When children's clothing designer Catherine Painvin hit bottom, her therapy was to open an inn. Christopher Petkanas drops by her singular chambre d'hôte in Aubrac

Jean Marie del Moral

Catherine Painvin exited the notary's office in dark glasses. Her head was bowed and her lips were quivering. Though we had met just 36 hours before, she collapsed in my arms in a flood of tears.

"Oh, Christopher..." she wailed.

I was on what should have been a boilerplate mission, to briefly meet Painvin and languorously test-drive her new inn, an audacious venture that has brought the French design press to its knees, and whose undercover clients include the mayor of Paris, Bertrand Delanoë; Isabelle Adjani; and French prime minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin. But there is no coming into even casual contact with Painvin's tumultuous universe, here in the Aubrac region of south-central France, without being sucked into it.

"People in the Aubrac are a little crazy," says Painvin, "so it's natural I wound up here."

Although her meeting with the notary had involved signing yet another piece of property over to her ex, Painvin—the firebrand founder of Tartine et Chocolat, the French luxury children's wear company—tried to see the bright side: it was one more step toward closure after an unusually anguished divorce. And the inn, known with the plainspokenness of its owner as Chambres d'Hôtes Catherine Painvin, was helping.

A 56-year-old grandmother whose Ralph Lauren blazer is threaded with the Legion of Honor ribbon, Painvin says she created the inn as an instrument of rehabilitation, as something that would light the way during the long dark crawl back from rejection. She was the one who was dumped—after 23 years. As if that weren't enough, the breakup coincided with her being diagnosed with cancer.

"I had it all," says Painvin. "Château, boat, beautiful children all dressed up in matching blue-and-white outfits at Easter, a husband who looked like Brad Pitt. Then one day he ran off—with one of my friends, of course. It's the only banal thing that ever happened to me."

You've heard of color therapy and transpersonal therapy, not to mention hypno-suggestive therapy, isolation therapy, and group therapy. To get over her loss, Painvin prescribed herself inn therapy.

The birthing of hotels can be wrapped up in all kinds of weirdness and neurosis, but Painvin's property may be the first to have shouldered the burden of convincing its creator that suicide, which she pondered, was not the way to go. Painvin is melodramatic when she's not being merely dramatic, but somehow you believe her.

Her hulking four-story chambre d'hôte was built as a hotel in 1862 for pilgrims on the road to Santiago de Compostela. The route passes in front of the inn and still sees pilgrim traffic, some of it pious, most of it secular. The façade is of basalt, the roof of scalloped tiles in a native stone, lauze, similar to slate. Warm yellow light beams through dormers over the surrounding cow pastures at night, but the overall effect is forbidding, and gray.

With five guest rooms and a vast eccentric boutique selling everything from smudge sticks and powdered soup to Painvin-designed Mongolian del coats and cheongsams, the inn faces the broad square of a lovely, if austere, medieval village, also called Aubrac. (A sixth accommodation is in Painvin's own house across the square.) Claiming just two year-round residents, the village could fit on the head of a pin, with room to spare.

Painvin undertook the decoration of the inn herself, as part of her healing process. Rejecting all received notions of how a room is put together, she subscribes to that seat-of-the-pants school of design that does not require a six-page rationale for the placement of every candy dish. As a guest, I have to say, I found this approach very liberating, very relaxing.

The theatrical style Painvin evolved makes lawless use of raw materials plucked from nature, chunky furnishings from Tibet and Nepal, architectural salvage, and a host of oddments most people would never think of bringing indoors, like the picket-and-wire snow fencing that separates road from heath in the Aubrac. Because of the coarse textures and worn surfaces she favors, the inn has an elemental quality, cunningly leavened by lush silk taffeta curtains, bedcovers that dare to mix wool and cashmere with satin and fake fur, and such throwaway niceties as bath mats fashioned from thick vintage linen sheets. Painvin's chambre d'hôte feels like many things—a fantasy Sherpa dwelling in the Himalayas, a Peter Beard-style encampment in the African bush, a hunting lodge in the Wisconsin woods, the main floor of ABC Carpet & Home—but never once like a guest house in France. One definition of genius is the ability to hold two contradictory ideas at the same time. Like Painvin, the inn is a compelling combination of rough and smooth, tough and tender, plain and fancy.

How successful has the inn been in getting Painvin her life back?Once the question formed itself, I abandoned my original plan—which was to spend the entire time exploring the beanbag contours of my buckwheat mattress—and passed my stay instead with Painvin, hoping to find an answer.

During three breakneck days I stood safely to the side as pilgrims, paysans, shopkeepers, friends, paying guests, family, employees, tourism officials, and starstruck strangers who'd seen Painvin on television bounced in and out of her orbit. For Painvin, it was business as usual. The tourism people made it clear they are thrilled to have her, for the Aubrac, however beautiful, can be a difficult sell.

The region is a vast landlocked plateau that hangs, at an elevation of 4,600 feet, about midway between Montpellier (in the Languedoc Roussillon region to the south) and Clermont-Ferrand (in the Auvergne region to the north). Most visitors are drawn by the food, and by the majestic landscapes, with their wide vacant horizons, rare flora, and icy spangled trout streams. The countryside reminds Painvin of the Mongolian steppes.

If Americans know the Aubrac at all, it's as the home of three-star chef Michel Bras, and of the collectible bone-handled Laguiole knives they buy at Williams Sonoma. Bras is still good for a couple of food-magazine covers a year in France, but after my last meal at his eponymous restaurant, with Painvin, I have to finally accept that his famously chaste marriages of unborn vegetables are too chaste by far for me. Much tastier was the standoff between Painvin and the maîtresse d'hôtel, who initially ignored her request to be seated in a certain part of the dining room. It was hard not to think the staffer was defending the hard-won celebrity of her boss against someone who is sometimes seen as a nouveau intruder.

Our lunch the next day at Chez Germaine, an unpretentious institution opposite the inn, was satisfying in all the ways Bras was not. The restaurant was filled with families on holiday and backpackers dangling aluminum saucepans. Painvin huddled with the owner to decide what we would eat: cured ham presented in rich folds with butter curls, little grilled house-made sausages, and aligot. The Aubrac's gastronomic emblem is made by beating young Laguiole, an A.O.C. cheese made with whole unpasteurized cow's milk, into mashed potatoes. With a lot of fanfare, Germaine serves aligot tableside in unctuous ribbons measured not in inches but in feet.

The dish isn't a dish; it's a fetish. Some Aubracois find room for it twice a day. Two years ago Painvin celebrated her birthday with the mother of all aligots at Canuc—an old stone buron, or rural dairy where Laguiole was originally made—and she insisted I see it. Here the mixture is stirred with a broom handle in an iron cauldron over a wood fire. If you want anything else to eat, you bring it yourself—a côte de boeuf, say, which the aligot master will throw on the grill for the price of a smile. The one meal at which Painvin and I escaped the purée was at the Hôtel Remise, where Bras often eats on his day off. In a room hung with lyrical compositions of fishing tackle in glass cases (owner Fred is the man you call for fly-fishing excursions in the area), we ate lentil soup ladled from a giant tureen that never left our table, juicy hunks of bloody steak, and a charming hazelnut sponge cake.

Between bites at her favorite restaurants, a thousand calls to Paris about a new Tartine et Chocolat license, and hiring a housekeeper for the inn, Painvin portrayed herself as being on the right side of recovery, our teary day at the notary's notwithstanding. Her doctors had knocked out her cancer. Her divorce had damaged her self-worth, but she was feeling better. Even her love life was looking up. Recently Painvin had taken up with the scion of a good local family, a man more than 20 years her junior.

But a tour of the inn we made just before saying good-bye set her back. She had decorated the place at the lowest point in her life. In filling the entrance hall with hard gray objects—granite posts, lauze shingles, metal tubing—she said, "I nailed my guts to the wall." All of the Himalayan elements, she explained, were a repudiation of her former bourgeois life. In Pure Love, a guest room, she stood in front of a mirror, which was draped, crime-scene style, with tape—printed with the words JE T'AIME. Whoever looks in the mirror knows he is loved.

Chambres d'Hôtes Catherine Painvin
DOUBLES FROM $185; AUBRAC; 33-5/65-48-78-84; www.catherinepainvincouture.com

Chez Germaine
LUNCH FOR TWO $48; AUBRAC; 33-5/65-44-28-47

Buron de Canuc
ALIGOT FOR TWO $22; RTE. DE LAGUIOLE, AUBRAC; 33-5/65-42-29-02

Michel Bras
DINNER FOR TWO $120; RTE. DE L'AUBRAC, LAGUIOLE; 33-5/65-51-18-20

Hôtel Remise
DINNER FOR TWO $37; ST.-URCIZE; 33-4/71-23-20-02

Michel Bras

Hôtel Remise

Chez Germaine

Buron de Canuc

Chambres d'Hôtes Catherine Painvin