I’m pretty sure that the phrase “single story living” has never, ever been used in most of Europe.
Over the past 10 weeks, we have stayed in a wide variety of accommodations of which two, had no stairs. Of those with stairs, about half had an elevator or lift. And I think it’s fair to say that most stairs have been narrow and steep and often with a curve in the middle.
So after a day of riding 3-5 hours, we would then inevitably carry our luggage up one, two or three flights of stairs to our room. And sometimes our bikes too. The sight of an elevator would almost make me giddy. The single levels? Total swoon.
That said, I have to admit, each arrival at a new location has brought a bit of excited anticipation. What will this place be like? Will it be ok? Will the room have a coffee maker or hotpot? Will the shower have good water pressure? Will we get an extra tiny full size bed or two twins pushed to within inches of each other and marketed as a “king size”? Where will we park the bikes?
Our budget? As cheap as possible with a few non-negotiables. These are, a private bathroom (can be separate but must be our own), Wifi, and on days when Rick needs to work, a larger space with a table or desk.
Since we’ve been pretty open about where we stay, we’ve had a lot of unique, sometimes beautiful, rarely boring, often quirky, lodging.
Early on, Rick and I committed to creating our plan for the following day before having dinner. This worked out perfectly because after a full day of riding, we were tired and needed to rest a bit anyway. Plus, in some places, dinner isn’t even available until 7:30 or 8:00pm. Literally, nothing open. Often, our destination for the next day was based on where we could find a place to stay with food nearby.
We learned this the hard way.
Riding up through central France our route was dominated by finding a place to sleep within reasonable mileage. On one especially long rural segment, we were able to find a single hotel that advertised a restaurant. Score! I was a little worried that it was going to be a big box hotel because it was part of a chain called The Brit Hotel. All kinds of stereotypes rushed into my mind. Brit Hotel in France? What? A pub with fish and chips? But we needed a place to stay and riding an extra 30 miles was out of the question.
And even so, it was a long, and very hot day. We rode nearly 50 miles through mostly wheat fields and pastures. The rolling hills kept us on our toes and we were thankful we had packed a picnic since there were no food establishments anywhere along the way.
And then in the distance I saw it. All alone on a highway in the middle of yet another wheat field. A big square box. Our home for the night. Riding into the parking lot was as disappointing as I expected.
But then we walked into the lobby. Immaculately designed with a couple Btitish classic cars in a huge showroom. The decor all white and cool and trendy. Thankfully, this was NOT what I expected. Like so many places we have stayed, the outside was deceiving.
Checking in we asked about the restaurant. Oh no. We closed that during the pandemic and now it’s open only on the weekend. What? No food? Closest place is about 10 miles. Our crestfallen faces and clear exhaustion were enough. The French hospitality and kindness kicked into overdrive. Can we get you a charcuterie board along with some bread? Beer? Yes!
And our room had aircon and the bed was comfy and the wifi strong. Life was good again. All for a great price.
Many places we stayed were big fancy hotels that had once been quite grand but now looked tired and a bit worn. Like The Hotel du Palais in Châtellerault where we literally parked our bikes in the unused ballroom, or the waterfront hotel La Maison des Galets in St. Vallery-en-Caux where there was no reception, just a key code opening the weathered door into a beautifully paneled hallway with crystal chandeliers. In Santa Cruz we stayed at the Hotel Miramar, a very retro mid-century establishment that was completely empty except for us and the man at reception. Our bikes were housed in an eerily quiet conference room. There was the huge river front hotel in Caudebec-en-Caux that had clearly lost business to the river cruise line that docked out front on the Seine. This didn’t stop the dining room from serving a full three course French dinner complete with an amuse-bouche. In French, amuse bouche means literally “it amuses the mouth.” It’s typically served before a starter and is quite small. A bite or two of something unusual. It’s very traditional and a bit old school. There were just three groups in the dining room that night.
Most places we stayed were privately owned, small pension-style establishments with 5-10 rooms. Almost always in very old buildings, these funky spots looked completely non-descript and dumpy on the outside. But more often than not a wonderful surprise awaited once you opened the front door.
These gems often had rooms with gorgeous views. Of the sea, or a lovely garden or an historic church, chateau or square. The service was almost always kind and welcoming. Because these places typically cater to more local guests, English was not a guarantee.
And the splurges. Those times when we needed to rest, do laundry and stay for a few days. From the ultra modern Eurostar hotel in Porto, to the beach apartment in Baiona, to the luxury apartments in Brugge and Moers, all beautiful, comfortable and surprisingly affordable.
One of my favorites was an apartment in the beach town of Étretat. In order to find the place , the owner sent us a set of directions with a series of pictures. It was tucked deep in the old town. No car could get near it. We had to walk our bikes through the narrowest portions. With a tiny courtyard shared with three other flats, we met a nice neighbor lady and her cat. So charming.
The memory of a few hosts will stay with me for years to come. Pete and Lindy, the British couple that own a sweet bungalow in L’isle Jordain. Pete gave us a ride to a restaurant for dinner and later shared stories over beers on their porch overlooking the Vienne River. Or Jianghong, our host in Le Crotoy. Finding out it was Sean’s birthday, she brought us a bottle of champaigne to celebrate. Later we found a huge bowl of cherries by our door. Or Rashid, the receptionist at our Paris hotel, The Pavillon Louvre Rivoli. When we were working to get Sean’s bike from the airport to the hotel by van, he not only got us a good price, he acted as translator between the driver and us. It worked like clockwork. He was amazing.
By the time we head home in another week, we will have stayed at over 50 different establishments. Our nearly three month stay will cost far less than our three week organized bike trip to Croatia in 2011.
But really, staying in these off the beaten path places isn’t just about saving money. In fact, that’s just the added bonus. No, these local treasures have offered a great way to get just a little bit closer to the culture, reducing the buffer from the typical life of our surroundings. Rough, raw and beautiful. Revealing the truth of both abundance and hardship.