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Bed & Breakfasts in Europe - a comparison

Peter, from Sardinia
Added notation by Casa Santo Estevo

Bed and Breakfast: a long tradition in England, but what about in Europe?

When I first visited Italy, I was actually quite surprised to find B&B's. I was also struck by both the similarities and differences that I found from my native England. I thought it might be interesting to compare what one should expect in different European countries.

I also believe the whole concept of a bed and breakfast is evolving rapidly due to cultural aspects, legal & tax laws, and the growth of the internet.

The English Example: a little personal history.

Growing up in England, the “bed and breakfast” (formerly known as “room above the pub”) was the preferred place to stay for a weekend in Scarborough, Whitby or Brighton. Even when I got older, the ideal choice (unless a company was paying) was always a B&B rather than a cheap hotel. The advantages were generally cost, location and hopefully “atmosphere”.

Put simply, choose a hotel and you would likely miss one of those factors.

But what about the hotel amenities like a bar and/or a restaurant?

Like Anthony Bourdain in the Travel Channel’s show “No Reservations”, I have an aversion towards visiting somewhere and then spending all my time in the hotel. It’s far more fun finding the restaurant I want nearby.

Hotel bars, likewise, can be pretty “sterile” (of course there are exceptions).

Historically, the UK Hotels would have the advantage of being able to serve “residents” outside the previously strict UK licensing hours. The laws have been relaxed since then and this is no longer a strong advantage.

Then, of course, there was the matter of breakfast.

Bed and Breakfasts always come with breakfast. Whether a freshly cooked “full English” (or Irish or Scottish) breakfast, it could literally keep you going all day. Variations are often available. Where possible, I’d always select my (lighter) favorite of grilled kippers. In most hotels, this is an added cost and often provided in the “hot buffet”.

As a quick note to those who may think otherwise, the proportion of English who would eat such a breakfast at home is nowadays pretty small (and, if anything, only on a weekend morning).

Changing standards

There has been a big shift in the industry that reflects the growth of B&Bs in order to compete with hotel chains- from simple, quaint residences to thematic getaways. The conventional seaside B&B with damp rooms/bedding and questionable communal bathrooms still exist, but are being superseded by some really quite plush and clean modern establishments The best B&B’s work hard at creating a unique ambiance, personal style and service. Their owners can offer far more true insight into the area than many hotel receptions.

Another factor that has contributed to the transformation of the B&B industry is the growth and accessibility of the internet and digital photography. It is no longer only high class (expensive) and high budget hotels that can display rooms that look appealing and well furnished, or boast a nice view. Modestly budgeted B&Bs are now also able to market their business just as effectively. You can probably see photos of the individual rooms (often given locally referenced room names) and choose the specific room you’d like to stay in (versus having to just pick a “category” in a hotel). With many sites using a mapping utility, you can get a pretty good idea of where each B&B is. The aerial views can give you an idea of the nature of the area.

The extent that B&Bs vary in other European Countries

Italy is my starting point. What has to be remembered is that a large amount of the growth in B&Bs in Italy has been driven by favorable tax treatment (beware: some independent apartments are incorrectly described as a “B&B”) which entails certain requirements (small number of rooms, owner's residence, etc.). Some of these requirements vary by region. For example, in one area they must use local produce for breakfast and, in another, only pre-packed portioned butter and jams were allowed.

Do Not expect an equivalent to an English breakfast. It can range from a pleasant “continental style breakfast (bread, coffee, cheese, cold meats) to a fairly miserable coffee and pre-packed 'brioche' ".

In France, you basically have a similar tax/legislation situation as Italy. This gives easier options to Chambre d’Hote, compared to hotels and apartments. However, they need to be registered with the mairie and offer a maximum of five bedrooms (15 guests), provide breakfast, include linen and cleaning and the owners must live on the premises.

In the Netherlands the B&B industry is regulated in many ways. Because of this, it is quite difficult to open a B&B in a normal house. However, if you want to find one then either approach the local VVV (tourist information office) in the area you want to stay or visit the web site for the VVV of the area. Breakfasts will consist of items like bread, cheese coffee etc. Usually there is no evening meal provided; neither are alcoholic drinks. Both of these are usually available locally. The local authority will be the controlling body for the B&B.

In Spain, the word B&B is not commonly used expression. Here you best do a web search for a Casa Rural . These are usually, but not 100% so, in small towns or villages. Some communities have to be registered with the controlling body; others not. You can find Casa Rurals though the website or tourism offices of the local community. However, there is one good web site that lists Casa Rurals all over Spain. It is called Toprural. The owner of the Casa has to pay to be listed but there are reviews by guests of the house. Breakfasts can vary, but usually consists of local produce, bread, coffee etc.

Other than Casa Rurals, you can stay at either Rectorals (large homes formally lived in by Priests) or Pazo (large country homes of Nobles; formally). Both of these classes of accommodation are grander than a Casa Rural, so expect to pay a premium for the nights stay. The controlling body will inspect the house several times a year for hygiene problems. Classes of Casa Rurals will vary with different communities.

You’ll therefore appreciate that a B&B can mean different things in different countries. It is best to establish your needs and then check that the proposed B&B matches those requirements. Here are some ideas:

A Personal Checklist

So what are the things you may want to check into about the B&B? Aside from the typical questions you might have about all forms of accommodations, here’s a quick checklist, in no particular order. Select what matters to you - if it’s important, ask about it.

  • Accessibility (floor, lift?)
  • Breakfast: type (is it included? is this more of an apartment?)
  • Breakfast location (dining room, terrace, garden)
  • Evening meal option (probably not) and/or recommended restaurants
  • Room Facilities: kettle, coffee/tea, television, satellite, DVD, etc.
  • Bathroom: private, shared, bath/shower
  • Room views?
  • Cleaning Frequency: room/bathroom
  • Heating/air conditioning
  • Environment (typical trade-off between noise and central location; however if you ask the question they might put you in a room away from the street)
  • Restrictions on times when you can return in the evening, or own key.
  • Local information leaflets/books available
  • Parking: off road, on street easy, on street chargeable.
  • Internet: Available on request, freely available in rooms.
  • Languages spoken: can be useful but on the other side it could be quite fun trying out your French or German.
  • Loan of bikes?
  • Packed lunch available (not usual), cost?
  • Airport/train station pick-up available, cost? If not, cost of taxi to the B&B.
  • Guest reviews/comments: credibility of source?

Finding a B&B

First, the use of the term B&B or “bed and breakfast” is relatively universal, so a search engine inquiry for that term with your chosen destination should generate results. The main exception is France where the more correct term is “Chambre d'Hôtes“. There are some good sites with listings by country, city or area; however, just give it a try with a general search. You are looking for an innkeeper who cares about their B&B. An indicator (not totally reliable) is how well they present themselves -- an old, poorly constructed site that has not updated their information gives a different impression from an updated, well photographed site. However, that comes down to personal choice.

There are also numerous B&B portals, but there can be advantages in contacting the B&B direct to check if it matches your requirements. Because these are personal, rather than institutional businesses, how they respond will also give you a great insight into your host (do they respond to emails? Warm and personable? Helpful?).

Peter is the founder of two sites that provide 360 degree photographs of Sardinia (www.360sardinia.net) and just recently added, Tuscany (www.360tuscany.net).

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