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4 New French Inns

Mathew Hranek A curious local in the Dordogne

Photo: Mathew Hranek

Armand Van Lierde and Greet Decreus, Belgian architects who had their own practice in Antwerp before coming to the Dordogne, are the B&B owners from heaven: discreet, cultivated, laissez-faire. Decreus is also a decorative painter, Van Lierde an artist. In the dining room, where chairs of rigid polyurethane foam by Maarten Van Severen for Vitra are pulled up to an old refectory table, one of Van Lierde’s works leans against a wall, a huge red field with a heart lying on its side, perhaps recovering from a wound. And in an area where they would find a way to turn foie gras into ice cream if they thought anybody would eat it, the dishes Decreus coaxes out of her plump, retro Smeg fridge and butter-yellow Aga are models of freshness, sanity, and simplicity: grilled eggplant involtini piped with goat cheese, cherry-tomato risotto, cinnamony apple tart. Seafood arrives right at the gate via an ambulant fishmonger who receives regular deliveries from the Atlantic.

In the atelier, in the kitchen, Decreus and Van Lierde demonstrate great reductionist style. They subscribe to wabi-sabi, the Japanese aesthetic system that finds beauty in imperfection, chance, decay, impermanence, natural wear and tear, and making something from nothing. Van Lierde gives two examples: "We had some not especially pretty stones left over from restoring the house and made a pile of them in a spot that happens to be favorable for raspberries and blackberries," he says. "Now the bushes are growing among and around the stones, creating a happy, artful composition. A section of the pisé floor in the salon has sunken in, and some of the stones have come loose, but I find it very beautiful. I won’t touch it."

Swallow, the only accommodation in the main building, is named for the bird’s nest tacked to a ceiling beam, another instance of wabi-sabi. Floating the mattress in the middle of the room, with no headboard, no nightstand, no bedside lamp, no nothing is a provocation I understand but reject as impractical and even a little sadistic: sleeping here, or trying to, I felt totally unmoored. The only other furnishings are a butterfly chair, a folding park chair in flaking paint, and a huge ottoman in hairy chocolate cowhide. Separated from the bedroom by a half-wall clad in chestnut planks, the bathroom has a sumptuous slipper tub that was found languishing in a field and re-porcelained.

Château des Milandes and Manoir d’Eyrignac are so close by I could not find a reason not to visit them. Milandes is where Josephine Baker raised all those adopted children and where the original of her legendary banana skirt is exhibited. Eyrignac’s grounds follow an 18th-century Italianate design and are known to garden enthusiasts around the world. Revenge on the campers and baby strollers was not my object in stopping in Sarlat on the way back, but what a bonus. After taking a lazy look around St. Sacerdos’s cathedral, the bishop’s palace, and the courthouse and filling my basket with a tin of foie gras and a liter of walnut oil, I raced home to the arms of the Duck with Three Feet.

Le Castanet; 33-5/53-59-13-85; www.troispattes.com; doubles from $197.

Château de Balazuc, Balazuc, Ardèche

After the Revolution, property belonging to emigrés was confiscated by the state and auctioned "à la bougie"—with a candle. According to this picturesque custom, the winning bidder was whoever made the last offer before the candle burned out.

But what if you staged an auction and nobody came?That was the fate of two 1792 sales that tried to unload the 11th-century Château de Balazuc, whose host bourg (full-time population: 335) is located in the lower Ardèche on a bluff high above the temperamental Ardèche River, 63 miles north of Avignon. It’s a gray (all that Jurassic limestone), isolated, fantastically lonely place of vaulted passageways, houses that seem to grow out of the cliff face, and vacationing canoeists whose hands the locals like to bite. The villain in a long history of poverty and suffering is what Yale professor John Merriman names in his Stones of Balzac the "’ungrateful’ soil."

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