A good B&B is often a better bet than a similarly-priced hotel. We love this way of staying, but it can’t be just any old, any old…In order to qualify as ‘good’, the place has to offer more than the bed and the breakfast promised in the title. Running a decent B&B is like having house guests: some folks are naturals at it, others should never have strayed into the territory. Let’s face it, some people are just more skilful, relaxed hosts than others.
We’ve struck lucky using Booking.com. We read the reviews assiduously – you get a very good feel for the beds, bathrooms, breakfasts and hosts from users’ comments. Airbnb seems like an obvious choice but I’ve been less impressed with the offer – some of the accommodation looks like the kids’ room that they’ve flown from, still furnished with their photos, furry animals and Star Wars wallpaper. I’m mistrustful of Trip Advisor, where every establishment seems to have a Certificate of Excellence and the reviews tend to be prefaced with “We went to so-and-so and we weren’t disappointed”, which smacks to me of faint praise. We want to know, dear reviewer, what you liked, not the fact that it somehow just about reached your [presumably undemanding] standards.
So what floats my boat on the B&B front? My favourites are the kind of places where you feel like you’re in a private home with at least the comfort of your own, if not more. I like to feel genuinely and naturally welcome, rather than barely tolerated. (I remember once staying in a vast, draughty, echoing chateau in Brittany where we got the distinct impression that by using their spare room, we were simply subsidising the property and allowing them to stay in a house that they’d probably long since grown out of and could no longer afford to maintain.)
Good B&Bs don’t need to (and rarely do) offer dinner, but it’s great if the hosts can advise on where to eat (or rather endorse/disqualify the places I’ve earmarked myself – I do exhaustive homework in advance, a good dinner being high on our list of priorities), what to see/do/buy, which are the unmissable museums/sites, which is market day etc. etc.. A definite bonus in cities are B&Bs that offer their own private parking.
With those criteria in mind, here are a few places we’ve enjoyed of late. Maybe you’ve got some faves of your own to add, or experiences with some of the booking agencies you’d like to share? Please feel free to leave a comment.
Jardin des Glantines, Poligny, Jura, France
Ludwig Bindernagel and his irrepressible partner Nathalie Eigenschenck are the brilliant, bohemian pair behind this small gem, hidden inside an 18th-century hôtel particulier on Poligny’s main street. There are just two roomy suites complete with beeswaxed parquet floors, decent antiques and tasteful French knickknacks. Nathalie is a former French Masterchef contestant and does one of the most epic breakfasts in the business (below). Ludwig is one of the Jura’s burgeoning band of second-career winemakers (architecture was his first) whose natural wines have garnered an enthusiastic following, featuring on wine lists such as Noma in Copenhagen. In addition to fine Crémant, Poulsard and Pinot Noir, he makes stellar whites from Chardonnay and Savagnin, both blended and monovarietal, all of which you can taste in his cobwebby cellar. Make Les Glantines your base for exploring the beautiful, little-known region of the Jura, home of vin jaune, Comté and Mont d’Or cheese.
La Maison de Verre, Besançon, Franche-Comté/France
I can’t think why it took us so long to discover the delights of Besançon. We live only about an hour away but it took us about 30 years (plus the fact that the daughter of our neighbour was studying there) before we got around to visiting this pretty little French provincial town. Now I can’t wait to go back, especially since we discovered La Maison de Verre. Light, lofty, modern, minimalist-chic and extremely comfortable, it’s located smack in the centre of the old town. Once you’ve made your booking and arrived, you need to call up Katherine so she can lower the bollard in the middle of the road to let you drive in and park in the courtyard. The property once housed a (presumably pint-sized) car factory and has been rescued and creatively restored by a local firm of architects. The well-furnished breakfast table will set you up for a day’s shopping in town, and Besançon makes a great stepping-off point for visiting the Jura, just to the south.
B&B Arosio, Arosio, Ticino/Switzerland
This was another great find when I was down in Switzerland’s southernmost Ticino researching an article on Swiss wines for Decanter. It’s not strictly a B&B (it’s a member of Hotellerie Suisse, the Swiss Hotel Association) but Fabrizio Sommaruga is such a genial host that he makes it feel like you’re sharing his home. It’s set high, high, HIGH above Lugano but it’s worth persevering up the winding road and navigating the many hairpin bends to get here – for the views, the warm welcome, the peace and quiet and the lavish breakfasts with yogurts, cheese, jams and bread from the village baker. And as for making you welcome and helping you find your way around, Fabrizio takes the biscuit: we had a date next morning with top winemaker Ivo Monti in what looked on the map like the nextdoor village, but the route was uncertain and Fabrizio told us we’d never find it on our own.”Follow me!” he instructed, and leapt into his car. We set off in hot pursuit on an unmarked track through the woods, up hill and down dale until, some 20 minutes later, he deposited us at the door of Cantina Monti in Cademario and set off back home with a cheery wave.
Mas Figueres, Marçà, nr Falset, Catalunya/Spain
If you’re planning a visit to the wine regions of Priorat and Montsant in Catalunya, this is the place to stay. This tall, raspberry-pink, 19th-century house situated close to the tiny Marçà railway station (you could even arrive here by train) is set in its own grounds with a swimming pool and a vast cedar tree, and it heads our list of favourite Catalan hideaways, in a region that’s not short of good B&Bs and rural retreats. There are 7 rooms and a lovely sitting/dining room where you an ensconce yourself in one of the big, comfy, cushion-adorned sofas and chill out, play a board game or mug up on Priorat and Montsant. It’s run by a warm and lovely lady called Quima and her husband Paco, who will make you feel instantly at home. They’re members of Slow Food, so breakfast provisions – an array of jamones, breads, cheese, local yogurt and jams – come from as close by as possible and from sustainable sources, served indoors on cool days and out under the cedar tree in summer. Important footnote: if you don’t love cats as much as I do, this may not be the place for you – there are many of them, each more gorgeous than the last and they fool around most engagingly.
La Maison de la Bourgade, Uzés, Languedoc/France
This was a recommendation from my friend Petra Carter, who has a cooking school in Uzés called Le Pistou, and often sends her students here. It’s a classic bleached stone Uzés house just outside the centre of this beautifully preserved town, and within walking distance of the legendary Place aux Herbes (where the market takes place). This is another one (see Besançon) where you need to alert Elisabeth, your host, of your imminent arrival so she can come out and lower the bollard to let you into the street and direct you to the small parking lot just down the street. After you’ve rested in one of the 4 super-comfortable rooms or the 2-bedroom suite, all decorated in exquisite taste, you descend to a stunning breakfast served around her kitchen table. There’s a delicious little town garden and small pool, so you’ll hardly need (or be tempted) to venture much further afield than this lovely house – though there’s much to explore both in and outside Uzés which Elisabeth will tell you all about.
Villa M, Arles, Provence/France
Our most recent discovery, which made a super stopover en route from Alsace down to Catalunya for Christmas. The Villa M is an elegant Haussmannian mansion just across from Arles’ delightfully compact town centre, a little haven of peace with 4 rooms and a couple of parking spaces in the garden (which must be booked in advance) – a big plus in a town like this and when you’ve got the car loaded to the gunwales with Christmas presents and all manner of goodies. Sylvie is a natural host and her breakfasts, which she explains in loving detail, are a dazzling parade of fresh fruit, goat’s cheese from the Saturday farmer’s market just outside the house, honey from the local apiculteur, featherlight fougasse sprinkled with crunchy sugar and perfumed with orange flower water, some of the best bread and viennoiseries I’ve ever tasted, foaming coffee with hot milk (without the need to ask) and her own home-made yogurt.