Stay in historic accommodation?
By Gery de Pierpont
Period buildings carry us back in time—especially at night
I’m sure at some stage you must have stayed in an old lodging and felt the walls ‘talk’ to you—especially at night when all the guests have left or have gone to bed. Silence reigns and the décor fades into the shadows cast by the light of a candle. Spending the night in an ancient bedroom can stimulate mind and heart, and all the senses. Not much imagination is needed to sink into sleep in another era. Provided, of course, the place has kept enough of its original features to divulge its memories … Have you ever experienced staying in historic accommodation?
Cultural travel has become one of the most popular forms of tourist getaways—and it is true to say that exploring a historic town with its monuments and museums does add another dimension to holidays abroad. However, these excursions can also be frustrating: long queues and security cordons that prevent a closer look at works of art, leave one feeling dissatisfied and hungry for more—not to mention being held captive in a stream of visitors in a hurry to see everything before closing time.
Resonating with the past
What wouldn’t one give, in these inspiring surroundings, to halt time; to sit quietly and conjure up the spirit of the period, or to take time over a beautiful painting. How satisfying it would be to run one’s hand over a statue or handrail, glossy with age, or to listen to the murmurings of an old wooden floor. Old buildings call out to our intellect with their history, but also appeal to our emotions and engage our five senses (see our video ‘Four keys to unlock history‘). But we can’t give in to their call—to rest our foreheads against an old wall, or breathe in the waxy smell of antique furniture—unless we are in a room alone and away from other people. It is only then that the walls will talk to us and carry our imaginations into the lives of its former occupants. An invitation to stay in historic accommodation?
Countless are the times I have longed to linger in an old château at the end of a visit; or to invite myself to the bedchambers of an old stately home that I have only seen as a tourist. I have so often wanted to drift off to sleep in the heart of genuine medieval mill, or be wafted away on the incense of a Romanesque church. I have spent unforgettable nights among archaeological vestiges in order to immerse myself in their mysteries: a prehistoric grotto, a mass Minoan grave, a Knights Templar chapel, the crypt of an abbey, and in ruined castle fortress. I have also—I can tell you this now, because it was a long time ago—been shut up in several historic locations such as in a Bronze Age palace in Crete, in an ancient Greek temple of Sicily or in the tower of a Gothic basilica in Belgium (nothing I would recommend, though)!
Where to stay in historic accommodation?
Fortunately, there are historic buildings where one can stay without going to such extremes, but just for the sheer pleasure of being wrapped in history! There are authentic period lodgings where one can enjoy the hospitality and comforts of another era and, in a way, the wisdom of age (if you cannot wait to discover some of them, just have a look at our ‘Search by criteria‘ page).
Of course the best way—rather in the same way that the wealthy upper classes travelled in the 18th and 19th centuries—is to be invited to stay with friends or family who still live in period residences. Lived-in places where every piece of furniture and every picture has its place and have probably not been moved for generations. In such surroundings, these are the things that talk: the old chandelier lit with candles, the coat of arms engraved into the chimney breast, the portraits gracing the walls of the drawing room, the huge old kitchen cupboards and the ageless bottles in the wine cellar. Sadly, however, we no longer have this introductory network to the finest houses to welcome us, as we set out on our ‘grand tour’ of the old continent.
So we have to fall back on lodgings that the travel professionals can offer us, which is where the difficulties begin. There are a plethora of places to choose from. But there are very few rooms to be found—even in period buildings—that actually exude the past. How does one find them among the hotels, the inns and staging inns, the guest houses, gites, B&Bs, and all the other accommodation that populate the Internet?
Historic houses are not always inspiring
We all know those hotel chains that offer ‘historic accommodation in stately homes’—prestigious buildings that have been restored to the height of luxury and that are mostly, prohibitively expensive. However, once inside, any traces of its history are often artificially showcased, or the period is falsely conveyed with imitation decor. Sumptuous but mechanical. In fact, the reputation of these establishments rests on the opulence of their hospitality and the culinary excellence of their restaurants. Their focus is on a rich (or VIP) clientele, whose interests are meeting others of the same standing, rather than an immersion in history.
One can also find some delicious inns and trendy ‘boutique’ hotels or cosy B&Bs. Here too, the quality of hospitality and tasteful decoration seem more important to their owners that the transmission of history—even if the furniture does sometimes smack of the ‘flea markets’!
Among other lodgings that have been set up in old buildings, there are unfortunately, very few that have retained the ‘elements’ of the atmosphere of another age—those lopsided walls, the stairs with their worn treads, the flowered wallpaper, the squeaky doors, and beds that are so high you need steps to get into them. The sad thing is there are enough history buffs around the world who seek the essence of other eras in their ‘vintage’ surroundings to keep such a niche market alive!
Fire authorities often insist that stairwells and floors should be made flame-resistant by having old wooden elements replaced with reinforced concrete—for security reasons. In the name of comfort, some owners have sectioned off a space to install a water closet, or covered tiled floors with vibrantly coloured wall-to-wall carpeting, or populated their walls with a network of electric wire casing. We now find windows replaced with metal frames and double glazing, old stucco hidden by false ceilings, doors with new locks for plastic rather than the original keys (since sold). Our ancestors’ lighting and heating systems have also gone as has the plaster from the walls—our antecedents would not understand why people have undressed walls of stone and brick, when they took great pains to disguise them! In short, all the things that give soul to these old places are fast disappearing.
That owners should want to modernize, and keep up with contemporary trends is perfectly understandable. No one these days wants to wash with only a jug of (cold) water, or to have a chamber pot under his or her bed. Bathrooms are necessary, as are a discreet heating and air-conditioning system; comfortably sprung beds and mattresses are also a requirement—of course they are! In the hospitality world of today, it is inconceivable that one should be obliged to hear all that takes place in the next-door room. It is advised to have a wall plug to charge a mobile phone, or Wi-Fi for one’s laptop, or a television in front of the bed; and how does one accommodate people with reduced mobility without a lift or in spaces too narrow to take a wheelchair?
A question of authenticity
Some contractors have introduced contemporary architectural design when renewing period spaces. Their intention is to create a dialogue between yesterday and today by contrasting style, materials or colour. Unfortunately, the structural effects of these creations within history, are not always felicitous. If there are some with aesthetic appeal, most of these attempts to mesh with the past serve only to demonstrate the huge stylistic gulf between then and now.
And then there are the guest accommodation conversions. Buildings that have been renovated from cellar to attic and decorated and furnished to ‘look old’—decor of dubious taste and in a travesty of the building’s period—concrete beams are dressed with wood in imitation of an old ceiling, or a pseudo chimney piece is placed between two windows, or rooms appointed with Art Nouveau furniture imported from China. How can brightly gilded plastic mouldings resembling Christmas decorations possibly convey the hidden mysteries of an old house? This is where the authenticity of these testimonies to the past must be questioned. Are we still talking about historic accommodation?
Have the pages of history been definitively turned?
Today, the players in European tourism seem to have aligned themselves as a body to the new standards set by the hospitality industry, but have all of them? Fortunately, not. A handful of diehard owners are resisting radical renovations—owners who are convinced that the heritage value of their lodgings, is the most important asset they can offer their history-loving clientele. Owners who themselves are passionately interested in the past, and who work ceaselessly to reach the best compromise between preserving the vestiges of an epoch and the demands of modern hospitality. The owners of these old places tend to be unobtrusive. They have no wish to attract unappreciative tourists to their treasure chest, who would not understand why the beds are so narrow, or why the windows are misted over in the early morning, or that the bathroom is at the far end of the passage.
Aren’t all these points simply the fanciful notions of the architectural historian, or the whim of a writer? No, because I am convinced that these old dwellings truly allow us to ‘travel in history’! Surely it is old buildings, more than any other vestiges of a period, that can carry us into the past? Isn’t it because they enfold us in their history? (read Michael Crichton’s wonderful intuition about this)
Staying in historic accommodation in Europe?
The intoHistory project is based on a real ‘experiment’ in history and heritage in Europe. It is a process of discovery, which goes beyond a simple visit to a monument or a museum. The aim is to ‘feel’ history in depth by spending a night in a historic lodging to sense and absorb its unique atmosphere. It is to immerse oneself in another epoch, to give in to a surge of emotion, and let the questions surface. Because in our daily lives, history teaches us all where we stand in relation to a constantly mutating universe. Because history links our roots to the shared ideals of mankind. Because it helps us to understand the past, and prepares us to understand the future.
Obviously, it is impossible to actually relive the past. Time machines to take us back in time exist only within the realms of science fiction. It is above all, our imagination that allows us back into history. But we can learn how to feed it and activate it to bring mute witnesses to the past to life. Staying in a historic accommodation site is one of the most effective ways of achieving this (see our video ‘Four keys to unlock history‘).
Please, do visit the intoHistory website (start by exploring the ‘Find a place to stay‘ menu). I hope these escapades into the mists of time will inspire you and fire your imagination as they have mine …