You know how in the olden days rural B&Bs were really horrible? All mothballs and orange nylon and crucifixes and if you were lucky, all three at once. I remember once literally running away from a B&B in rural Wales where the halo of static electricity from the brown nylon counterpane threatened to do some kind of chemical mischief with the fug of napthalene flavoured damp rising from the red swirly carpet, and were an angry woman with a full beard instructed us on how to operate the cold, mildewed bath (c1924). We ran away to the nearest town and posted the key back through the letterbox in the morning. Brrrr. THen there was the heavily religious one at the Ring of Kerry with the comically low ceiling, where we lay trapped in bed under a pile of scratchy orphanage blankets, observed by 34 representations of the Blessed Virgin, as a small light moved shakily on the hillside outside the window.
“What do you think that is?” I asked my companion, idly.
“A man burying his son in a peat bog”.
He was probably right.
Then in the country in the olden days, there were also hotels. These were expensive and stuffy and overwhelmingly maroon in colour and smelled of gravy granules. You had to wear a tie for dinner and sit in funereal silence as an ancient retainer with six fingers and a vestigial tail limped up to your table with a dish of brown meats covered in a tarnished cloche. You could not make any noise at all, the only thing to do was read Horse and Hound and breakfast was served between the hours of 8 and 8:15 and you had better have your full Country Casuals day dress on, or woe betide you: there would be no dish of Alpen and stewed prunes for you. You had simply better hope that the chambermaid had replenished the supply of catering pack Bourbons next to your micro-kettle.
Well THANK GOD for modern life, I say, because now we have places in rural areas that are genuinely lovely and relaxed and where if anyone has a vestigial tail, they keep it well hidden.
My favourite place – the one that has reconciled me to the country after probably 30 years of fear and loathing of all things green and pleasant, is Le Domaine de l’Ardoisière (I have ranted about how wonderful this place is on my other blog, but I’m afraid I need to do it again). I have been twice now, once in summer when it was a freebie because I was writing about it for a magazine and once in winter with my OWN ACTUAL MONEY, which should tell you all you need to know about what I think about it, given my parlous finances. I am just about ready to run away and live there forever, hiding in one of the clever alcoves filled with cushions until someone finds me and drags me kicking and screaming back to my real life of poverty and lost keys and Lego.
L’Ardoisière is owned by two lovely brothers and composed of 6 beautiful, modern suites-stroke-cottages in a densely wooded, distant corner of the Belgian Ardennes. The cottages are fiendishly cleverly designed so everywhere you turn you get a massive eyeful of breathtaking countryside through huge plate glass windows. Even when you are cooking, which you can if the spirit moves you, because they have really great, well-equipped kitchens. They are modern and bright and very very plain and simple, all white paint and bare oak, with just a few quirky – but not maddeningly quirky – design touches: giant ordinance survey maps blown up on the wall, loos papered with American magazine ads from the fifties, bonkers oompah band album covers.
Here, have some photos.
This is what it looks like from the front:
The cladding is local oak. The child is mine.
And here, this is the view from inside:
The rooms are big and the beds are good and they all look out onto amazing views, like somewhere Snow White would gather cute animals around her and sing them a merry tune. Is that Snow White? Who the fuck knows.
Best of all, this is the view from the BATH. The bath also has bubbles, and mood lighting, and Molton Brown toileteries, but really, I can’t see how any of it can beat staring out at this:
The only thing I was really missing was a massive great big STAG. Or a wild boar. Or both, fighting.
The great thing about L’Ardoisière is that it is somewhere in the happy place between self-catering and a hotel. Wifi? Fast and fabulous. Breakfast? Delivered to your cottage by a mysterious man dressed as a cowboy staggering under the weight of five tonnes of bread, croissants, cheese and charcuterie. Hoovering, bringing your own towels, dreary inventories? Not required. Want someone to make your dinner? They will feed you, big, ribsticking stews or fondues, delivered to your cottage. You will not regret it if you choose this option, the Ardennes does GOOD food and lots of it. This was the “tapas” menu we had this summer. There was enough food for the entire population of Belgium. The flaky pastry tart with Orval cheese the size of a cartwheel went down particularly well.
There is even a swimming pool (it is very odd, with 1970s mythological murals, but huge, far bigger than most hotel pools). But if you’d rather just hide away in your cosy be-blanketed alcove, that is perfectly acceptable too. No one will bother you, except to deliver you vast piles of logs for your wood burning stove. Bliss.
The surrounding area is beautiful – there are many good walks to be had, if you are the kind of freak who likes that kind of joy-denying misery, kayaking on the river (ditto) and sturdy, shaggy Camargue horses to ride in the village (if you are right and proper and love all that is good and smells of sweaty equine). It is just near Bouillon, from where Godefroy went off and started the first crusade, and you can go and visit his incredibly large and impressive castle, and get involved in an eccentric bilingual falconry display, if that’s your kind of thing. Alternatively, you could just roll very briefly out of your cosy cottage and stagger as far as Le Charme de la Semois in the village, where they make the best croque-monsieur in the entire world, served with ceramic cones of sublime frites in front of yet another massive fire.
5 out of the 6 cottages sleep 8-9 people (and one new small one sleeps two – it would be a wildly romantic place to go with, say, Jonathan Rhys Meyers just off the top of my head) which will give you some sense of perspective when I tell you that a weekend (or a “half week”, three nights) costs €695. I know that sounds loads, but you can do division, can’t you? It’s really quite reasonable if you go as a big group, and it would be a brilliant venue for a family Christmas or New Year, or whatever it is people do when they aren’t condemned to spend their Christmas in a draughty salle des fêtes in rural Normandy. Of which, the less said the better. God, I need a horse picture now:
(This was the first sight that greeted me on our first visit. You can see why I’ve gone a bit soft on it)
2 Rue du Sédan, Alle-sur-Semois
(Go for ‘Hamptons’, with the retro magazine lined loos, and best view)