Plus Ca Change

“Small, charming and full of character - do perfect family-run French hotels still exist? Yes, says Fiona Duncan.”

Review by Fiona Duncan, published 22nd June 2005.

Madame stands guard at reception, while her husband, le patron, is busy in the kitchen cooking dinner; there’s lace at the windows and gingham on the tables, a vine-covered terrace, a tank full of brown trout from the river in the dining room and neat, propre bedrooms with flowery wallpaper.

It’s a sad fact, but hotels such as these – bourgeois, dependable, rooted in their local community, and very probably handed down from generation to generation –are a dying breed. Those that still remain, old fashioned though they may be, have stood the test of time, and for aficionados no amount of slick bedrooms and state-of-the-art bathrooms in cutting-edge town houses, chic bastides and elegant chateaux, however professionally run, can compete with their charms. The places described in the following pages are amongst my favourite traditional French hotels. Some have hardly changed over the years; others have kept pace with modern tastes and requirements while maintaining their essentially old fashioned character. Some will stay in the family; others will close or radically change after the demise of their current owners. One or two have opened fairly recently, but – hearteningly – stand out for being run with the same hands-on care and integrity, and sense of continuity, as the old-established places.

Though a few are luxurious, many of these hotels are simple. Though you should expect attentive service, and clean, comfortable rooms in all of them, you need to be indulgent in some. If the walls are thin, the shower leaks, the television doesn’t work, or the cat is sitting on the reception desk, remember that you are swapping perfection for authenticity and charm, and that when these places have disappeared, we will have lost a great deal. Prices refer to a standard double room including breakfast in low season. Some of the hotels listed retain the same rate throughout the years, others increase their rates during high season. Many of the country hotels close for a period during winter. The North WestHôtel de France et des Fuchsias, St-Vaast-la-Hougue (Manche)‘Nothing changes. The garden is still in good order, as are the fuchsias, the trout are still swimming in their tank, the staff are still friendly and efficient and the conservatory dining room, where the seafood platters are still too enormous to finish, remains enticing.’ So says one of the France et Fuchsias many aficionados, who are happy to find, when they return, that it hasn’t altered a jot. Opt for a bedroom in the annexe, more comfortable than the very simple ones in the main house.20 rue Marechal Foch (0033 2 3354 4226; From £68.

Château de Quineville, Quineville (Manche) At the northern end of Utah Beach, this shabby-grand hotel teeters between ‘delightfully unchanged’ and ‘desperately unchanged’. But if you really appreciate the old style of French provincial hotel, warts and all, including unstinting puce velveteen in the bedrooms, then you will warm to it, and to the sincere, down-to-earth family who run it. Forgive the shortcomings in service and housekeeping, ignore the huge arrangements of artificial flowers and rejoice in staying in a graceful, classically proportioned 18th-century château, once inhabited by James Stuart. It has a tower dating back to the middle ages, an ice-house and pigeonnier in the grounds and a large, enticing swimming pool, all at affordable prices. Quineville-Plage (00 33 2 3321 4267; From £80.

Auberge du Clos Normand, Martin-Eglise (Seine-Maritime) In a village just outside Dieppe, a slice of traditional Norman hospitality. The restaurant is in a brick-and-timber building dating from the 15th century. Inside, it is picture postcard material – all beams and shiny copper pots and lamps hanging from barrels. The kitchen is open to view at one end of the dining room, so you can watch Monsieur Lucas, the chef-patron, as he expertly cooks classic Norman dishes: ‘cuisine ouverte’ is how his lively, friendly wife describes it. The spacious, peaceful bedrooms are in a separate 19th-century building at the end of a large garden that borders a river. They have recently been refurbished, but remain traditional in style, with chunky old furniture and big bathrooms. 22 rue Henri IV (0033 2 3504 4034). From £55. Ferme de la Rançonnière, Crépon (Calvados) This fortified farm has succeeded in keeping the 21st century firmly at bay. The oldest building is 13th century and the final touches were added sometime in the 15th. No smallholding this, the buildings form three sides of an enormous courtyard, and the fourth side, on the road, is guarded by a crenellated wall – a safe haven for farmers and their stock in more troubled times. There are two dining rooms (one beamed and one barrel-vaulted), which are particularly popular with locals for celebrations and Sunday lunches. Most of the original 35 bedrooms are baronial in size and much of their furniture is appropriately massive, with rugs covering the tiled floors and tapestries on many of the walls. Route d’Arromanches (0033 2 3122 2173; From £83. The North East Aux Armes de Champagne, L’Epine (Marne) In the same hands for three generations, this old roadside inn continues to exude a refreshing lack of pretension, despite having been continually upgraded and refurbished over the years. Shuttered and flower-decked, it has a fine view of L’Epine’s Flamboyant Gothic cathedral. Bedrooms are small and countrified, or larger and more formal; all are impeccably kept and suites have spa baths. The current chef, Philippe Zeiger, is nurturing the restaurant’s long-standing Michelin star, and there is a fine cellar. A popular overnight stop. 31 avenue de Luxembourg (0033 3 2669 3030; From £127. Aux Trois Roses, La Petite-Pierre (Bas-Rhin) You could be in deep countryside, so quiet is the medieval village in which this old-fashioned hotel stands, and from the rear there are uninterrupted views across the valley. The 18th-century façade is equally pleasing: creeper-covered, shuttered and balconied, tumbling with geraniums in summer. Step inside, and check curtains and chalet-style furnishings create a cosy atmosphere, though that can’t be said of the series of staid dining rooms beyond and, to one side, a dated indoor swimming pool. As for the bedrooms, be warned: they are so elderly and tired that they are almost asleep (opt for the best). But it’s people that count, and guests have been won over by the warmth of Messieux Geyer (older and younger), especially towards their children. ‘Within minutes of getting to this hotel’, says one, ‘we felt at home, and sitting out on the patio, sipping Reisling and watching the sun go down over the trees will be one of the enduring memories of our holiday’.19 rue Principal (0033 3 8889 8900; From £48.

Hôtel des Berges, Illhaeusern (Haut-Rhin) One of the great restaurants of France, the Auberge de l’Ill, in an unassuming Alsace village, has retained its three Michelin stars for an astonishing 37 years. The secret of its success? Despite the accolades, it has remained a friendly family affair in the best French tradition. In the last few years Marc Haeberlin has seemlessly taken his father Paul’s place as master chef, while his softly spoken brother-in-law, Marco Baumann is manager of the small accompanying Hôtel des Berges (berges means riverbanks) set in the same lovely riverside garden. Built in the style of a local tobacco-drying barn, it’s discreet, expensive and beautifully decorated, full of natural materials – kelims, wood, almost nothing metallic or shiny. In summer you can breakfast on a barge in the river. Dinner at the Auberge is a memorable experience; just the place for a special occasion. 4 rue de Collonges (0033 3 8971 8787; From £239. Les Alisiers, Lapoutroie (Haut-Rhin) High in the Vosges hills, you approach Jacques and Ella Degouy’s converted farmhouse along a narrow, steeply winding road. Inside, you’ll find a relaxed family atmosphere, good food and a fine panorama across the wooded Béhine valley. Chef Marcel Lanthermann creates a sophisticated set menu centred on local ingredients, and floor-to-ceiling windows in the dining room exploit the view to the full. All the rooms are priced differently; ‘Cosy’ rooms are small, simple and spotlessly clean. More sophisticated are the five newer ‘Design’ rooms. A member of the Hôtels au Naturel group, which believes in respecting the environment.5 rue Foude (0033 3 8947 5282; From £63.

ParisChopin (9th arrondissement) As you approach the charming façade of this two-star hotel at the end of passage Jouffroy – one of the 19th-century glass-and-steel roofed arcades which thread this no-frills shopping and theatre neighbourhood – you may worry that it will be a tourist trap. Not at all. The caring hands of owner Philippe Bidal are immediately evident in the pretty little breakfast room, landings dressed up with chairs and flowers, and corridors clad in warm colours and lit by lights over the many pictures. The bedrooms are simply furnished but cosy and quiet. Those at the top, tucked under the eaves and approached along narrow, creaky corridors, have the feel of artists’ garrets. 46 passage Jouffroy (0033 1 4770 5810). From £62 . Degrés de Notre Dame (5th arrondissement) Most small Parisian hotels have no dining room. Here, however, is an exception – the kind of family-run establishment well known in the French countryside, but rarely found in the city: a restaurant with rooms. On a pretty tree-filled square, the restaurant has the feel of a simple auberge, serving correspondingly rustic food: nothing special, but honest. This is where guests also have breakfast (at any time), including the freshest of bread, orange juice squeezed on the spot, and properly made coffee. A steep wooden staircase, decorated with charming murals, leads to the good-value, distinctively decorated bedrooms, which have beams, smart wooden furnishings and walls crammed with paintings, reflecting the owner’s passion for art. 10 rue des Grands Degrés (0033 1 5542 8888). From £81. Ermitage (18th arrondissement) Tucked away behind Sacré-Coeur, this entrancing hotel was the creation of Sophie Canipel’s parents, who fell in love with the house some 30 years ago. Sophie took over when they retired and, in her friendly, dedicated care, the spirit of the house lives on. Beyond the smart little gold and cream entrance lobby, a decorative surprise lies in store, starting in the dark blue hall and continuing all the way up the stairs, on walls, doors, glass panels, skirtings: charming, shadowy murals – sketchy scenes of Montmartre – by the artist Du Buc. There is also an old-fashioned parlour, decorated in green and filled with antiques, photographs and ornaments. Bedrooms are light and spacious, with floral wallpaper, lace curtains and large armoires. 24 rue Lamarck (0033 1 4264 7922). From £62.

Thoumieux (7th arrondissment) In the shadow of the Eiffel Tower, this friendly place, once a convent, revolves around a bustling brasserie, which has belonged to the Thoumieux family since the 1930s, and is now run by Françoise Thoumieux and her husband, Jean Bassalert. Except for the addition of mirrored walls and modern prints, the cavernous restaurant, with its black fascia, maroon velvet curtains and banquettes, seems to have changed little since its opening. It specializes in the regional cuisine of the Southwest – foie gras, cassoulet and the like – and honest, drinkable house wines. On Sundays, it is full to bursting with families who have been coming here forever. The hotel entrance is next door, and its stylish reception, upstairs. The ten bedrooms are surprisingly spacious with tasteful modern furniture. 79 rue Saint-Dominique (0033 1 4705 4975; From £95.The WestDomaine de l’Etape, Le Blanc (Indre) Deep enough in the countryside to satisfy the most desperate need to escape the city, this 19th-century mansion has a large lake, which you're welcome to fish, and the outbuildings of a home farm, complete with horses and chickens. All this is presided over by Madame Seiller with the kind of genial tranquillity that comes of years of practice (more than 30 of them in her case). The house has been in her family for 125 years. When she started the hotel she had just seven bedrooms; there are now 35. Comfortably and informally decorated, the best are in the main building, where there is also a panelled dining room and a handsome Louis Philippe salon. Route de Bélâbre (0033 2 5437 1802; From £56.

Diderot, Chinon (Indre-et-Loire) Although Laurent and Françoise Dutheil have only been in charge of this handsome creeper-covered, white-shuttered town hotel since April 2003, Laurent worked for the previous owner for seven years before that. And, despite some necessary renovations, they have kept changes to the minimum (even the moderate prices). The courtyard’s exotic collection of trees – including fig and banana – makes it an appealing spot for sitting out, and there are plenty of tables and chairs to encourage you. The fruit also provides the ingredients for some of Laurent’s delicious home-made preserves (more than 50 varieties), which you can taste at breakfast, served on the shady terrace or in a rustic beamed room. Bedrooms are simply furnished, but spotlessly clean and some have fine views. 4 rue Buffon (0033 2 4793 1887; From £49.

Domaine de Rennebourg, St-Denis-du-Pin (Charente-Maritime) This idyllically rural mother-and-daughter enterprise was born out of a desire to escape the extinction by multiple divisions that Napoleonic inheritance laws visit on family estates. And what a success it has been. The long stone house forms one side of the large grassed courtyard so characteristic of the region’s yeoman farms, and beyond it is a garden big enough to lose yourself. The rooms are as welcoming as Michèle and Florence Frappier themselves, lifted way above the ordinary by innumerable little flashes of inspiration – artistic and humorous. In an outbuilding is Florence's astonishing collection of 19th-century dresses and assorted fripperies. Michèle's kitchen apparently effortlessly produces food that is inventive, plentiful and at prices that seem to defy rational economic analysis. (00 33 5 4632 1607). From £55.La Tonnellerie, Tavers, (Loiret) At the heart of the appeal of this fine 19th-century wine merchant’s house in the small village of Tavers is its central courtyard-garden with shady chestnut trees, a pretty swimming pool, and tables for summer meals. The country atmosphere extends indoors to the two dining rooms, both overlooking the garden; one in ‘winter garden’ style, the other handsomely rustic, with a tiled floor and mellow woodwork. The cooking reflects the traditions of the region and is distinctly better than average. Over the years Madame Pouey has steadily improved the hotel, most recently adding four ‘apartment/suites’ (pastel walls, flowery drapes, polished antiques, smart tiled bathrooms) and refurbishing the other bedrooms. 12 rue des Eaux-Bleues (0033 2 3844 6815; From £90.The EastChez Camille, Arnay-le-Duc (Côte-d’Or) Armand Poinsot’s highly regarded cooking (traditional but light) is only one attraction of this splendid Burgundian hotel whose position at the crossroads in the centre of Arnay makes it the town’s most notable feature. Dark, dull corridors give no hint of the appeal of the bedrooms, which come as a delightful surprise: some are compact, others spacious, many are beamed and all are full of character, with simple bathrooms. But it’s the dining room, fashioned, conservatory-style, from a covered courtyard, that is the heart of the hotel. To one side is the kitchen, open to view, and adjoining, the pâtisserie. “It is interesting for the guests to see the kitchen staff at work,” says Monsieur Poinsot, “and just as interesting for the staff to see the guests.” The waitresses wear long white aprons and floral skirts, the food is delicious, the service smooth. 1 place Edouard-Herriot (0033 3 8090 0138; From £63.

Le Manassès, Curtil-Vergy (Côte d’Or) Though it was only opened a dozen years ago, this little hotel, set in the heart of a working vineyard in the Hautes Côtes de Nuits, has all the attributes of a traditional, long-established place. Owned by the friendly Chaley family, it’s as neat as a pin and finished with great care and taste – and offers excellent value for money. Most of the bedrooms are in the main building, while five more luxurious – and larger – rooms are in a converted stone building across the courtyard. There’s also a small wine museum in an old barn, where each evening tastings are conducted. Breakfast is a treat, with local jams and cheeses, assiette charcuterie, jambon persillé, pain d’épices – and a glass of wine. Just the place for an overnight stop en route to the south. Rue Guillaume de Tavanes (0033 3 8061 4381). From £64.

Taillard, Goumois (Doubs) Step through the French windows on to your balcony at this hillside hotel on the Swiss border, and you are likely to gaze in awe at the view across the valley of the Doubs, and revel in the peace; only the tinkle of cow bells disturbs the silence. The dining room too makes the most of the view, with elegantly laid tables placed around bay windows, thrown open in summer. Or you could take it in over breakfast on the terrace, eyeing up the inviting pool while you do so. The chalet-style house has its roots in the 18th century and has been owned and run as a hotel by the same family since 1875. The present Monsieur Taillard is an artist, and some of his paintings decorate the walls. Rooms vary in quality, the best being spacious and comfortable; pay more to be sure. The food includes local specialities such as poulet vin jaune and the welcome is low-key but genuine. (0033 3 8144 2075; Doubles from £66 including breakfast.

Chalet Remy, St Gervais (Haute-Savoie) In sharp contrast to the glossy hotels of nearby Megève, this chalet is as basic – and as genuine – as you could hope to find, with all the associated charm and character. An 18th -century farmhouse, it retains its original woodwork, and is presided over by the redoubtable Mme Didier. It seems to have been frozen in time for at least half a dozen decades. A central staircase and first-floor gallery lead to the tiny bedrooms: wooden, extremely simple and poorly insulated, with pretty bedcovers. Showers and loos are communal. Traditional local dishes are served in the candlelit dining room, and the fine terrace has glorious views across to Mont Blanc. Le Bettex (0033 4 5093 1185). £36. The CentreHôtel-Restaurant du Vieux Pont, Belcastel (Aveyron) The name refers to a medieval cobbled bridge linking the two components of this restaurant-with-rooms. On one side of the river stands a solid rough-stone house, the Fagegaltier sisters’ childhood home, now the restaurant; on the other side, the sisters have rescued a tumbledown building beside the church to create seven comfortable, stylish bedrooms, furnished with handpicked antiques. Above, Belcastel’s picture-postcard houses cling to a cliff with a castle crowning its summit. Michèle Fagegaltier is the manager, while her sister Nicole and Nicole’s husband Bruno Rouquier are responsible for the cooking. Their imaginative versions of local dishes have won them much praise and a Michelin star. Through picture windows, diners can spot trout rising if the Aveyron isn’t flowing too fast. (0033 5 6564 5229; From £70.Château de Castelpers, Lédergues (Aveyron) Members of an old and distinguished family, Yolande Tapié de Celeyron and her daughter, Galianne de Saint-Palais, now run their home as chambres d’hôte. It is crammed full of family memories and mementoes: for example, on the stairs a portrait of Yolande’s great-grandfather, one of Napoléon’s ‘intendant militaire’. Her grandfather, an engineer, restored and extended the 17th-century mill in the 19th century to create, not a grandiose château, but an unspoiled country house, that has matured as it has been lived in. Its rooms are full of fine furniture and pictures, and many of the beds are four-posters. The taste is timeless; the charm effortless, and the park is enchanting – tall trees shading a long stretch of lawn running between a river and stream, with swings for children. (0033 5 6569 2261). From £62.Castel-Hôtel 1904, St-Gervais-d’Auvergne (Puy-de-Dôme) The 1904 in the name refers to the year in which this château-style house was turned into a hotel; the same family has owned it ever since. The present incumbent, Jean-Luc Mouty, is a gourmet chef whose delicate cooking style pulls in the crowds from miles around. The light dining room, with its starched white tablecloths and polished wood floor, makes an ideal setting in which to enjoy his cuisine. There’s also a rustic bistro, which concentrates on simple regional dishes. The rest of the hotel has a genuine old French feel. Nowhere more so than the atmospheric little bar, the perfect spot for a nightcap. With their wooden beds and old armoires, the bedrooms are also charmingly traditional. Rue de Castel (0033 4 7385 7042; From £60.Hôtel du Midi-Papillon, St-Jean-du-Bruel (Aveyron) Jean-Michel Papillon is the fourth generation of Papillons to run this old-fashioned, unpretentious coaching inn, continuing an unbroken 150-year tradition. Visitors can hardly fail to be enthused by the warmth of the Papillons’ welcome, their attention to detail, and justifiable pride in their hotel. It stands out for the quality of its food, served in the excellent dining room – domain of Madame Papillon – overlooking the river and a little medieval stone humpbacked bridge, or on the terrace. Jean-Michel cooks with vegetables from the garden and home-raised poultry, and makes his own jam, croissants and charcuterie. This is the rural, family-run inn at its best, where, thankfully, little changes from one year to the next.(0033 5 6562 2604). From £30. The South WestArcé, St Etienne-de-Bairgorry (Pyrénées-Atlantiques) Several delightful long-established hotels come to mind in Basque country: Chez Chilo in Barcus, Arraya in Sare, Ithurria and Ohantzea in Aïnhoa. But it is to Arcé, now in the capable hands of the fifth generation of its eponymous owners, that I am most drawn. The setting – by a river in a typical Basque village – is a magical one, best appreciated from the dining terrace that juts out over the water and is sheltered by a canopy of chestnut trees. Public rooms are spacious and some of the bedrooms are impressively large. A sizeable swimming pool is tucked away in a green enclosure across the river.(0033 5 5937 4014; From £95.

Manoir d’Hautegente, Coly (Dordogne) This is the sort of hotel that people don’t like talking about ¬– they want to keep it secret. Gracious and smoothly run in intimate country house style, the creeper-clad manor has been in the Hamelin family for 300 years and is run today by Edith Hamelin and her son Patrick. Public rooms and the spacious, comfortable bedrooms are imaginatively decorated with family antiques and paintings, and the food, served in the pretty vaulted dining room, does not disappoint. A stream and waterfall (the house was once a mill) add to the sense of peace, and an inviting swimming pool is set in pleasant grassy grounds. Room prices vary according to size and view. (0033 5 5351 6803; From £105. Chez Marcel, Cardaillac (Lot) This lively village bar-restaurant was built in the mid-19th century as a coaching inn and is run by Bernard Marcel, who took over on the death of his father. Time has barely touched it and, from the minute you find yourself among the dark timber beams and lace curtains of the handsome reception rooms, you are enveloped by the authentic rustic charm of days long gone by. The barely believable prices and unspoiled simplicity of the place have proved a winner for the Marcel family. The chef, Jacky Fabre has been here for almost three decades, and Madame Marcel is slowly adding to the delightful collection of country antiques in the simple bedrooms. Rue du 11 Mai 1944 (0033 5 6540 1116). From £26.Hostellerie Fénelon, Carennac (Lot) Excellent value for money and a homely ambience make this jolly-looking logis, with red roof, geranium-filled window boxes and red-and-white striped awnings, a perfect staging post for touring the area. Monsieur and Madame Raynal’s warm welcome, their staff’s friendly and unobtrusive service, and son Philippe’s highly commended and generous cuisine du terroir have won it many admirers. Carennac is a delightful, riverside medieval village, and several of the neat, clean bedrooms – conventionally decorated with reproduction furniture and flowery prints – look over the pointed Périgordian roof of a little gingerbread house on the banks of the Dordogne. The beamed restaurant also overlooks the river and, for summer dining, there is a paved terrace at the front, shielded from the quiet road by a tall hedge. (0033 5 6510 9646; From £45.The SouthLes Florêts, Gigondas (Vaucluse) Flowers abound at Les Florêts: on the surrounding hills in spring, in pots and vases on the terrace, on the curtains, the lampshades and the pretty hand-painted plates in the dining room. The setting, alone in a fold of wooded hills facing the lace-like peaks of the Dentelles de Montmirail, is memorable, and the ambience is enjoyed by anyone with a hankering for traditional, family-run hotels. The Bernard family, who also produce excellent wines from their nearby estate, have long been respected for their honest, straightforward approach to hotel-keeping, and for good, modestly priced food served in the animated dining room or on the shaded terrace in summer. Bedrooms are simple and sober, though the bathrooms are a surprise – opulent for a two-star establishment. Route des Dentelles (0033 4 9065 8501; From £74.

La Manescale, Entrechaux (Vaucluse) If you prefer your hotels pocket-sized, yet with every comfort, and the emphasis on the privacy of guests, then consider this remote former shepherd’s house high in the hills, with superb views across vineyards and valleys to Mont Ventoux. The smallest details are attended to here, from towels for the swimming pool to a small library for serious readers and helpfully labelled light switches. The house is beautifully decorated with the books, paintings, objets d’art and furniture of owners M. and Mme Warland. A place for lovers of quiet and of nature, with numerous paths through the woods for long walks. Only (a large) breakfast is served these days, but there are several restaurants nearby for dinner.Route de Faucon, Les Essareaux (0033 4 9046 0380).From £74.

Relais de la Magdeleine, Gémenos (Bouches-du-Rhône) Provence and the Côte d’Azur are awash with chic and stylish hotels but to my mind this lovely old bastide, smothered in roses and climbing plants and reached by an avenue of century-old plane trees, remains one of the most seductive in the region. It is, of course, a family affair: Daniel Marignane’s mother opened her home as a hotel in 1932 and he and his wife continued to run it with dedication, charm and good humour for many years. Though recently widowed, Mme Marignane has remained in charge, together with her three sons who work alongside her, one as chef. In summer you eat on the romantic gravelled terrace, while inside the house all is calm and elegant, and both public rooms and bedrooms (try for one at the front) are liberally sprinkled with antiques and pictures collected by the family. (0033 4 4232 2016; From £82.

Auberge du Vieux Fox, Fox-Amphoux (Var) In a charming little village, rich in history, this inn was once a priory attached to the 12th -century church, headquarters of the Knights Templar. Owners M. and Mme Staudinger are often to be found here in their beamed reception area with their cat, and happy to talk about the life and times of tiny Fox-Amphoux and the surrounding area. Bedrooms are simple, fresh and bright, each with satellite TV, a nod to present-day requirements. There are comfortable leather armchairs in the salon and there’s also a billiard table. Country meals are served in a dining room full of character, and the outside terrace has fine views over Aix and the Alpes de Haute-Provence.Place de l’Eglise (0033 4 9480 7169). From £64.

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