I called the owner, as I still couldn’t find the remote. He surveyed the garbage. “Some people!” he said, his voice full of regret for the Fall of Man. He found another remote elsewhere about the building, I put the rubbish in a bin bag he’d brought and that resolved the matter to his satisfaction. “All’s well that ends well,” he beamed.
This sort of thing hasn’t happened in any chambres-d’hôtes, even when I’ve not paid much. This may be because chambres-d’hôtes are more tightly controlled – or, at least, more tightly defined. They must have no more than five guest bedrooms, all on the owner’s premises.
Breakfast has to be included in the price and, if a table-d’hôte dinner is offered (as it is in around a third of the 21,500 French B&Bs), it should come with no choice. By contrast, it seems that there’s no precise definition of a British B&B – beyond a suggestion that they have to be operated by private owners, not chains.
But this alone doesn’t explain why, on occasion, chambres-d’hôtes appear to be more civilised. The reason may be that, historically, French people with tight holiday budgets have favoured camping. France’s 8,000 sites make it the top camping country in Europe (and second in the world, after the US).
There is not, then, the same Wakes Weeks tradition of breezy seaside holidays and accommodation owners treating hard-pressed folk as if they should feel damned lucky merely to be allowed out of Blackburn, Bradford or West Bromwich.
Elements of the tradition persist (“Shoes off at the door”, “Return before 5pm only if necessary” and more besides). As things were different in France, so chambres-d’hôtes were free to be more liberal, throwing the net wider, up and down the social scale.
Thus, rather than in clapped-out (OK, “modest”) seaside houses, French chambres-d’hôtes may well be found in châteaux, manorial spreads, farmsteads, vineyards or bourgeois town houses. And, because running chambres-d’hôtes is now somewhat fashionable, so among owners I have encountered are former architects, lawyers, musicians, doctors, artists and a couple who may be the most engaging aristocrats in France. Elitist? Of course. Thus are the standards of the sector improved.
And quality needn’t be ruinous. The average double B&B per-night price in chambres-d’hôtes is around £80. The best may be more expensive, but I’ll follow high standards as long as my money holds out (which, granted, in some of the posher places, won’t be very long).
Whatever the surroundings, whoever the hosts, conviviality is the key. Or a key. It has to be. Chambres-d’hôtes customers are effectively guests in the owners’ home. Off-hand formality isn’t really an option. However big and sprauncy that home, the hosts have to welcome, and get on with, most people. Otherwise word will get out, and they will go bust. But, in my experience, it frequently works rather well, especially if the table-d’hôte dinner is provided.
Ideally, hosts and guests all dine together. Thus do you meet people whom you’d probably never otherwise encounter – mountaineers, teachers, Bulgarians, French families, British vintage car enthusiasts – and who, by dint of being in a chambres-d’hôtes, are generally pretty sociable. Mightily enjoyable evenings may ensue.
At one, in a mule farm in Auvergne, laughter almost knocked me unconscious. Long and elegant evenings with a count and countess in a château near the Loire valley indicated what France lost when it topped the ancient régime.
Meanwhile, in the heights above Nice, a fellow from the WHO who’d recently returned from official business in North Korea, told us of his attempts to track down pizza in Pyongyang. Had I been John Le Carré – or Spike Milligan – I’d have turned the tale into a novel.
So, yes, chambres-d’hôtes are OK. There’s scarcely one where I’ve stayed in the last 20 years to which I wouldn’t readily return. Here are five of my particular favourites from more recent times:
Château de Chantore
Bacilly, near Avranches, Normandy
You have driven down the Cotentin peninsula. Mont Saint Michel rises across the bay. And you are smacked in the senses by an 18th-century showstopper of a place. This is the effect of Chantore, a red brick and white stone country château revived with outstanding elegance by two young fellows for whom this is a project of passion.
No 21st-century irony here but silks, brocade, gilt, rich colours, portraits, period furniture and a wrap-around notion of noblesse. Gardens, grounds and lake have a sort of epic tranquillity (chateaudechantore.com; B&B doubles from £193).
Bourgeois townhouse, just back from the Baïse river, was once home to a big name in the world of Armagnac distillation. It’s recently been taken over by the Belval family – they made money in gyms and fitness centres – and magnificently rendered into chambres-d’hôtes.
There’s a lovely garden out the back and the warmest of Gascony welcomes throughout (chambresdhoteslechai.com; B&B doubles from £91).
Charentay, Brouilly, Beaujolais
The approach – through a forest’s worth of trees – opens to a mini-manor house, reviewed and corrected by artist Dominique and architect Gilles for the provision of contemporary hospitality.
It’s a wonderfully engaging spot – great base for Beaujolais wine trips - with grounds extending as far as your legs will carry you (destination-beaujolais.com/chambres-d-hotes/l-ancre-vive-5734574.html; B&B doubles from £98).
Domaine de la Jarrige
St Vaury, Guéret, Creuse
Here’s your base in the barely-known Creuse county, a shout from Limoges and the A20 autoroute. This is the much-vaunted France profonde at its deepest, greenest and most disarming. Taken over in 2022 by a young couple from distant Alsace, La Jarrige is a 17th-century stone farmstead invested with verve, colour and a spa.
Bedrooms are in converted farm outbuildings, good dining in the main house. I’d be there yet, if I didn’t have to be somewhere else (domainedelajarrige.fr; B&B doubles from £96, with reductions for stays of more than one night).
Ferme des Iles
Autheuil-Authouillet, Evreux, Normandy
More a rural realm – along the Eure river – than strictly a B&B, this is a gorgeous spread of fields, paddocks and woods, ducks, sheep and horses. Rooms – in the country squire farmhouse and nearby barn – are huge and awash with neo-rustic imagination. Alongside regular bedrooms, there is accommodation for groups.
Whatever the case, should there be six people who pre-book, owner Sophie Borel will lay on a table-d’hôte dinner. It will be as lively as you like. The following day, you may visit Monet’s garden at nearby Giverny. Or Rouen, which is scarcely further. Or simply hang around right here (lafermedesiles.com; B&B doubles from £101).