Hospitable: adj. giving, disposed to give, welcome and entertainment to strangers or guests: hence-ality adv. (OED)
In the Odyssey Homer says that a guest never forgets a host who has treated him kindly but, because hospitality is now widely commercialized to be the cornerstone of the tourism industry, kindness (which springs out of charity, mercy and love) is glibly translated into flowers sitting prettily on napkins, chocolates on your bedside table, “luxuries” of every conceivable nature from foot massage to extravagant and irritating solicitousness.
Think of scenes in literature where the weary traveller arrives with a staff and a donkey (Modestina!) to find a seat by a fire and be served by mine host. A bowl of soup, a chunk of bread and a glass of something stronger sets the scene for storytelling and anecdotes told by the regulars or other visitors. The Pickwick Papers is one of the most comforting reads ever, its picaresque narrative carrying the reader along in a comical amble from one coaching inn to the next where a meal, congenial company and a bed for the night provides the happy ending looked forward to by all travellers.
That was one of the best reasons for enduring those endless hours behind the wheel, praying for the miles to be gobbled up on those endlessly straight French motorways, when I had to niftily hop out on the right/wrong side, to pay the tolls; picknicking- always unsatisfactorily- in the motorway cafe car-parks, gritting teeth to overtake lorries as large as houses that lane-changed without warning as they brutishly threw up oceanic amounts of spray in wet weather and fighting back sleep that was caused more by tedium than fatigue. At the end of the day there would be a comfortable bed and a meal in a carefully chosen Chambre d’ hôte from Alastair Sawday’s generally reliable Special Places to Stay in France.
One of my favourite places for a couple of nights was Claude’s hostelry, between Carcassonne and Toulouse, further down the road from Bram, “Coté des Jardins de Villelongue”. I always asked for the room overlooking the gardens of the ruined Cistercian abbey; a large, clean simply furnished white room with an armchair next to the window. At night there was a superb meal and conversation with the other guests. In the morning a huge breakfast with an array of home-made confitures.
Vous pourrez ainsi apprécier la qualité de notre cuisine et l’élégance de notre table en dînant en notre compagnie ainsi que celle de nos hôtes du moment, tout en parlant d’histoire, de nature, de généalogie, de brocante, d’animaux ou même en refaisant le monde de fond en comble entre 20h et 22h.
Si vous avez oublié de réserver la table d’hôtes, vous pourrez quand même savourer une partie de ces produits au petit déjeuner accompagné de confiture maison, de la charcuterie de Patrick, du pain et des croissants de Philippe mais aussi de fromages de l’Ariège.
Another favourite was Maison Numero Neuf in the rue Serpentes, La Souterraine, and just off the motorway to Limoges.
Duncan and Lisa Rowney have the gift of creating a welcome that is never cloying, but there is a really good dinner, white linen sheets with a hot-water bottle in cold weather, a breakfast with unusual jams (plum and chili) and Lisa’s own golden granola. The bed is wonderfully comfortable as is the bathroom, with lovely scented things and fluffy white towels and an atmosphere of tranquillity induces deep sleep for the weary motorist.
Nearly all the restoration on their 18th century house- the country retreat of a Count- was done by Lisa and Duncan. The wide chestnut wood polished floorboards, flowery wallpaper and attention to detail make up a harmonious configuration that is most reassuring. Their ten year old Tom will offer to play you his guitar, which he does very well, and the bustle of family life in the background provides an agreeable hum.
Duncan and Lisa have a great eye for junk, which they source at vide-greniers and polish up to offer as delectable brocante- heavy old glass confiture jars for night-lights, linen tea cloths, bits of slate, wire baskets etc which sit on a round table by the dining room fire to tempt guests.
Theirs was a five year project to give their children a second language and to practice the B&B business in France and soon they’ll be heading back to England again to set up shop in Wiltshire. It was such a relief to know there was at least one pit stop where I could shake off my driving blues.