The difficult balance between comfort and authenticity

By Gery de Pierpont

Beware the pitfalls of modernization!

Not many people are prepared to go into history “for good”, and experiment for fun with the actual living conditions of our ancestors, damp towers, draughts, horsehair mattresses, tallow candles, pitchers of water for washing and latrines at the bottom of the garden … Tourist accommodation has to offer its guests enough comfort in terms of heating, lighting, washing facilities, insulation and safety … so that would-be guests are not put off.

Balance between comfort and authenticity - Vauban Citadel, Belle-Ile, France

Vauban Citadel in Belle-Ile (Brittany, France)

Balance between comfort and authenticity - modernization worksThe owners of historic establishments are therefore obliged to undertake – in addition to regular maintenance to keep everything running smoothly – regular modernization work: embedding heating pipes and electric wires in floors and décor, enlarging old windows to allow in more light and permit triple glazing, demolishing walls to make way for bathrooms, building concrete casings for a lift or emergency stairs … Unfortunately, these procedures always change the “historic fabric” of old mansions, however talented the architect and however sensitive specialised enterprises are to heritage preservation.

Balance between comfort and authenticity - modernized roomThese procedures are useful and naturally welcome to ensure the very survival of the building (an historic monument must be lived in or it will fall into ruin), but nonetheless alter the authenticity of the building, which gradually loses its character, its ability to tell a story and communicate a feeling. However, is it not precisely this which provides the added value of these historically fascinating mansions?

Why stubbornly hold on to the past?

This subject pops up regularly on this site: what does the discovery of an historic building give us?  How is it when you stay in such a place you feel you have recharged your batteries? I can provide several answers to these questions and no doubt you have others. I shall be happy to start an exchange of views with you (here under).

Balance between comfort and authenticity - medieval lintel in Santo Stefano di Sessanio

Medieval lintel in Santo Stefano di Sessanio (Italy)

To start, I would say that an historic house has stories to tell: people’s lives, working experiences, moments of happiness, investments and changes in fortune. It bridges the gap between the generations who have gone before. Its building techniques and the savoir-faire of its craftsmen responsible for its decoration are the fruit of centuries of tradition and experimentation. Our curiosity increases as we understand them and we hone our artistic sensitivity as we admire them.

An historic building also makes us question our own values and certitudes in the 21st century. How did our predecessors live? What was important in their eyes? Did they live in such places in the way they had hoped?  What “message” did they wish to convey to their contemporaries or hand down to posterity?

Finally, venerable old buildings appeal to our emotions. The vibrations of history, sensual pleasures, mysteries we can mull over in dreams, feelings which well up deep inside: safety, humility, peace or possibly revolt, incomprehension or concern.

Balance between comfort and authenticity - worn tiled floorIn a “History Stay” as in any other heritage building, it is precisely the period features which convey these stories, this savoir-faire, these questions and feelings. To see for ourselves the original proportions of the old rooms, feel a worn tiled floor under our feet, enjoy the subdued lighting, the fragrance of wax and the creaky stair treads … what precious keys for our journey through time.

An asset to be maintained

There is a balance to be found on a case by case basis, for each location and each room between comfort and authenticity, between modernity and past memory. Those locations which have succumbed to the temptation to over-renovate to get in tune with the tastes of an epoch, will probably show their age faster than those who have taken the risk to preserve as much of their precious asset as possible: fabric, door and window frames, décor and period furniture. These “old buildings” will be increasingly sought out for their originality by an (international) clientele keen on a unique experience. This Europe of ours will still be a popular tourist destination for centuries to come as long as we celebrate our heritage in the way it deserves.

Have you felt a thrill when you came across a “History Stay” where you felt you could go back in time (or quite the opposite, were you disappointed by the standardized, even sterile facilities of a soulless modernised building)?


Varven Fel


... ça dépend des époques.
L'époque féodale, et ses châteaux humides et impossibles à chauffer, brrrrr...
Mais habiter dans une chaumière gauloise, bien sèche, bien ventilée, sentant bon le bois et les herbes médicinales... je suis sûre que j'aimerais.
PS: j'ai visité les villages lacustres du lac de Constance, reconstruits à l'identique d'après les vestiges archéologiques de 11000 et 9000 ans... C'était vraiment bien pensé.
Il faut arrêter de prendre nos ancêtres pour des imbéciles, leur habitat était adapté à leur environnement, et ils avaient le même souci de confort que nous.
Dans certaines régions du monde ce type d'habitat s'est maintenu, et les riches touristes paient des fortunes pour y passer quelques jours. 

Réponse de Géry de Pierpont :
Merci pour ce témoignage. C'est vrai que de tout temps les hommes ont fait preuve d'ingéniosité pour faire face aux rigueurs du climat et se rendre la vie agréable avec ce qui était à leur disposition.
Mon article est un plaidoyer pour le maintien en vie du plus grand nombre de structures originales dans les édifices qu'on aménage pour l'hôtellerie. Les acteurs du tourisme sont convaincus qu'ils sont à la merci de la moindre critique sur l'équipement de leurs chambres, ce qui les amène à effectuer régulièrement des travaux de rénovation aussi coûteux que destructeurs (isolation, conditionnement d'air, sanitaires, nouveaux vitrages, insonorisation, literie...).
C'est vrai que, paradoxalement, les chambres les plus historiques (simples et sans aménagements modernes) sont souvent aussi parmi les plus chères en dépit de leur relatif inconfort (parce qu'elles sont devenues rares, évidemment)...

L'authenticité paye toujours !

Michel F.


Merci pour ces idées et propositions alléchantes.
Cela devrait nous éviter à l'avenir bien des désagréables surprises dans choix hasardeux de gîtes ruraux néorustiques "à la Brueghel" de mauvais goût.

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Historical authenticity
Ambiance and settings
Quality of welcome
Degree of comfort