ONE rainy afternoon a few weeks ago, I was having tea at the Auberge la Lucarne aux Chouettes in a riverside hamlet about 80 miles southeast of Paris when the innkeeper joined me. She was a petite woman with dark brown hair, over 60, I guessed, but how much older I couldn’t say because she had beautiful skin, luminous green eyes and a very light step.
She ordered roast pigeon and ate the little drumsticks with relish while telling me the macabre story of Dr. Marcel Petiot, a former mayor of Villeneuve-sur-Yonne, the village where the inn is, and self-proclaimed French Resistance hero. He went to the guillotine in 1946 for killing at least two dozen people..
“As a child growing up in Paris, I remember the headlines about Dr. Petiot very well,” said the owner of the auberge.
This was no ordinary French innkeeper. This was Leslie Caron, who danced on screen with Gene Kelly in “An American in Paris” (1951) and with Fred Astaire in “Daddy Long Legs” (1955). Later, she suggested to producer Arthur Freed that he make a movie out of a novel by the French writer Colette. That resulted in Caron’s star turn in “Gigi” (1958), with songs by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe.
Who would have thought to find Gigi tending a little hotel in Burgundy? When I expressed my amazement, she said, “Oh, but I feel there is a relationship between running an inn and a performance. We open the door, entertain and please people.”
Photos and posters from her many films line a wall in the bar at L’Auberge la Lucarne aux Chouettes (which means “the owl’s nest”). But they are the only reminders that the proprietor has another career. Of course, everyone in town knows her, as do most visitors. But occasionally, clueless guests wander in and snap their fingers for a glass of water.
“What do you do?” I asked.
“I get up and fetch it,” Caron said.
She had driven down from the French capital, where she lives, and arrived at the auberge looking like the quintessential Parisienne, dressed in a chic brown jacket with a gold lapel pin, with her little white lap dog in tow. Once off the leash, Prunelle started sniffing for crumbs under the table.
Several decades ago, French film director Jean Renoir told Caron about the Villeneuve-sur-Yonne area, where she bought a country house for weekends away from the city.
Around 1990, she and her son Christopher Hall were driving across the 13th century bridge that leads into town when she spotted a “for sale” sign on a bank of old stone boathouses by the wide Yonne River. The buildings were dilapidated, with dirt floors and few windows, so she was able to buy them for “a slice of bread,” she said.
Creating a hotel and restaurant seemed the best use for the structures, which she started renovating. “I am an architect at heart,” Caron told me. “I love painting and decorating too. My eyes are always open.”
She opened up the connected first floors and gave them big casement windows overlooking a terrace. Then she put an ad in the newspaper that yielded 11,000 antique tiles, which were used on the floor and on the massive dining-room fireplace. At a shop in Paris, she saw pricy raffia-covered chandeliers, which she duplicated with the help of the local plumber.
Even on a chilly fall day, the auberge is snug and warm, thanks to German-style ceramic stoves in the bar and dining room. “But we almost had a catastrophe there,” she said. “The architect told me to install heating panels in the ceiling. Then I got an electric bill for about $5,000.”
Caron’s plumber showed her pictures of the stoves made in Metz, France, so she bought them.
She also decorated the four guest bedrooms above the restaurant. The suite, duplex and big loft, which occupies most of the third floor, have several beds so parents can bring children. “Hotel rooms are expensive. I didn’t want this place to be for the super-rich only,” she said. Room rates at the auberge are about $130 to $215.
Caron hunted through area antiques stores for country French armoires, cane-bottomed chairs and brass and sleigh beds, several of which are draped in canopies in a style known as a la Polonaise. All but one of the rooms have views of the quay and river.
It all went so well that she bought and restored a three-bedroom apartment in a house a few doors down from the inn, which also can be rented. She did the wall stenciling in the upstairs chambers and hung several of her paintings, originally done, she said, to fill the walls of the house near Stratford-upon-Avon, England, where she lived with her then-husband, stage director Sir Peter Hall.
For the hotel’s restaurant, Caron went through a string of chefs before hiring Daisuke Inagaki, who ran a Michelin-starred restaurant before coming to the auberge. I tried his foie gras on a bed of figs and roast pigeon for dinner, accompanied by a glass of red wine from nearby Irancy. Everything was delicious.
The restaurant attracts visitors and locals and, together with the hotel, has helped revitalize once-sleepy Villeneuve-sur-Yonne. Its main street is bounded by turreted gates and lined with real estate offices, catering to people in the market for country houses.
“There’s even a hat shop,” Caron said.
BUT unlike other French villages that have been colonized by city people and foreigners, Villeneuve-sur-Yonne retains its slow pace and buttoned-up Burgundian air. It lies in a rolling countryside not far from the white-wine capital of Chablis. Caron sends sightseers to the Colette Museum in St. Sauveur-en-Puisaye and to nearby chateaux such as St. Fargeau. The hexagon-shaped castle made of pink stone was owned by Madame de Montpensier, King Louis XIV’s cousin, in the 17th century.
While I was at the auberge, I met a honeymooning couple from Boston who had driven there directly from Paris’ Charles de Gaulle Airport. They planned to spend three nights in Villeneuve-sur-Yonne, sampling the pleasures of the French countryside and recuperating from jet lag before taking in Paris.
Caron hopes to attract more Americans, whose numbers have thinned lately. “It wasn’t so much because of Sept. 11,” she said. “It was because of the Iraq war....But French people love Americans.”
Caron is half-American, the daughter of a dancer from Seattle who gave her an enterprising spirit. “I’m fearless,” she said. “I try things. I got that from my mother.”
Margaret Caron had given up ballet when she married a Frenchman and moved to Paris. “But she kept talking about Pavlova and Nijinsky and the Ballets Russes,” Caron said. “So I automatically danced and found I was gifted.
“I must have been about 14 when I announced at the dinner table that I was going to be a professional dancer. My grandfather put down his knife and fork and asked, ‘Margaret, do you want your daughter to be a whore?’ ”
But Caron persevered, landing leading roles with Roland Petit’s Ballet des Champs-Elysees when she was a teenager. Gene Kelly spotted her there and had her read for the role of Lise in “An American in Paris” at the Hotel George V. The rest is history, as they say, though Caron’s is still being written -- by her at the moment. She is working on an autobiography.
Though she started her stage career as a dancer, she moved seamlessly to dramas in the 1960s and, more recently, to character roles in movies such as “Chocolat” (2000). In “Le Divorce” (2003), she played the brittle French matron Madame de Persand, modeled on her grandmother. She appeared in the Oct. 3 episode of TV’s “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.”
When she isn’t acting, she travels, often to attend film festivals in exotic places including Egypt.
“I don’t go for the movies. I go to be a tourist,” Caron said. “I went down the Nile with a guide two years ago. I’m very curious and take tons of pictures.”
She loves, above all, villages in the south of France surrounded by olive trees and lavender and would have opened an inn there if it weren’t so far from Paris: “Whenever I’m anywhere south of Lyon, I start to glow.”
But an innkeeper can’t be away for long, especially not one with Caron’s ambitions. “I have dreams of expansion,” she told me later as I helped her stack books on a shelf in the annex. “I would like to build a spa. But I don’t know if it’s very realistic in view of my age.”
I looked that up when I got home. She is 75 -- going on 18. And even north of Lyon, she glows.
Auberge la Lucarne aux Chouettes, Quai Bretoche, Villeneuve-sur-Yonne; 011-33-3-86-87-18-26, www.lesliecaron-auberge.com; doubles $130-$215; dinner about $40 per person.