In the Charming Old Mill Hotel No One Can Hear You Scream

photo: Karen Sandler

Just in case you missed our manifesto, our name Boots and Bowtie refers to our love of scenic walks that also have some gastronomic aspect. Sometimes we find a lovely hike but are disappointed on the food end; these days are known as “all boots and no bowtie”. Occasionally it’s the other way around. And sometimes it all defies description.

Ten or so years ago, Mr. B’s brother and sister-in-law were coming to visit us from the States, and were interested in joining us for a little hiking and a good meal or two. We suggested Luxembourg, since it has both lots of scenic forest and Europe’s highest concentration of Michelin-starred restaurants per capita (it has to do with banking).

We found a charming-looking place to stay online. From its website, the Auberge du Vieux Moulin looked like a friendly family-run hotel-restaurant in a woodsy, quiet setting close to lots of good hiking. The best of both worlds. We felt an extra need for everything to go smoothly this time. When it’s just the two of us, we can live with a little uncertainty, but for visitors from America, service is key so we were watching for red flags. This place gave us a good feeling, and we booked rooms for two nights.

Coming up the driveway, alongside a babbling stream between two wooded ridges, we mentally checked the “quiet rural setting” box and breathed a little easier. The hotel was virtually alone on the dirt road. The parallel paved road across the stream wasn’t busy, so you could enjoy a drink out on the terrace in peace. As its name implies, the building was originally a mill, and was mostly smooth gray stone. It occurred to us that in a year or so it might want a paint job, but no matter. Once again, Boots and Bowtie had come up with the goods!

Bags in hand, we stepped into a dimly lit room that was like being transported back into a Van Gogh painting. But not magical starry skies or sunflowers; think impoverished family, in darkness around the dinner table, except without the dinner. As our eyes adjusted, we could make out several older ladies smoking by a low little fire. They probably had modern clothes on but we remember them in shawls, and all hunchbacked and cackling. In vain we tried to banish the word ”crone” from our minds. They turned to us and said a perfunctory-sounding hello, as if they were used to people passing by the hearth occasionally, and returned to their conversation.

Facing the fireplace was a small reception desk with a computer on it, whose primitive screen had a racing-car game paused. We heard the creak of a door. From somewhere in the darkness a boy appeared. He was maybe twelve, had a pallid complexion with a slightly annoyed expression, and weighed about 300 pounds. (All four of us simultaneously named him “Pugsley”.) Once he’d squeezed himself into position behind the desk he said “hallo”, and waited, clearly itching to return to his Formula 1. We introduced ourselves and were given our room keys. Without another word, Pugsley pointed to the stairway by looking at it. After a second or two of wondering if Lurch the butler, or some relation with longish canines and a fear of garlic, might materialize to give us a hand with the bags, we grabbed them ourselves and headed up to our rooms.

On the way up the stairs meaningful glances were exchanged along the lines of “uh-oh” and “what have we done?”. Yours truly made a mental note to stop referring to hotels as the “hospitality industry”.

Our room was fine, but Gary and Karen’s bed sagged so badly in the middle that they were afraid they wouldn’t be able to sleep. We took this information downstairs, and the boy paused his virtual victory lap to reply that he was sorry but there weren’t any other rooms available. Our idea of switching a mattress from another room was also “not possible”. Actually, he said, there was another room, but with a shared bathroom. Since Gary and Karen preferred a private bath, they agreed to give the saggy bed a try for a night and see.

They barely slept and the next morning they were miserable. Since the hotel couldn’t offer them anything acceptable, we thought it would be fair to pay for the first night, check out, and stay elsewhere the second night.

But when we explained this to the agitated manager downstairs (who from the looks of him was probably Pugsley’s father), he turned an even darker shade of red and flew into a rage. Not only could they not fill those rooms on short notice, he explained between gulps of air, but according to the terms which we had accepted by confirming the reservation, we owed them for two nights whether we stayed or not. Pugsley’s mother strode in through the kitchen door to join the fray. At this point, if not outnumbered, the four of us were seriously outweighed, so as a last resort we offered to look at the one free room and its shared bath. It was cheery, sunny, had a nice view of the stream and it had its own shower; the “shared bath” was just the toilet across the narrow hall. No one else was near it. It was really more like a room with private bath and an extra antechamber. And the mattress was fine! With the problem solved, and curious why it couldn’t have been solved last night, we went downstairs for a second attempt at breakfast.

a tiny bit of the breakfast buffet (photo: Karen Sandler)

In the breakfast room there was a table about thirty feet long laden with trays of bread, rolls, croissants, fruity pastries, cheeses, cold cuts, muesli, pots full of homemade jams and honey, eggs, sausages and bacon in chafing dishes, and bowls of real yogurt and fresh ripe fruit that dropped our jaws. Nothing in little plastic packs, except margarine. Besides butter, we could smell respect for tradition. We noticed a sign in the corner requesting we please be considerate of our fellow guests and not take too much food at breakfast. Since there were no more tables set, we figured that we could split everything four ways, which got us a loaf of bread, five croissants, and a half dozen pastries apiece, and that was just the baked goods. It was Mission Impossible, but we gave it our best shot. Everything down to the coffee was superb. They hadn’t skimped on either quantity or quality.

Pugsley was back at the wheel as we left breakfast. He hadn’t been part of the argument, so we felt he deserved a little leniency. Perhaps we could even plant the seeds of a flourishing hospitality industry in his young mind. We apologized for having threatened to up and leave, but reiterated that the mattress really did sag so badly that it nearly reached the floor when you sat in the middle of it. He seemed genuinely surprised and remarked that we were the first people ever to complain, adding that many guests even requested that very room. We were so stunned we didn’t think of asking him exactly why they do. It will have to remain one of life’s unsolved mysteries.

At that point, another well-fed-looking man and a woman holding a baby came through the front door. We guessed they were family. As we went up to our rooms, the hotel staff all gathered round the infant for some cooing and chin-chucking. It was a wholly different vibe from when we’d checked in.

As we left the hotel for the day’s hiking, we noticed their restaurant menu posted outside. It featured a variety of French classics with inventive personal touches from the chef, like adding a fresh herb to make a combination that suddenly made all the sense in the world. How could our mouths be watering with our bellies so full? Unfortunately we had dinner commitments elsewhere, but their inordinate focus on the culinary end of the hospitality spectrum was enticing us to come back.

Hearing some animated barking, we turned and witnessed the family’s two glossy-coated golden Labradors being fed the leftover brioche.

It was clear in so many ways that this family loved good food, and sincerely wanted to share that love, down to the house pets. If they’d spent a little less on breakfast for a month, they probably could have bought a new mattress with the savings, but it must have been sinful for them to even think of running out of anything and thereby disappointing a guest.

The next morning, after sleeping like babies and again breakfasting like kings ignorant of the concept of bad cholesterol, we said our goodbyes. At least Mrs. Boots and Mr. Bowtie intended to return someday.

A few years later, finding ourselves back in Luxembourg not far from the Auberge, we wondered if they might be open for dinner that evening (and whether Pugsley had gotten any sunlight on his skin since we’d met). We asked the owner of our hotel if she knew of the place. “Oh yes,” she said with an appreciative nod and a raising of eyebrows, “but they closed up and went back to Belgium months ago.”