Hotel du Pont, Ambialet (near Albi)
Route 3, from the Cévennes to the Atlantic
Price Band: **
The middle Tarn, between Millau and Albi, might just be my favourite bit of all France – among other favourite bits. It may lack the wow factor of the main Tarn gorge, but the wow factor would wear thin in the end, whereas the middle Tarn is an area where one could put down roots and live happily ever after or at least tolerably contented for a while. It combines tranquillity, natural abundance and low prices, and the Hotel du Pont at Ambialet is just about the perfect family-run French hotel, in a beautiful riverside location. Riding through the farms on the tiny road along the north (right) bank of the Tarn to Albi in the early morning was one of the highlights of our entire campaign. My companion Galaxy might tell a different story, since his bicycle broke down half way to Albi.
Our evening at the Hotel du Pont made its way, as often happens, to the bar, where we unfolded our maps on the table and began outlining our usual ridiculously optimistic schedule for the next day. A gang of Irish rustics who had been late arrivals at dinner moved in and took over the bar, noisily and I am afraid to say in such thick bog accents that we had no idea what they were on about, although they may have been asking us to join them for a drink. Was a nasty fight about to erupt, or was this just a friendly and high-spirited Irish clan on holiday? A member of the Saysset family came over to where we were sitting and offered an apology for any inconvenience. “They are staying at the camp site,” he said, “and they arrived at ten o’clock asking for food. They had children with them, so we could hardly refuse to feed them.” I can’t think of many French hotels that would take their hospitality so seriously.
(F2w chapter 3)
…. Ambialet is famous for its meander and the rocky peninsula it all but encircles: a geography textbook demonstration of the final stages of an oxbow lake in the making. Pity the poor trout, who must swim 4 miles for less than one hundred yards of progress.
Ambialet also has the Hotel du Pont which is at least as good a reason to break a journey. Two centuries will soon have passed since a veteran of Napoleon’s Russian campaign, Jean-Pierre Saysset, retired from active service to this grassy bank beside the Tarn, and set up his son in the Hotel du Pont. Seven generations later the Saysset family is still there – dozens of them, black haired, busy and welcoming. It may have been the 6th generation when I first visited, and while a few details of the hotel have naturally been updated, its style and essential character have not changed a bit.
When the young generation takes over, it is only natural for the new incumbent or his pushy wife to want change: sack the cook, revamp the décor, open a spa, take the whole thing upmarket. At Ambialet this has not happened. The Hotel du Pont knows its place – in the local community and the tourism firmament – and is happy there, and I hope the 8th , 9th and 10th generations of the admirable Saysset clan keep the faith.
The Hotel du Pont is just right as it is, for stuck in the mud lovers of unreconstructed family-run French country hospitality, and any attempt to tart it up in a quest for stars and a bigger spending clientele would be, if not doomed, a great shame. My room had a writing desk in the window, looking out over theTarn, and I can think of few places I would rather spend time chewing a biro.
Price bands: from * (B&B for less than 50 euros per person in a shared room) to ***** (expect to pay at least 175 euros)