The French Hotel Experience

Any travel writer will confirm that French hotels have a character all of their own. Of course, at the luxurious and correspondingly expensive end of the market, the accommodation will be all that is required (if somewhat predictable) and the staff will make their best efforts to attend to their guests' every whim.

However, there is no satisfaction in having everything laid on yet having to pay a hefty rate per night (with all the "extras") for the privilege. Far better to explore the lower end of the market, ranging from dilapidated "no-star" establishments to the high end of the 2* grade. The grading indicates roughly what is on offer, but not in any way how it will be delivered - the grades (awarded by the local tourist authority) are primarily an indication of facilities rather than quality or presentation.

In most parts, finding a suitable hotel is fairly easy, either by one's own efforts or with assistance from the local tourist office - although I have certainly been in situations where the choice has been very limited and it seemed that nothing suitable would turn up. But most large towns (certainly in tourist areas) will have a reasonable choice. Here is some more practical advice.

But finding a hotel with suitable vacancies is just the start of the experience. It is customary for the proprietor to lead the way to your room before you are required to agree to it: sometimes (especially in the older town hotels) up flights of creaking stairs and along a twisty little maze of dark corridors all alike, calculated to lead even an orienteering champion around in endless circles. The proprietor will, of course, know the way by heart, making it all look deceptively easy. To add more challenge to the task of locating the room again, the corridors and stairs have to be lit up by finding a series of buttons which need to be pressed in a precise sequence (rather as in a game of Doom); successfully doing so will light they way to the next door or flight of stairs for just long enough to locate the next set, while any hesitation will result in the timer running out and impenetrable darkness descending all around.

Having reached the room, the proprietor will fling open the door and invite you to inspect it. The standard inventory of furniture will be arranged within: a bed or two, some chests or cupboards, one or more chairs and a wardrobe. All of these will be of some indeterminate age and style, none of them matching any of the others, and sometimes (if the room is small) packed together so closely as to make it almost impossible to move around. The entrance to the bathroom, if the room has one, will sometimes be well-concealed or cowering in a corner, requiring a thorough search to locate it.

For a brief stay this is all that will be required. However, those with back problems or an allergy to feathers should carefully check the bed, as it will usually be equipped with several layers of mattresses on top of a spring base which has probably seen better days. Carelessly sitting down (or, even worse, falling full length) onto the bed will result in one disappearing into a deep snowdrift-like embrace, not unpleasant while it lasts but very difficult to get out of without assistance.

Assuming that you accept the room, the proprietor will hand over a key which is usually attached to a piece of metal or plastic sufficiently heavy to serve as a reasonable ship's anchor. The intention is to encourage the guest to leave the key at the reception desk when away from the hotel; those (such as myself) who prefer to take the key with them must either separate the key from its companion (sometimes requiring a great deal of ingenuity and the use of improvised tools) or carry around the entire assembly - well-prepared tourists will have had their pockets reinforced with heavy canvas in preparation for just such an eventuality. However, one should beware if staying at the hotel for more than one day - sometimes the guest key is the only key to the room and the staff have no master, so if you take it away during the day the room will not be cleaned and the bed not made.

After having been left to your own devices, you will probably want to check the view from the window. Sometimes the room will be in total darkness, as a result of the heavy wooden shutters on the windows; again some ingenuity may be required here to open them and then work out how they should be stowed. Doing so may be difficult, but (assuming that the weather outside is acceptable) is also absolutely essential: the electric light provided will invariably be of such low wattage as to make studying a guidebook or checking the town map impossible. However, if the weather is good then the window can usually be thrown open wide so as to enjoy the fresh air and the view - unless you are unlucky enough to be at the rear of the building or in an air shaft, in which case you should have rejected the room earlier. Some of the best rooms (and not necessarily the most expensive, either) will have a small balcony, sometimes even with furniture - an excellent haven to relax, write postcards, eat or even indulge in more questionable pursuits.

The plumbing will have a character all of its own. The washbasin (and bidet and bath, if present) will rarely have anything quite so sophisticated as a plug. The national preference here is for a valve incorporated in the basin and operated by a lever: fine when the mechanism is new and properly adjusted, but after many years of no maintenance it will have deteriorated to the point where not even the most accomplished plumber could fix it. You may push, pull and twist the lever in all directions, as if taking a biplane through its aerobatic display at an air show, but the valve will either refuse to close (resulting in your having to wash under running hot water), or afterwards refuse to open (in which case the basin will eventually empty itself after several hours). Even in the rare event that the plumbing does do what is required, the water running away (in the worst cases, even from another room...) will result in an embarrassing series of gurgling noises similar to (although much louder and more prolonged than) those made by a sinking ship.

One last point that should be noted is that, in contrast to the universal convention in English-speaking countries, it is unlikely that there will be a Bible on the bedside table (or, in the rare event that there is, it will of course be printed in French). Devout worshippers will need to bring their own.

But all of this is really irrelevant; you are now safe in your own private part of the world and it is time to relax. Unless you are particularly uninterested in the outside world, don't bother with the television. Go outside, wander around the town, have a meal and wander around some more as the sun goes down. After finishing off with a drink in a cafe (or even outside, if the weather is still suitable), you can return to the hotel for a well-earned rest.

Downstairs the next day (assuming that you have decided to take breakfast at the hotel), you will be presented with the standard continental fare. I must admit that I'm not a great fan of croissants myself; the generally accepted advice is that they have to be eaten fresh (and this means really fresh, no more than a few hours old). Unfortunately, since catching them that fresh would necessitate getting up at the crack of dawn, by the time the croissants arrive at your breakfast table they will have started to turn soft but crumbly. The result of trying to spread them with butter and jam will result in the table becoming covered with a thick layer of crumbs and pastry flakes; unless you are a particularly careful eater the same will happen to yourself and your clothes. Use the single napkin wisely.

Unless you are staying in a luxury hotel, don't bother asking for your traditional breakfast (this means bacon and egg for British visitors, or kedgeree or any of the other odd concoctions that Americans seem to prefer). It will not be on the menu.

Having gone through all of this, you are now rested and fed ready to start the day. If you are travelling around then now is the time to depart: you can continue on your journey with the reassuring thought that, later today, you will be somewhere else and the whole experience will begin again.

Bon voyage.

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Last modified: Fri Aug 29 18:35:21 BST 2003