My husband and I have l found that these are a unique and fun way to meet new people, and to experience a glimpse of the French lifestyle and culture. When we check in (always late afternoon at B&B’s), our hosts welcome us almost as returning friends. The rooms we’ve occupied in these homes vary as much as the owners’ personalities. Some have rustic country furniture and exposed beams. Others contain more elegant fabrics and furnishings.
We prefer also to stay in those B&B’s that offer a shared evening meal with our hosts (table d’hôtes). Before deciding to live a slower paced life, several of our hosts owned or were chefs in restaurants. While the atmosphere around the table is relaxed and casual, some of the meals have bordered on gourmet. We are such converts to this style of vacation that we now use B&B’s almost exclusively for our tour company also.
These meals provide lively, enjoyable evenings where there may be several languages being spoken. Hosts are usually adept at keeping the conversation flowing, and there’s a lot of laughter as we all attempt to understand one another. Dutch, German, English and Italian, as well as French may all be spoken in one evening. One particularly nice elderly French couple we met was celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary. Most of the hosts speak at least basic English, When we’re not accompanied by a tour group however; we ask that they converse only in French with us. It’s a great way to practice, and they’re always happy to both accept and correct our mistakes. One of my favorite aspects of the table d’hôte, is that once dinner is over, I’m already “home”. I have only to push back my chair, wish everyone “bonsoir” and make my way to my room. After a day of sightseeing and/or wine tasting, not having to drive anywhere is a real plus.
Dinners usually consist of an appetizer and/or soup, main course, a selection of cheeses, then dessert. Most also include local wines with dinner. Each course is served separately, so dinner is a leisurely affair. This appeals to me, as there’s time to enjoy each course, and my body has time to let me know I’m full before I’ve given in to the impulse to take that second helping. Not that that necessarily stops me from occasionally overindulging. Turn down crème brulee, mousse au chocolat, or tarte aux pommes? Not me!
Unlike dinner, a continental breakfast is included in the basic price of the room. These can vary in content, but all will offer fresh breads, jams (often made from their own garden), as well as coffee or tea. Many now offer orange juice, and some will also have cheese, yogurt or fresh fruit. American style breakfasts with eggs or cereal are rare. Since both lunch and dinner are larger meals in France, breakfast is much lighter.
Several of our experiences have been memorable. We arrived one day at our B&B, a canal barge moored just below a medieval village in Burgundy. The owner (David) was readying his draft horse and “caleche” (a type of carriage) to take another couple on a ride through the countryside. When he offered to take us as well, we readily accepted. We traveled along the tree lined canal then through a field dotted with wildflowers. In the distance, massive fields of bright yellow rapeseed were beginning to bloom. A herd of Charolais cattle in the adjoining field seemed to be fascinated by the horse. They trotted along the other side of the fence, keeping pace with our caleche, until we stopped to give the horse a rest. David tied the horse to the fencepost and offered us a cool, refreshing glass of Rully. We then noticed that one of the cows had sidled up to the fence and had begun to nuzzle the horse’s ear. The horse tossed his head and snorted, but the cow was undeterred from her flirting. When another cow tried to get close, she chased it away. We were all laughing, but realized no one had brought a camera. The episode was certainly a topic of conversation that evening at dinner. After retiring, we were lulled to sleep by the sound of the water gently lapping against the hull.
Another time, we made a reservation to spend a night at a small chateau in the countryside near Aubusson that did not offer the table d’hôte option in their ad. Being a Monday, the day many restaurants in France are closed, I inquired whether there would be somewhere close by to get dinner. Mme. Fanton said not to worry, her husband “liked to cook”, and they’d take care of it. When we arrived, she suggested three courses with wine. Going downstairs at 8 pm as instructed, we were surprised to find a table for two set with linens, china and candles in front of a crackling fire. When the second course arrived – as delicious and beautifully arranged on the plates as the first – Mme. Fanton admitted that her husband was a chef, and had owned a restaurant until recently. We had expected a good, home cooked meal made by someone who “liked to cook” and instead were treated to a superb dinner by our own personal chef. For one night we felt we were living the life of the rich and famous, with our own French chateau and staff.
One of my most memorable experiences was seeing two Loire Valley chateaux – Amboise & Chenonceaux from the air. The B&B we’d chosen in Bléré, between Tours and Amboise, is owned by a retired airline pilot. Since my husband is also a pilot, they hit it off right away, and M. Guillemot offered to show us his airplane, kept at a nearby airfield. When he took me up and flew over the magnificent Chateau Chenonceaux, part of which spans the river Cher, it was incredible! While in Bléré, we also stopped at a small bar/café one evening for a glass of wine, and to practice our French. No one spoke English, but once the owner and his wife introduced us to several local wines, speaking French seemed much easier, and we had a great time. By the end of the evening, we’d made new friends, and were invited to a barbeque the next day. At the barbeque, even though everyone spoke another language, and some of the food was different, it was much the same as a barbeque here. Sausages sizzled on the charcoal grill; children chased one another around the yard, and it was just another lazy Sunday afternoon.
We often travel off season, so occasionally we are the only guests. Near Cahors, we dined one evening with our hosts (Sabine & Claude), their daughter, and Sabine’s parents who were visiting for the weekend. They made us feel so welcome; it was as though we’d been invited to the home of friends for dinner – not quite to the point of helping to wash dishes though!
These are some of our treasured memories, and we look forward to making many more. We don’t in the least miss the amenities offered in hotels, such as TV, room service, and phones. Cell phones that work in Europe can be purchased or rented, inexpensive phone cards are easily available, and internet cafes can be found in the cities, should we feel the need to be “in touch”.
French friends once told us they are amused and puzzled when observing Americans on vacation. “Why are they always trying to do so much, rather than lying on a beach or sitting in a café?” they asked me. “Aren’t they on vacation?” It really is an unfortunate American tendency to try to pack as much into our vacation time as possible, then go home more exhausted than when we began. In our need to always be productive, we seem to be losing the ability to just sit back and enjoy our surroundings. That is one of the many reasons B&B vacations work so well for me. I’m reminded to enjoy the experience of leisurely dining, conversation, and just getting away from it all.
Is anyone going to eat that last piece of bread? Monsieur, another glass of wine, s’il vous plait?
This article has also been published in TheCulturedTraveler
By Diane O’Neil, West Wind Tours
By Joe Buckle
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