Enjoying a night in a good hotel is one of the joys of travel, especially when you’re travelling in Europe. But how many Sheratons and Holiday Inns can you stay in without feeling a little bored? Now and then you need to find a more interesting place to end your day. Here’s a suggestion: why not stay in a historic property?
I recently came across a fascinating website called intoHistory, which offers a great selection of historic houses, chateaus,castles and even monasteries across Europe that accept guests. Each property has its own history and its own charm, and intoHistory describes them in lavish detail,with evocative photos and links to their website if you want to make a reservation.
The man behind intoHistory is Gery de Pierpont (right), a Belgian-based archaeologist and former curator of the Belgium History Museum. Gery has a passion for history, and especially for staying in historic places. He was happy to share his passion for both in this interview (photos courtesy of intoHistory).
Travelling Boomer: What is the appeal of staying in historic places instead of just choosing an ordinary hotel?
Gery: Old buildings have a soul. They tell stories. That’s why I love them. Every old house is unique, adapted over generations to the needs of its inhabitants. Staying in such preserved settings is a bit like trying to meet ancestors, sharing precious moments of their life. Some houses of the past remain so authentic it seems we travel in time when entering them. Especially at night, when the walls start to whisper … This is what I call “Staying in History”!
When you visit an area rich in heritage, when you discover cultural marvels all day, it is a bit sad to end the evening in a modern place. The standardized rooms of international hotels are quite boring: intoHistory suggests unique accommodations where you can keep experiencing the cultural emotions you felt during the day.
TB: How many historic properties do you have on intoHistory, and in which countries?
Gery: I have identified hundreds of historic accommodation sites through Europe, but only a few dozen are online today. Five or six are about to be published: intoHistory is still a young website. I try to go and visit the majority of these unique places myself, so I’ve got enough work for the coming 15 years!
This is the reason I do focus on Europe right now, from Ireland to Bulgaria and from Portugal to Finland. Fortunately, heritage buildings are one of the precious assets of the “old continent”, and European history is the one I know best.
TB: Can you describe a couple of the most memorable places, and their histories?
Gery: Staying in an old building is like uncorking a bottle of old wine. Some may turn out to be tired or dusty, but most will let you enjoy the aromas of history. Once in a while, if you are lucky, the colour, the scent and the flavour of the precious beverage will truly transport you to another dimension.
I’ve had the chance to stay in some historical sites that inspired this kind of deep emotion in me — feelings I’ll never forget. Not only because I’m an archaeologist, but simply because their classic settings were especially evocative.
I recommend the Sextantio Albergo diffuso of Santo Stefano di Sessanio, in the Italian mountains. This medieval hilltop village in the Abruzzi, abandoned a few decades ago, has been renovated to retain its genuine rural atmosphere. Very special care has been taken to restore the authentic living conditions of the shepherds who resided in these humble stone houses.
The rooms are spread throughout the village (which explains the “diffused hotel” concept) and each guest receives a (huge) house key. Everything is original or traditional: the joinery, the furniture, the food and drinks, the soap, the bedclothes … Only the bathrooms and the heating systems are modern. It’s full historic and rural immersion (see here).
Some castles of yesteryear are fantastic escapes to the past as well. I like the ones that have remained more or less unchanged since the 19th century. Not necessarily the oldest or the most impressive ones, but the ones full of ancestors’ portraits, time-worn furniture, archives and memories. The old wooden floors, the creaking doors, the high beds, the fire in the hearth …
The Château du Pont d’Oye in the south of Belgium is one of these. During the 18th century, the Marquise who lived there organised such sumptuous cultural events in the drawing rooms, on the pond and in the wooded park that the place was nicknamed “the Little Versailles”.
Unfortunately, her lifestyle was so expensive (her horse wore silver horse shoes!) that she ruined herself totally and the old castle was destroyed during the French Revolution… The rebuilt wing that has been transformed into a hotel has various period rooms, which seem to look just as they did 100 years ago.
TB: How many historic hotels and rental properties do you think there are in Europe? Do you find them in every country?
Gery: There must be millions of old buildings in Europe, but most of them have been modernized through the years. People usually do not like to live in old-fashioned places; they renew them as soon as they can and follow the latest fashion. This is why authentically preserved period constructions are quite rare.
Some countries, such as France, Italy or the United Kingdom, are richer than others regarding their built heritage, because of their very strong cultural traditions. But there is usually less historical accommodation to be found in large cities and economically rich areas.
TB: Are historic places very expensive, or can you stay there on a modest travel budget?
Gery: A “stay in History” is a different experience. Keep it for a special occasion, a moment to be remembered, the way you save money to buy yourself the gift of your dreams …
Historic hotels, guest houses and rental properties are unique and therefore rare. There is a public that is ready to pay more for such exclusive venues (between $125 and $300, depending on the standing of the rooms). These places have higher rates because their restoration and maintenance costs are higher.
As well, some iconic or aristocratic buildings – once reserved for high society – have been turned into luxury residences, only affordable for VIPs (above $300/room). The price of these palaces is more related to the need to differentiate them from other classes than to their authenticity.
Fortunately, inspiring period dwellings where you can “stay in History” for a lower price ($75 to $125) are still to be found. I really want to give these B&Bs and local inns the same visibility on intoHistory as top-of-the-range heritage accommodation.
Finally, there are historic youth hostels and monastery guesthouses that can be quite inexpensive ($20 to $40/person), but do not expect to sleep in a four-poster bed. These are a good compromise for families travelling with children.
TB: How did you get interested in the idea of staying in historic places?
Gery: My attraction for old buildings as a child (already passionate about medieval castles) was reinforced by my archaeological studies at university. But it wasn’t enough for me to learn about their history and understand their construction techniques: I needed to feel these “inhabited vestiges” with my senses and my imagination. The way a romantic painter or a musician of the 19th century would have done it.
For over 30 years I have really enjoyed spending nights in historic buildings, absorbing their atmosphere, rich in human experience. Fired with this enthusiasm, I have let myself be locked away in many archaeological sites (not without risk), right in the centre of some protected monuments and age-old mansions … Then there’s the joy of exploring in parallel original musical compositions, films and of course historical novels.
TB: Tell us a couple of stories about your experiences staying in historic places.
Gery: I’ve slept in a Bronze Age collective grave in Crete, where 200 burials were found, and in a Templar Chapel of the Middle Ages. I slept in the cella (holy of holies) of a huge Greek temple in Sicily. I even spent a night next to a prehistoric altar where a human sacrifice was held … But I have learned how to appreciate subtler, less eccentric experiences today!
Some people think old buildings become a bit disturbing in the darkness of the night. What if those old chimneys, beams and furniture start to whisper all together? My experience, however, is that you sleep very quietly in such places. The thickness of the walls, the proven durability of the construction materials, the “get-away-from-it-all” state of mind usually make me sleep like a log.
I always expect to have “historical dreams” when I stay in an old monument, but I admit it doesn’t occur systematically. Nevertheless, the last hour before falling asleep, reading a historical novel or listening to period music in candlelight, is a unique moment. As is waking up in a period setting, thinking you have slipped back into another era.
TB: Have you ever felt the presence of the historic figures whose homes you’ve stayed in?
Gery: Not as you would feel the presence of some kind of a “ghost”, I must say (I’m not very sensitive to spirits). But thinking that a famous author, a well-known politician or an inspired inventor spent some years of his life in the very place you’re staying in makes you look at the setting with different eyes. These historic figures must have caressed this old chimney, walked barefoot on these ceramic tiles, thought about an important decision while watching the chandelier on the ceiling …
But you do not want to limit yourself to old VIPs, do you? The most compelling emotions may be related to very humble former occupants. Children playing hide and seek, ignoring the war going on outside, a happy housemaid singing in the staircase, lovers hiding from their parents before being caught, or a greedy old farmer concealing his meagre savings in a secret cache in the wall.
All these people left traces of their life in the place: a small mark in a girder, an ink stain on the writing table, a drop of sweat on the wooden floor, a small frame with a portrait …
I encourage everyone to become a “history explorer” and enjoy the experience: that’s my wish for those who visit intoHistory.com.