Surely you’ve played this game: Are you a hotel person, or an inn person?
My answer has always been firm: I am not an inn person. The homey rooms, the cheerful “And what did you do today?” every time you come through the door, the enthusiastic sharing in the breakfast room every morning—I know these things charm many people, but they stress me out. I have always been happiest in a big hotel, with lots of service, an unimpeachable concierge, and no rush to be on a first-name basis.
Now I’m not so sure. On a recent swing through the newest small European lodgings, I found not a ruffle, not a bowl of rose potpourri, and not a single intrusive question. A new generation of owners is focused on style, amenities, nuanced service, food as ambitious as at any city restaurant, and a general citizen-of-the-world cool.
As my little red train climbed toward the Matterhorn and the village of Zermatt, all I could think about was my last visit here, decades ago. That bed-and-breakfast experience was like a parody of Switzerland: varnished wood walls and varnished wooden furniture, all in a strange shade of orange; a duvet that smothered me like an avalanche; and endless breakfast happy talk while I worked on slices of cheese with a knife and fork.
Well, the Hotel Matthiol has certainly moved Zermatt along. Outside it looks like a typical chalet, but inside it bears the style hallmarks of a chic boutique hotel: aubergine walls and garnet-red cowhide rugs, of-the-moment cerused woods and glammy wallpaper, sculptural soaking tubs in the bedrooms, endless lighting effects (which never do quite what you intend), and words of wisdom etched into the glass shower walls, albeit from the 19th-century Romantic poet Joseph von Eichendorff. Google Translate made this of the German for me: “Where there is enthusiasm, it is a new world.”
You could argue that Matthiol isn’t all that small: it has 23 rooms and a restaurant. But when the same person picks you up at the train station, jumps out of the driver’s seat, runs behind the front desk, checks you in, runs back out, grabs your bag, and takes you to your room, where there’s a card signed by her next to your Matterhorn welcome chocolate, I’d say you’re firmly in “small” territory.
That person is Sarah Schwarzenbach. At first I was tempted to slip her a couple of francs for all this attention, until I realized she has been the general manager for two years. She’s Zelig, everywhere and everybody at all times. Even when the desk is unattended, between midnight and 8 a.m., you’re instructed, “Here’s my mobile number. Call me if you need anything.”
She grew up in Gstaad but prefers the less exhibitionistic character of Zermatt. There’s no driving in this town so, she says, “Nobody sees your car. It’s harder to show off. It attracts a different kind of person.” They come, with poles perpetually in hand, because Matthiol is one of only two ski-in, ski-out hotels among Zermatt’s countless lodgings.
Despite the youthful energy, Matthiol doesn’t make you feel, as boutique hotels often do, that the last occupant of your room just had sex on your sofa. It feels quiet, private, discreet, just enough apart from this condo-chalet boomtown, about a 20-minute walk from the village center. You come back from the slopes and warm up in that deep tub; you go to the bar and mull over the extensive wine list; you spend three hours over your leisurely served carpaccio of Schangauer water buffalo and pasta with wild mushrooms and edible flowers; you select the schlaggiest dessert on the menu, in honor of your full day of exercise; you drink some more wine by the fireplace, and then drift off on a cloud of down. A week of that passes very quickly.
It’s a scene repeating itself all over the Alps, where cozy chalets and other traditional buildings are being reimagined as sophisticated, design-focused inns. In Vals, Switzerland, for example, a place where design pilgrims come religiously to see the Therme Vals, by the architect Peter Zumthor, is the new Brücke 49. The inn is run by a Swiss-Danish couple, Ruth Kramer and Thomas Schacht, and offers just four rooms—for those who can handle shared baths—in a chaste-luxury setting of Midcentury Scandinavian furniture. The owners’ impeccable taste can be felt in every detail, from the Ole Wanscher furniture to the William Morris wallpaper.
In England, an inn has always meant something a bit different, something specific—a peculiarly English experience with deep roots. It’s more a restaurant with rooms, a roadhouse where travelers can break for the night, have a meal, blow off some steam with the locals, drink to their limit, climb the stairs to a small room, and pass out before setting off refreshed, sort of, the next day. You’ve seen Tom Jones.
“We have carried people upstairs,” says Annie Fox-Hamilton, the proprietor of the latest incarnation of the Lion Inn, in Winchcombe, England, about 30 miles south of Birmingham in a pretty corner of the Cotswolds. The Lion has been at the center of the village in some form since the 1500’s.
The modern-day incarnation has no formal desk, no lobby, no uniformed hotel staff. You go straight to the bar and someone gives you your room key. Looking around, you’re never quite sure who’s a guest and who’s a villager, which is part of the charm. There’s not a trace of stale beer or bad English plumbing in the air. The walls are Farrow and Ball Elephant’s Breath gray, and the furniture a skillful jumble of pine stools, gilded French fauteuils, distressed-leather club chairs, and industrial steel, under a head-banger of a ceiling. Peroni is on tap, a sure sign of the 21st century. There’s a good chance you’ll have a pint of it in your hand before you’ve seen your room.
The building being so old, the seven rooms are of course small, though No. 4 is more generous and No. 7 is divided like a suite. They’re all tucked under the roof and hopelessly romantic—minimally furnished, deeply tranquil, and fanatically clean, with every little moment carefully thought through. If I’d succumbed to using every one of the Bramley toiletries in my bathroom, I’d have smelled like grapefruit, lavender, sage, lemongrass, rosemary, lemon, geranium, and juniper.
Fox-Hamilton was an event planner for much of her career, and no detail gets past her: the fabric on every cushion, every board game stacked on the bar, every shade of meaning in every gesture from the staff. “Owning an inn is just an event that goes on 24 hours a day,” she says. “It’s not so much about hot-and-cold-running luxury as it is about a feeling of home. It needs to be stylish without being intimidating. It really all comes down to the staff. I mean, if you stay someplace gorgeous and the staff is unpleasant, what do you remember?” Being single herself, she is sensitive to the awkwardness solo travelers, especially women, feel. Her staff knows just how to handle them.
In the restaurant, which could be in hippest Islington, you see many locals, as well as couples ordering glasses of champagne and others relaxing after a day on the Gloucestershire Way, one of England’s loveliest walking paths, which runs through Winchcombe. Every morsel is of course local, artisanal, sourced, and has a story to tell, but you’re not hit over the head with any of these details. “I don’t want it to be about the plate experience,” Fox-Hamilton says. “I don’t want it to be about any one thing. It’s the whole feeling.” Nevertheless, my plate (monkfish and shrimp in Thai green curry) delivered on the experience quite well.
Where’s the TV? some people ask. “That’s the point: I want you downstairs,” Fox-Hamilton says. If you don’t take your iPad and do your e-mail over a drink by the big hearth, if you don’t get dragged into a poker game with some locals you’ll never see again, if you don’t help a child add a piece to a half-finished jigsaw puzzle, you’ve missed the essential social experience of an English inn. You can guess how that played with me. The beer made it easier, along with knowing that there would always be someone to carry me to my room.
My resistance to small hotels met its ultimate test in Modena, Italy, in what may be the world’s first micro-B&B. There are only two rooms at Quartopiano B&B de Charme, on the fourth floor of an old building in the center of this surprisingly interesting town 20 minutes north of Bologna.
Prosperous and chic, Modena will quickly remind you—especially after the crowded streets of Florence, also nearby—why you came to Italy, with its majestic town square, arcaded buildings in every shade of burnt yellow and orange, and streets filled with men in aviators and women bicycling in kitten heels. Even the bus drivers pop their collars. There’s quite a bit to see and do, too, as it’s home to the best balsamic vinegar and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, as well as Ferraris and Maseratis. Many people come for a night just to dine at Osteria Francescana, which has three Michelin stars.
There was never a particularly nice place to spend the night, however, until Alessandro Bertoni and Antonio Di Resta bought the attic apartment across the hall from them and turned it into Quartopiano. They were already well known in town for their casual-sleek restaurant, Mon Café, where it’s easy to stop for a croissant and espresso at 9 a.m. and not move for the next 12 hours. The inn seemed the obvious next step.
They have turned “small” into theater. Quartopiano is all nooks and crannies, like a child’s playhouse. The two rooms are each barely 12 feet square, and share a small sitting room with a ceiling that slopes so acutely, you have to duck to sit. Up a narrow stair there’s a spacious kitchen room with a view of Modena’s campanile, a sexy Italian stove, new farmhouse cabinetry cloaking even the refrigerator, and open shelves styled to make you weep. If you’re planning to remodel your kitchen, you might want to spend the night here just to take photographs.
Alessandro is the decorator. “If it’s all your architect, you can feel it, no?” he says. He admits he had almost too much fun finding the furnishings at the vast Isle-sur-la-Sorgue flea market in Provence. And it’s all right out of the pages of Côté Sud: the heavy hotel silverware, the old vellum-bound books by your bed, the gorgeous coarse-linen sheets and upholstery and the bathroom curtains cleverly pinched into fans with clothespins.
If you’re 30 and newly, madly in love, you’ll adore the snugness and be amused that the glass bathroom walls don’t go all the way to the ceiling. If you’ve been married for 30 years and live in a 15,000-square-foot house in Dallas, I’d suggest you rent both rooms, and have the living room and the kitchen all to yourself. At these rates it’s a bargain. Alessandro and Antonio are never far, just across a small terrace. They’re happy to arrange bike trips and excursions to see how cars or cheese or vinegar are made. They’ll serve you the biggest and best breakfast in Italy in the kitchen, or if you prefer, you can walk to their restaurant, pick anything you like, charge it to the B&B, and not talk to a soul. It’s possible that they’ll invite you for a glass of the local sparkling Lambrusco and a platter of Parmigiano-Reggiano—first quality, like none you’ve ever tasted. But only if it seems appropriate. They’re adept at reading signals. One suspects they like their privacy too.