When Poppy Salinger and her late husband Pierre first caught a glimpse of the derelict house in the south of France, they fell instantly in love. Although it was crumbling and unkempt, the enormous potential of La Bastide Rose, an old mill situated in a curve of the river Sorgues, was easy to spot.
Former US senator and White House press secretary for John F. Kennedy, Pierre Salinger and his French wife had decided to return to France from Washington, and were looking for the perfect home in which to retire. But as soon as Poppy, a former journalist, set eyes on La Bastide Rose, she knew it was an ideal property to turn into chambres d’hôtes, something she had long dreamed of doing. The old mill was close to the lively town of L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, famous for its antique markets, and just a 20-minute drive from Avignon. Its position on the tourist map of France could not have been better. The Salingers’ B&B opened to paying guests in May 1999.
Poppy Salinger’s dream of running a B&B is very much a success story, but the 66-year-old native Parisian stresses that it didn’t come cheaply, or without a huge amount of hard slogging. The charming hostess, who clearly adores managing her luxury chambres d’hôtes, warns others who may be tempted not to underestimate the difficulties in owning a small hospitality business.
“It’s an amazing job. The best thing about running La Bastide Rose is that I love this house. And I appreciate it when other people appreciate it. Sharing is wonderful,” she says proudly. “But a lot of people come to France and think that it will be an easy thing to do, to buy a property, take a loan to do it, and then run a B&B.
“They think everything will be so easy, but they have no idea of the work involved. In France the legislation is very, very different than it is in the US or in Britain. The administration is so complicated.”
The red tape surrounding the B&B business became even more of a headache when new laws were introduced in 2007, following complaints by hoteliers that some chambres d’hôtes were actually hotels, without complying with stricter hotel rules. Now chambres d’hôtes are limited to a maximum of five rental bedrooms—each with its own bathroom—and a maximum of 15 guests at any time. And only the owner is allowed to welcome guests—a receptionist is not allowed.
Anything more and the business is considered a hotel, with stringent requirements for health, safety, access for the disabled and insurance. La Bastide Rose has five bedrooms, two suites, and a rental cottage in its spacious grounds, so it is now classified as a demeure privée recevant des hôtes—a private residence receiving guests.
But complications and paperwork haven’t dimmed Salinger’s view of her job, for which she prepared herself by reading “lots of books about B&Bs,” she says. “I had never run a business before. I was a decorator, which was totally different. Pierre and I used to travel a lot, and stay in some very good hotels, so I took note, and I knew what I wanted in my home.”
The first hurdle was the renovation, which they rushed too much, Salinger now admits. “We spent one year doing it up. That was the first thing we did wrong—we did the work too quickly.” The “American” couple also encountered a few major problems with the local builders, she says, who took advantage of their “foreignness”.
“In general if you move to areas of northern France, like Brittany or Normandy, people are more welcoming, more honest. Here in the southeast they think that if you come from more than ten miles away you are an étrangère. I was married to an American, and some people think that they can charge Americans twice as much. I had a series of problems with the builders, which were a big deal to me then—now I’ve almost forgotten them.” She recalls, for example, how the builders broke the only original marble mantelpiece she asked them to keep, because they thought the previous owners had kept gold stashed in it.
“When we opened, lots of things weren’t finished in the grounds, but the interiors were ready and I was perfectly happy with it. And the response from the guests was wonderful.” Salinger still finds huge pleasure in her guests, most of whom, she says, are appreciative and friendly. But she adds: “It’s exhausting work. You have to be up at 6 am, and you are often still standing at 2 am.”
La Bastide Rose is closed from January to the end of March, but the Pierre Salinger Museum, in an old mill next door, is open all year. The small museum holds exhibitions, such as one for the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War, and Salinger also opens the grounds of La Bastide Rose to art exhibits—French sculptor Bernar Venet will show his works this summer.
Prices have risen a lot since the Salingers bought La Bastide Rose. Today in the same neighborhood, near the small town of Le Thor, a recently renovated five-bedroom house with five suites and an independent studio in the garden, is currently on the market for €1,105,00—approximately $1,573,000.
Eddie Lyster and his wife Shirley came to France from the UK in 2004, looking for a property in which to set up a chambres d’hôtes. They found their new home on the edge of Castelnaudary, a small town west of Carcassonne, in the Languedoc-Roussillon region. At the time, they realized the property wasn’t exactly what they had in mind, says Lyster, but they decided the opportunity was too good to miss.
“The location was ideal, on the edge of Castelnaudary, on a major road which carries all the traffic from the motorway into town,” he explains. “With the restaurants and facilities of the town center only a short walk away, and views of the Pyrenees from the house and garden, it seemed ideally situated to catch the passing trade that is the lifeblood of the chambres d’hôtes business.”
Six seasons later and their Villa des Roses, a reasonably priced, simple three-bedroom B&B, is very much a viable business, which the couple say they hugely enjoy running. But they too stress that owning a B&B isn’t for the faint of heart, and offer some advice to those who dream of setting one up: “Before you embark on a venture such as this, be sure that it really is what you want to do. It can be hard work, and as we attract mainly passing travelers who stay one night only, we are constantly washing sheets and towels and cleaning rooms. Allow yourself more time than you think you’ll need to get things up and running, too. If you are on a tight budget you may feel panic begin to set in.”
Villa des Roses is open all year round, although for much of the winter business is extremely quiet—another factor to be considered when deciding whether or not to take the dive into buying a B&B. Prices in the southwest are generally lower than in Provence. A six-bedroom house on the outskirts of Castelnaudary, with a swimming pool, outbuildings and gardens, is currently on the market for €477,000—about $651,553.
Originally published in the May 2011 issue of France Today