“How did you find this place? This is the real France.”
A fellow lodger at a guest house in the French countryside north of Cognac seemed surprised to find us at the breakfast table. His tone was curious, with a shade of condescension, as he asked how we had possibly found this charming family farmhouse in a tiny village that had no obvious tourist enticements.
He was there by happenstance. An Englishman on a solo walking trek to Spain, he had injured himself the day before and decided to find lodging in the area and recoup for the evening.
We were there by design. I wasn’t sure how to break it to him, but the out-of-the-way farmhouse in the real France is listed on Booking.com.
It’s not a surprise, really. The internet is disrupting so many old notions about how the world works. Travel is certainly not immune, even if conventional wisdom hasn’t quite caught up with the times. The idea that the best, or even only, way to discover “hidden gems” is to talk to locals or find them by chance misses the fact that locals use the internet too. Message boards, blogs, Facebook, Pinterest, review sites and all the rest are nothing more than modern versions of old-fashioned word of mouth communication, only far more comprehensive and with photographs.
And that’s how I ended up in the “real” France. While searching for a reasonably priced place to stay within driving distance of the city of Cognac, I saw a listing for La Ferme d’Octave. I was drawn in by the photos of a sprawling stone house accented with climbing roses, a wild courtyard garden, and cheerful, comfy-looking bedrooms. After staying in cities from Barcelona to Bordeaux, a more low-key stopover seemed like a refreshing change of pace.
Leaving Cognac, we drove north, heading deeper and deeper into the countryside. We arrived in the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it village of Saint-Hilaire-de-Villefranche and found our way to a wooden, forest green-colored gate. The bell was answered by our innkeeper, Georges, who welcomed us with a quietly hearty “bonjour.”
We followed him through a cluttered storage area where a cat lounged on a table and into a spacious yard where a chicken strutted and pecked. A dog came bounding across the grass, giving a few short barks before coming to a stop, fixing us with her soft eyes and welcoming us with a gently wagging tail.
Soon the rest of the family emerged from the house to greet us as well. They were just about to sit down for a bite to eat, they said, and we were welcome to join them if we’d like. Naturally we accepted. What, after all, could be more French than breaking bread with a host of newfound friends?