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4 New French Inns

Mathew Hranek A curious local in the Dordogne

Photo: Mathew Hranek

There’s a new wind blowing in France—or is that a storm kicking up?Guesthouses—maisons d’hôtes—are in a delirious state of revolution.

In the old model, the kids went off to university, their rooms (minus the Johnny Hallyday posters) were done up with a wing, a prayer, a staple gun, a bolt of Napoleonic toile de Jouy (purchased on a special trip to Paris at the Marché St.-Pierre discount fabric market), and that was that. Maybe the radiators worked, maybe they didn’t. The towels were leftovers, thin and sandpapery. The croissants had freezer burn. If you were a chatelain, you accepted paying guests as a way of paying for repairs of the family tapestry (Brussels)—or, more urgently, the roof.

In a dramatic reversal, the 2007 model is conceived—designed—as a maison d’hôtes; clumsy retrofitting is finished. And because owners are serious about getting a return on their investment, their MO is more professional. The best new maisons d’hôtes are also tiny, with as few as two guest rooms: You feel like you own the place.

But perhaps nothing has changed so much as the look, which has progressed from quaint and nostalgic to exotic and transporting. The map says Provence, but one maison d’hôtes can’t seem to make up its mind if it’s in Morocco, India, or New Mexico. Mont Ste.-Victoire is the unlikely site of an Asian fantasy, lit with washi-paper Noguchi lanterns. In the Dordogne, a vernacular farmhouse goes head-to-head with two lean-and-mean, 21st-century pavilions. Furnished with modern classics by Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe, a medieval castle lifts its defensive bulk above the Ardèche River.

Luxurious double-faced wool-and-alpaca throws, L’Occitane amenities, and Olivier Desforges bath sheets will have you pinching yourself. Have maisons d’hôtes really come to this?They have. No, Fifi, we’re not in Clermont-Ferrand anymore.

L’Ange et L’Éléphant, Maussane-les-Alpilles, Provence

"Let’s get this party started!"

This being France, what the person at the next table actually said to me was, "Allez les enfants, la fête commence main-te-NANT!"

Historically, provincial maisons d’hôtes are a lot of things—deliciously louche, impossibly cute, poignantly decrepit—but rarely are they scene-y. L’Ange et L’Éléphant is the almost freakish, salutary exception, an all-in-one inn, restaurant, café, tea salon, and boutique. You might also call it a hangout, one that answers the ancient national need to be depaysé, or lifted away, by a mood, an atmosphere, an ambience—but without having to get on a plane.

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