Reviewing Green Places to Stay in France

Posted by Lucy Symons at 09:25 on Wednesday 08 July 2015

Lucy Symons reports on a week of hurtling through the French countryside visiting some fabulous accommodations listed on the Greentraveller website, eating great local food and meeting some amazing owners.  

Les Orangeries Photo: Lucy SymonsLes Orangeries Photo: Lucy SymonsAfter a very easy crossing from Portsmouth to Caen, on Brittany Ferries, sleeping ever so well in a lovely cabin (sort of like a moving hotel room) we arrived in Caen. As this is a ferry, possibly even a “booze cruise”, you might expect tragic tales of burgers and chips, curled sandwiches languishing in a plastic packet or a few half deflated packets of crisps at this point. But you would be sadly disappointed as the Brittany Ferries onboard restaurant prides itself on fresh seafood and fine wines, amazing cheeses and fresh breads. I happen to know there is a full kitchen on board, no conveyor belt microwave ovens or lack lustre, sulky serving staff. Just giant shrimp, fresh crusty bread, abundant excellent wines and oozing French cheeses…

Cheese on Board Brittany Ferries Photo: Lucy SymonsCheese on Board Brittany Ferries Photo: Lucy SymonsLes Orangeries pool, Photo: Lucy SymonsLes Orangeries pool, Photo: Lucy SymonsOnce on land again, we made our way south to the Poitou-Charantes where we found Les Orangeries. Initially concerned that it would be noisy and unpleasant situated as it was right on the main route (N147) (an obvious through road for giant HGVs), we were amazed at how, just by walking through the hotel and in to the walled gardens, all we could hear were birds. And the contented clinking of the silver ware of the assembled restaurant clientel enjoying a delicious meal in the gardens.

The house was a traditional family home before Olivia and her husband took it over and is in the shadows of their late grandmother’s home which you imagine will soon be incorporated in to this amazing oasis of calm. They have slowly built up an amazing 16 room hotel with a restaurant over the past fifteen years, buying up the surrounding land to increase their gardens and allow them space to grow their own vegetables. The inside is sympathetically renovated and charming – each of the rooms and family suites decorated to best reflect the shape of the room or the light or to take advantage of French doors opening on to the garden, patios and swimming pool area (surrounded by orange trees). The barns and other out buildings have been opened right up, the rafters exposed to create a banquet hall and (under the eaves) a games room.

The family are passionate about their role in their community and their relationship with the local producers and so we were taken to meet Nicole in Les Jardins des Possibles. “It’s like lasagne!” she exclaimed of her garden soil, all sun weathered and smiles as she walked us around the manifestation of her incredible labour of love, illustrating how the various layers of compost and humous she has laid down in the earth to create the perfect growing medium. She reclaimed the garden from the wild and sympathetically she has (by hand – no machines here) coaxed the local “herbs sauvage” and edible flowers in to a perfect permaculture spiral bed of a garden. The vegetables and flowers are all planted sympathetically to best ensure protection from pests and disease and every plant has a story and a function. We were told how some give their leaves, some their flowers or seed, and some are used for their roots or the essence.

Les Jardins des Possibles Photo: Lucy SymonsLes Jardins des Possibles Photo: Lucy SymonsNicole has studied these things and knows so much you can’t help but stand in awe as she effortlessly explains how valuable each plant is. Rather like Brucey, each is her favourite (but don’t tell the others) and as she starts talking, her eyes light up, her voice cracks in amusement, she describes the form and function and importance of each of these green babies in her care. “Tiens!” punctuates her conversation as she pops another sumptuous morsel into my mouth. She has bee hives as well, although only one survived the recent onslaught of the Asian bees – bigger and bruising, they have invaded and killed her swarms… she watched one as it buzzed around us and you got the feeling this was a personal slight and one for which revenge would be wrought in her garden of reclaimed plants and objects (bedsteds no longer good for sleeping have become actual flower beds for geraniums, old metal structures used for climbing plants). Her collaboration with the chef at Les Orangeries inspires them both – you could see as they laughed and joked and then suddenly became serious in their conversation, that this is a truly quirky symbiosis. The subsequent food was beautiful and delicious, unusual without being too outlandish and the fresh seasonal, organic and locally produced food is a testimony to the time and effort this twosome have taken to involve themselves in each other’s business. Sitting in her vibrant garden drinking tea, we were sucked in to the enthusiasm and determined to be Nicole when we grew up.

Ruin near Les Orangeries Photo: Lucy SymonsRuin near Les Orangeries Photo: Lucy SymonsThe hotel, Les Orangeries, is located in the little village of Lussac-les-Chateaux which is just sweet as can be. Tiny and a few miles south east of the TGV served industrial town of Poitiers, it is quaint and traditional and slow moving. There are roman ruins here: some are preserved and presented for your delectation and others are sort of sliding in to obscurity and as I ran off my delicious supper early in the morning I came around a lake and saw a turret mostly covered in vines, poking up over the trees. An echo from a time long ago when fortification was required to protect the wealthy from the grubby villagers and you realise how times have changed. “So many ruins, we can’t be expected to keep them all pristine” you can almost hear the natives sigh.

The hotel does its very best to impact the environment as little as possible: rain water harvested from the roof is collected under the patio and used as brown water. Olivia also has a great wheeze whereby local hubs could be created where you can stay a night and then exchange various green transportation modes (a horse, canoe, electric bike, electric car etc) for the next day and the continuation of your journey - sort of like the old fashioned post hotels (relais) where you could stay the night and leave the next day with a fresh horse. Just chatting about it made us excited as we contemplated the glory of such an amazing idea.

>> Book your ticket to Gare de Poitiers

Les Clauzades Vielles, Lot Valley, France Photo: Lucy SymonsLes Clauzades Vielles, Lot Valley, France Photo: Lucy SymonsWe moved further south to Saux near Cahors where we found Les Clauzades Vielles where we stayed in the amazing 8 bedroom chateaux with pigionaire and 2 bedroom independent gite, tennis court, and 35 metre pool in a court yard. There was a private chef, Corrine, who popped in and fed us as we sat by the pool and did all the dishes as we chowed down before she disappeared into the night. The housekeeper, Isabelle, let us in and showed us around the house and left instructing us to call her day or night if we had any questions, and meant it too. She popped food for our breakfast in the fridge and we found ourselves sitting on the porch (after I did yoga poolside) taking advantage of the fabulous wifi before hitting the road again and heading further south to La Figuerie, Barrau, Tarn et Garonne.

>>  For activities and places to eat in the area, see the Greentraveller's Guide to the Lot Valley

La Figurie Photo: Lucy SymonsLa Figurie Photo: Lucy SymonsThe written instructions for the last five hundred yards to find this tiny spot included a brief synopsis of the neighbors fueds and the behavior of their dogs – all entirely accurate as the small fat terrier began chasing us just as we passed the gate, exactly as prescribed. Jennifer Bouncey moved to this tiny hamlet after living in Montfort L'Amaury and then Germany for years. It was her dream to find somewhere historically significant and untouched and find it she did. This house was built at the turn of the 19th century and the previous owner was born here and lived here his whole life. Jennifer has done as little as possible to change it, but has endeavored to preserve the essence of the house in the land in which it stands. She has constructed a gite in the garden and runs a cattery. We got lost on the way and in desperation she came to fetch us as we were so utterly chaotic. She gave us short shrift as she showed us around but we managed to gain back some ground. A lifelong spinster who has no children, she works long hard hours to keep the place looking as though nothing has ever been altered. “Guests say I am living the dream” she huffed, ”and I don’t disabuse them…” but it’s jolly hard work, she admitted, a full time job. You get the feeing that the land is possibly just a week from disappearing back to where it came from, if Jennifer moved away you wouldn’t be able to see where she had lived possibly in just a matter of days. Her love and deep respect of the history of the place are evident in the careful conservation of things like the darned eiderdown fabric she has converted into a mantelpiece pelmet. She loves finding things she’s not looking for, a forensic exploration of lives previously lived, long lost stories whose shadows she finds and excavates, investigates and treasures. A pin from a Sunday best shirt, a discarded bucket with no bottom, an old sewing machine… she pieces together the clues and creates the story of her home and infects you with the desire to know what happened next… But don’t go and stay with her if you don’t like bugs. There are a lot of bugs at Barrau.

>> Book your ticket to Montauban

Darned pelmet at La Figurie Photo: Lucy SymonsDarned pelmet at La Figurie Photo: Lucy Symons

Sweet French Cottages Photo: Lucy SymonsSweet French Cottages Photo: Lucy SymonsOnward and upward to Sweet French Cottages – along the river valley we travelled until we found a tiny hamlet clinging to the rocks in the woods above the river. Two disenchanted LA denizens escaped to France to find a quieter, gentler way of life, bringing their expertise for building renovations - although nothing in California would prepare them for the undertaking of restoring a 12th century commune. Made up of a small group of buildings, the provenance of the hamlet was up for grabs: they have inspected and investigated and come up with various explanations: the buildings could be: a chapel, school house, bakery, wine making centre, nut drying facility… When they took them on, all these buildings were largely untouched and so Lance and Rain gently coaxed them back into function without losing the essence of what they were and have created three single bedroom, adult only, gites to stay in tucked in an enchanted riverside forest that has been inhabited forever.

There’s a sophistication in this rural setting which allows for all kinds of people to thrive: you will find artists and poets and creative types bumping along next to the farmers. Artists and other odd balls initially attracted by the beauty and untouched quiet French life, seeking refuge, have stayed, attracted by a common ethos in Aveyron in la France profonde, the deepest of deep heartlands. Sparsely populated and seemingly impervious to change, a land of secret valleys, wild pastures and craggy peaks, rich with produce and abundant in natural beauty, this area seems all at once deeply traditional and wonderfully progressive. We had supper at a local bistro and were entertained by the waiter (who turned out to be the owner) who fed us the most extraordinary fare for buttons. There’s an abundance of good food here, and the gentle hand taken in preparing and the pride with which it is served is inspirational. Lance and Rain are at home here, and plan on opening an arts café, H2O, which will showcase local and further flung artists. They will serve food, host live music and book signings, poetry readings and other things you would expect in a giant metropolitan area, not here in a sleepy valley in the middle of France. Not suitable for children under 12 or those with mobility issues, it is an absolute must for romantic get aways or if you wanted somewhere peaceful to polish off writing your novel or dissertation.

>> Book your ticket to Gare de Rodez

Une Campagne en Provence, France Photo: Lucy SymonsUne Campagne en Provence, France Photo: Lucy SymonsFrom there we proceeded through the beautiful little medieval towns following the Lot River and then heading further South through Aix en Provence and then beyond Marseilles, spotting the Mediterranean and on to the amazing silent, dusty spot, Bras. Martina, German, and her husband, Claude (from the Alsace) chose to settle here because after years of searching, the property was perfect for their purposes: over a hundred acres with several outbuildings and a farm house ripe for development, they turned it into an amazing commune of self-catering cottages, apartments and b&b around a central courtyard: Campagne en Provence. Everything they have done has been sympathetic: it all looks as if it has been here for years and their intention is ultimately to be totally carbon neutral and self sufficient. They met resistance from the planners and architects at every turn and in some cases did what they felt was correct in spite of advice or contrary regulations because they believed it was right. “You need to take them on as if they were an opponent in judo…” Claude said with a twinkle, meaning you use their impetus, their force, to better suit your own needs; your throw incorporates their energy and weight and you use it against them, whoever they happen to be. Sitting over a delicious dinner lovingly crafted from the largess of the local earth, we chatted under the trees and got the sense that Claude was not planning for his present, or even his future but had a great sense of responsibility for his son, Fabrice, and his family to come. Fabrice, 14, spoke articulately that evening, at a table of adults who all spoke English as a second (or third, or fourth) language and held his own. Such an amazing testimony to his upbringing, but perhaps unsurprising, given the care his parents take with everything else in their charge.

A missing chick was identified after the meal, “It’s nature…” said Claude to his son. Fabrice, himself on the cusp of turning from a boy to a man. Fabrice wavered slightly, his bottom lip quivering for a moment and then he said, forcefully: “but today I have seen beautiful things as well! Tree frogs! And glow worms! Come and see!” and armed with torches he traipsed a group of adults in to the night to infect us all with his enthusiasm, in the same way his parents infect most of the people they speak to with their passion for the land they live on and the way they impact it.

>> Book your ticket to Marseille

House on the banks of the Oise Photo: Lucy SymonsHouse on the banks of the Oise Photo: Lucy SymonsOnward and upward – Paris next, or actually a sleepy suburb north of the city on the banks of the River Oise in Valmondois. Well served by the local trains, this is a perfect spot for popping in to Paris if you would prefer not to stay in the thick of it. We stayed with Madam Fort who rents her room through the delightfully named RoomLaLa. This is a homestay, a b&b with a heart. We were welcomed in like we were members of her family and showered with hospitality and generosity. Although her English is limited, we managed to communicate with no problems at all using the universal languages of interpretive dance and charades. Directed to the nearby L’isle Adam we found a picture perfect medieval town straddling the river with enough bistros and restaurants and beautiful houses to ogle to keep us happy for the evening. The whole riverside here is walkable – clever gates keep cyclists off the muddy path, so my morning jog was uninterrupted by any lycra-clad, boy racers with pedals.

Our journey home was totally uneventful, we came back via the chunnel and it couldn’t have been easier. Over all, the French desported themselves very well – especially the young. Time and again we came across lads who could have been surly but chose not to – whether they were waiters in restaurants or just the public face of a business, we were treated with indulgence (our French is a little rusty) humour, kindness and generosity. France is a country largely untouched in great tranches and long may it stay that way. It seems as if the great digital revolution has swept the rest of Europe whilst France stood solidly by, refusing to change their traditions or the importance of doing things properly and we, finally sick of the shiny modernity of the impersonal, have come back around again to the lure of the real, the genuine and we want to feel again – feel books with our hands, sense genuine hospitality in our hosts and feel good about what we eat – choosing seasonal and locally produced foods made with us specifically in mind. We embrace the traditions again, fall in to the antique bed beneath the traditional farmer’s eiderdown and click off the brass the lamp to sleep deeply, confident that these things have been here for a hundred years and chances are, they will be here for a hundred more. Especially if we show a little care for them, something every one of our hosts illustrated in the way they live their lives.

Vineyard in France Photo: Lucy SymonsVineyard in France Photo: Lucy Symons

Posted by Lucy Symons

Disclosure

Blogs posts categorised as 'Reviews' have been written with the support of one or more of the following: accommodation owner, activity provider, operator, equipment supplier, tourist board, protected landscape authority or other destination-focussed authority. The reviewer retains full editorial control of the work, which has been written in the reviewer's own words based on their experience of the accommodation, activity, equipment or destination.

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