Five nights in Brussels was followed by a border crossing, and a pleasant enough drive of a couple of hundred kilometres. Upon arrival in Épernay, there were delicious treats in the pressroom buffet and, as you’d expect, a glass of bubbly. It’s not that we drink champagne every day but, considering where the Tour de France was for stage three, it was logical to sample the local product. Right?
Then, watch a race and write a few stories: one comparing the last 10 Grands Départs, one about that Alaphilippe freak, one about Michael Matthews’ second place in stage three.
Pack the laptop away, jump in the car… 40 minutes later, roll through the iron gates, over the moat, and park for the evening.
If I wanted, I could have gotten to a hotel quicker. There are plenty of places to stay before the next stage start in Reims. Jump on the A4 autoroute and book into a Campanile for 70 euros, or a B&B Hotel for 100 euros… and a little more ‘luxury’, so they’d have us believe.
So convenient, these places are littered around the highways of France. And they do the job. You work, you’re tired, you just need a bed, a pillow and a few hours of rest. Make the booking, grab the keycard and you’re in the room shortly after filing stories and, if you’re lucky, you made it to a brasserie in time to eat. (Note: this is France. And many have been known to beg restauranteurs, as early as 9.00pm, “Please, just a salad? Anything?” Only to be told, “Non. C’est fermé.’)
Been there, done that. And I understand the convenience of the motels and the frustration of dining habits in France. There’ll be nights during the Tour when all I need is that bed, pillow and quick check-in. But last night wasn’t one of them.
After five nights in a room in Brussels near the Midi station that only seemed to get hotter the cooler it got outside, where despite closed windows the street noise kept me awake hour after hour and, curiously, a mosquito the size of a bird managed to find its way in to buzz into my ear the moment I did get to sleep, I was looking forward to somewhere nicer to rest.
I’ve been doing this long enough to know: take cheap as often as you can, save a few bucks because you’re only likely to be in bed for a couple of hours before setting off again for the next stage. A little bit of planning, however, can go a long way to lifting the mood.
All that brings me to ‘4 saisons au chateau’ in Vitry-la-Ville. I stayed here last year after the long transfer from Roubaix on the day the French won the World Cup. It was a random choice when planning, plotted roughly between the velodrome where stage nine ended and Lac Annecy where stage 10 started after the rest day.
Essentially, I looked at the map, and the pin showed a place that seemed to be in a decent location. ‘Book’ was clicked on the computer and, after Degenkolb won and Les Bleus kicked a few goals, I made the drive.
After a few hours on the road, got here at something-past-midnight and the patron sauntered out on the gravel driveway and welcomed me with his dog at his side.
“Ça va?” he asked. “Ça va,” I replied. It was late. We’d talk more in the morning.
First he walked me up to where my room was. Up a couple of flights of a beautiful staircase, to the right, and into an enormous room with a special Russian blue that was selected by one of the earlier owners of the chateau about 200 years ago.
Apparently Baudelaire himself had stayed in that same room, possibly that same bed. He liked to write without distraction and Vitry-la-Ville, despite having a church bell that sounds once an hour, doesn’t offer many distractions.
In the distance in 2019, you can hear what seems to be the TGV speeding by once in a while. It’s fast. I don’t see it, so I’m assuming it’s the TGV. And the sound is gone before it bothers you.
Meanwhile, all around is history. I kick off my shoes, pull out the laptop, finish a few more stories and check emails. Then I wander the halls as I’m told I can. Last year, I explored until 2.00am, seeing if I could find a dungeon. In the distance, beyond the moat, are 15 hectares with deer roaming and beautiful oaks under which Baudelaire may have sat and bashed out a few pars after a busy day of doing nothing.
I liked it here in 2018, so I came back again after stage three.
The owners finished installing the pool that was almost complete at the time of my last visit. But a fire in the rafters of the left wing destroyed some of the chateau… and it’s being restored now, while I sit in a different room in the right wing.
My room is enormous. Actually, it’s a couple of rooms, enough to sleep a family of four comfortably. There are tapestries on the wall and a gym downstairs and WiFi (of course). There is, I’d also discover, no keycard entry. Instead, a giant steel key is slotted into the door and you turn it, old-school style, to achieve entry. I did just that last night, then tried to solve an IT issue, before setting off to have a wander around the grounds.
But wait… the door, it’s locked. The key was still on the other side and suddenly I felt like it was soon time to do a Rapunzel impersonation… but without the hair or the prince.
Instead I used 4G, called Dmitri, and he came to unlock the door and set me free for a stroll.
What’s this all about then? And why is it on a cycling website?
I’m telling you this because, although it cost 25 euros more than the convenient motel with zero character, terrible food, traffic noise, and a bed with a pillow, it’s totally worth the extra! Not only do you sleep much better, but you get a taste of something really quite special.
If you come to the Tour, be sure to explore your tourism options… and not just settle for convenience.