The picture shows not a misplaced extraterrestrial but the light fittings in our hotel room during a recent stay in the Cantal on a short walking holiday. More of those later.
We have stayed in many French provincial hotels over the years, both before and after moving here. They are in a class all of their own.
Of course, the French have the Ibis and less up-market Formule 1 chains; once inside you could be anywhere in the world, so lacking in individuality is the style. But the country hotels that are run by families for families are unique.
Here are some of the features that make them so:
1. The décor
The reception area is usually dark, dusty and unstaffed, decorated with arrangements of ancient dried flowers and photos of unidentifiable film stars. You have to ring a bell or wander about until someone notices you, but once they do the welcome is warm, especially when they realise you can speak French. Sometimes a dog acts as a replacement for the bell.
The dining room is vast; you wonder if it’s ever full to capacity. The tables and chairs are simple but comfortable. There is usually a massive buffet, or sideboard, against one wall. You find the same crumbling flower arrangements as in reception but the pictures are either garish efforts by local artists with hopeful price tags on them or enlarged photos of aquaria or fields of cows.
The bedrooms are sparsely furnished, but clean. Someone who is colour-blind must have decorated them. The embossed wallpaper has the same texture as fitted carpet (see the picture above) and is usually light brown and ill matched with the maroon carpet tiles.
2. The light fittings
These deserve their own category. There must be a factory somewhere that specialises in the ingenious but utterly hideous light fittings that are the hallmark of French hotels. The ones in the photo above are comparatively restrained. Their counterparts in the dining room would win prizes for their elaborate ugliness. I was going to take a picture of them, but thought this would be mal vu.
3. The beds
The mattresses are comfortable, but often have a dip in the middle so that you roll into each other in the middle of the night. OK if you’re on honeymoon, but less satisfactory for a couple of longer standing.
Without exception, the beds are adorned with that symbol of excruciating discomfort, the bolster. If you look in the wardrobe, there are a couple of pillows stuffed onto the shelf at the top. But they’re square (why?) and almost equally uncomfortable as the bolster.
4. The minuterie
I have never come across this anywhere else but in France, but it might exist in other places. There are buttons at regular intervals along the walls of the corridors, presumably to save on electricity. Press one, and the lights come on but stay on only for a minute or so – hence the name. Sometimes they are programmed to turn off too soon so that you are fumbling to insert the key in the lock or have to negotiate the stairs in the dark.
5. The plumbing
The heights of eccentricity are attained when it comes to the bathrooms. They are clean and well appointed, but you need a degree in astrophysics to understand how to operate the shower, especially when it is combined with the bath taps. You don’t often see a bidet these days, but they are very useful for washing your feet, quite apart from their original purpose.
The lavatories are models of sophistication, but don’t always work as intended. Once in Le Havre, our loo was fitted with a sort of mincing device at the back. When you flushed, everything was supposed to pass through the mincer, thus avoiding blocked pipes. Only it didn’t work properly. I won’t say any more.
In Corsica, our hotel bathroom was gleaming white and obviously brand new. But there was no loo. After a fruitless search, we were on the point of going down to reception to ask where it was, when we stumbled across it. Pulling aside the floor-length curtain in front of the bedroom window, my husband noticed a small door set into the wall cavity. It was so narrow that if you exceeded a certain circumference you wouldn’t get in, or would risk having to be surgically extracted.
6. The food
Copious, freshly-cooked, good value and often based on regional dishes. In the Cantal, our evening meal was homemade veg soup, veal escalope with truffade (an Auvergne dish: potatoes crushed and mixed with Cantal cheese), a cheese board from which you served yourself to as much as you wanted and ice cream, fruit or the patisserie maison (e.g. tarte aux myrtilles – blueberries). All this for 16€ a head.
For all their foibles, I love staying in these hotels. They are part of the indefinable appeal of the French countryside. I far prefer them to the more upmarket but soulless variety. The other guests are unsophisticated and friendly and engage you in amicable but unintrusive conversation. You nod to each other companionably over the breakfast table before going your separate ways, wishing each other bonne route.
Below is the view from our hotel window at Thiézac in the Cantal; it more than makes up for the square pillows.
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