Inns: from a basic overnight stay to a soft nest

By Geneviève Lacroix

Discover the history of inns, these ancient accommodation, ancestors of our hotels

Originally barracks for an army, the inn morphed into a house, then a basic hotel, often in the countryside, where accommodation and food could be purchased. Generally these venues were attached to working farms. They supplied travellers with a bed, stabling for their horses, locally sourced meals and fodder, and, very importantly, drink and entertainment. Come and discover the rich history of inns…


At that time horses were an essential part of the equation… The Oude Niedorper Verlaat inn is located at the crossroads of fluvial and terrestrial routes © Archief Alkmaar

The word ‘auberge’ has been around in French since the 17th century but its origin ‘heberge’ (accommodation) dates from the 11th century. In old Occitan, alberga means ‘encampment, barracks’. The word comes from the verb albergar, whose Germanic origin haribergôn means ‘to accommodate an army’. In modern French ‘héberger‘ means to accommodate someone under one’s roof, generally on a temporary basis, on a ‘take us as you find us’ basis.

Finding a place to stay and eat, always a challenge

During the lengthy Middle Ages, pilgrimages and cultural exchanges such as movements of students undertaking different courses in various universities – meant that the routes were often filled with simple folk, with modest aspirations who often spared no effort. Leisure tourism as a concept did not exist at that time. Journeys were only undertaken when really necessary, not for pleasure or a change of scene.
The Inn, which gradually lost its military connotation, was a place where people could stop and spend the night after a day’s travel (even when right out in the countryside).


Renovated, the former inn that now houses restaurant l’Hostaria dell’Orso has conserved precious frescoes and architectural remains of the early 15th c. © Franz Roesler

These simple, even rudimentary lodgings, available for a fee, sprang up everywhere, offering travellers meals and shelter; they provided basic services with no frills. The network of places likely to offer a higher standard of fare was enshrined in a certain savoir vivre and went hand in hand with social recognition.
In town, ‘rôtisseries’ were responsible for managing fires and embers which constituted a fire risk. Cooked food provided to clients was the province of the ‘chair-cuitiers’ (meat cooks), and sauce cooks, ‘rôtisseurs’ and ‘pâtissiers’ (specialised pastrycooks). Items were also purchased for consumption elsewhere, generally at home. In Paris in 1469, The charcutiers and traiteurs (caterers) became a corporation in their own right.
In the countryside, all along the routes and at the crossroads of important intersections, meeting places also played a useful role. However, what was on offer left much to be desired. Generally, they were simple farms with a little space available to accommodate passers-by and their mounts. Some were organised on a more professional and permanent basis, but accommodation facilities were secondary to those providing food and drink.

Running an Inn

In 1606, in the dictionary of Jean Nicot, an auberge became a house where lodgings and food were provided. Travellers convened in a large building, where they would all partake of the ‘dish of the day’, washed down with beer or wine. The standard of hospitality varied from one place to another and practices differed from country to country. You were as likely to meet soldiers as merchants, citizens travelling on their own account or craftsmen, as well as adventurers of all kinds, which made for an unusual social mix.


David Teniers, Inn scenes © Helena-2

It is easy to imagine the atmosphere that may have reigned in these inns at the end of the day, at the fireside – boisterous or fraught with tension, depending on the arrivals. In such places it was common to sleep many to a room, (even several to a bed) and it should be mentioned that certain establishments enjoyed a better reputation than others – some were downright health risks – but travellers did not often have a choice (see Robert Louis Stevenson’s account of his journey through the Cévennes).

A wide range of comfort and well-being

In those times, regulation standards did not exist, and every auberge had its own welcome criteria and facilities. Receiving visitors was generally a secondary activity. Specializing in providing accommodation was still too risky a business. The influx of visitors was greatly dependent to the seasons, religious festivals, commercial fairs and pilgrimage dates …

Some of these lodgings were modest in the extreme and here travellers were only sure to find what they brought with them; traditionally such a place was reputed as being a Spanish Inn or ‘Auberge Espagnole’ (self-catering). Moreover, they had to keep a look out that no marauder, taking advantage of the dark shadowy corners, did not make off with their meager rations.


In ‘De Hoef’ (Uccle, Brussels), former post house converted into a restaurant, food is grilled on the fireplace in the eating room, as in the old days © Chiara Ortegat

Other landlords, however, thought ahead, turning their inns into reputable establishments for travellers, in keeping with the standards of important dignitaries visiting people of their own rank, en route to their country estates or on private missions.

At that time horses were an essential part of the equation. Some auberges acquired the status of postal inns. This led to their joining a vast network of countries and their obligation to offer more standardized facilities (this will form the subject of a future article).


The old post house of Asselborn, in Luxembourg, dating back to the reign of Charles V, welcomes travellers again © Relais postal d’Asselborn

Erasmus, extensive traveller and bemused observer


Erasmus, painted by Hans Holbein the Younger © The National Gallery, London

Erasmus travelled a great deal in Europe and has provided some interesting descriptions of his experiences, particularly in France. As far as the hospitality in auberges in Lyon is concerned, without going into great detail about the food, which he judged to be ‘delectable’, he did appreciate the general atmosphere of the inns in which he stayed. ‘At our table there was always a woman who would enliven the conversation with her humour and witty repartee, moreover, the women of Lyon are particularly beautiful … The host’s wife came to greet us and invited us to be of good cheer and enjoy our meal to the full.’

In German-speaking provinces, on the other hand, the atmosphere seemed to have been very different. “When you enter an inn, nobody greets you for fear of appearing to intrude … even if you arrive at 4 o’clock in the afternoon, you will not dine before 9 or even 10 pm … because they do not prepare anything before they have seen their clients, so they only have to provide one sitting. Around each table are a minimum of 8 clients, and no distinction is made between the rich and the poor, or masters and servants … Finally, the wine is brought to the table. The dishes are soon served one after another with great ceremony. You start with a bread purée soaked in gravy, or if it is a fast day, in vegetable stock. Then comes a second ragout, accompanied by some re-heated meat or pickle-cured product. After this comes more mash, soon followed by some more substantial fare. When you are feeling fairly full, they bring some roast meat or steamed fish … but the portions are quite small and the dishes are whisked away pretty quickly … Then some slightly better wine is brought. They do indeed appreciate heavy drinkers, but do not make the guest who has imbibed vast quantities pay more than his neighbour who has hardly touched a drop … it often happens that the cost of the wine consumed accounts for twice the cost of the meal”.


Peasant preparing waffles. Detail of Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s painting “The Fight between Carnival and Lent”

A rural ambiance in an urban setting

Over time, auberges were progressively incorporated into the urban fabric. When they managed to preserve their characteristic style, they were able to offer an offbeat country setting, with their long, low constructions or farm buildings. Sometimes they had annexes nearby, reminiscent of farming activities: stalls, stables, cart-sheds, barns, cellars, wine cellars or courtyards. Their names recall ancient villages, place names and visual and geographical points of reference helpful to travellers.


In 1627, ‘De Hoef’ was a postal inn. Its name still refers to its former function and comes from the Dutch word ‘hoefijzer’, wich means horseshoe © Chiara Ortegat

The disparate, random and rural appearance of inns would be a point in their favour with the rise of the first hotels in the 18th century. These provided increasingly standardized accommodation with progressively more homogenized interiors and facilities. In rational and functional terms (levels of refinement), they reached their zenith at the end of the 19th century and the early decades of the 1900s (see our post A brief history of hostelries).

Rustic is back in fashion!

The vogue for luxury hotels gradually ran out of steam. The trend has undergone a reversal over the last few decades: straight lines are uninspiring, sanitized environments are soul-less; standardization is frightening. In their turn, auberges have also been upgraded and adapted to fulfill contemporary health and environment standards, acquiring a new-found charm in the eyes of guests in search of authenticity.

These days their individuality is their greatest attribute. Farmhouse inns which offer agri-tourism are reforging their link with the past. What makes them special are their uniqueness, historical background, location ‘in the middle of nowhere’ and their age (genuine, assumed, or subtly implied …).


‘The Red Inn’, the well-known French comedy-crime, beautifully suggests the unique (recreated) atmosphere of an old inn, lost in the snowy countryside © Claude Autant-Lara – 1951

Cloak and dagger films and 1960s B-movie westerns have put the spotlight on ‘life in the old days’, without paying too much attention to the authenticity of these reconstructions however. Daily life in such inns would probably deter the most adventurous modern globe-trotters, even in the 19th century…

The tradition lives on, albeit differently, with youth hostels

In conurbations, the beginning of the 20th century saw the advent of the first ‘youth hostels‘. This institution, born just prior to the First World War in Germany with the aim of providing youth movements and other hikers with accommodation open to all, irrespective of rank or social class – a novelty at this time when only well-heeled young people could afford to stay in hotels.


The impressive dining room of Altena Youth Hostel © Burg Altena

The first youth hostel was founded in Altena (rooms on this website). Initially in the village school, it then moved to the castle in the process of being renovated. Many well known figures and sponsors rallied round the project.
After the First World War, the movement spread rapidly beyond its frontiers so there were over 600 hostels at the end of the 1920s. The subsequent vast expansion of this movement is a matter of common knowledge.

It is curious but this concept of shared accommodation (with communal dormitories, refectory, washrooms and relaxation areas) is symptomatic of the very first auberges, offering no-frills hospitality at every stage of a long journey …


And what about you… at which kind of inn would you decide to spend the night? In a French ‘auberge’ or in a German ‘Gasthof’ ?


Hostellerie de la Poste, France © Antonin Sabot/ and Hotel zur Post, Germany © Boschfoto. Both are former postal inns, runned now as small hotels.


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Historical authenticity
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