"...we should pass over all biographies of 'the good and the great,' while we search carefully the slight records of wretches who died in prison, in Bedlam, or upon the gallows."
~Edgar Allan Poe

Monday, June 1, 2020

The Phantom Hotel: An Extraordinary Time-Slip Story

Gustave Dore

As I have mentioned before, the “time-slip”--suddenly finding yourself in a much earlier era--is my favorite category of Fortean phenomena. Unfortunately, the ephemeral nature of these alleged experiences usually makes it virtually impossible to confirm or refute the validity of these claims. Did someone really--through a way we can’t come close to understanding--“visit” a much different time and place? Or is it that our collective legs are being pulled? That is usually up to the reader to decide. This uncertainty is particularly frustrating with the following tale, which, if true, would amount to one of the most astonishing adventures on record.

In October 1979, two couples, Len and Cynthia Gisby and Geoff and Pauline Simpson, left their homes in Dover, England for an end-of-summer road trip. They would ferry across the Channel and spend two weeks driving through the countryside of France and northern Spain.

The excursion progressed in a pleasantly uneventful fashion. On the night of October 3, the travelers were on the freeway north of Montelimar, France, looking for a place to spend the night. Before long, they came across a motel that looked promising. Unfortunately, when the foursome went inside, the staffer they encountered in the lobby--a man in an unusual plum-colored uniform--informed them that there were no vacancies. However, he said that if they took a certain road off the freeway, they would find a small hotel. He was sure that this establishment would have rooms.

The party had no trouble finding the road. They were interested to see that it was lined with old buildings, plastered with posters advertising a curiously vintage-looking circus. The road itself also seemed from another era; cobbled and narrow, clearly not built for the automobile. After a short time, they came across the only building they had seen on this road which showed signs of life. It was brightly lit, with some men standing outside. However, after inquiring inside, they learned this was not a hotel, but an inn. So on they went. They eventually found two other buildings; one a police station and the other sporting a large sign reading “Hotel.” It was, for our modern era, an unusual-looking hotel; only two stories, and with a decidedly old-fashioned look. But the place looked decent, and the two couples were too tired to be fussy. They were relieved when, as the motel employee had promised, they were able to get rooms.

As none of the four travelers spoke French, and the manager spoke no English, communication was necessarily limited, but the foursome made themselves understood enough to be shown to their lodgings. They noticed that the inside of the hotel was even more anachronistic than the outside. Everything was made of old-looking, heavy wood. The dining room tables had no tablecloths. They did not see any telephones, elevators, or anything else to remind them that this was the year 1979.

Their rooms were in keeping with the rest of the hotel. Large heavy beds with bolsters instead of pillows. The doors had only wooden catches for locks. There were just wooden shutters over the windows, not glass. The bathroom shared by the foursome had vintage plumbing. Still, the rooms seemed clean and comfortable, and the outdated feel of the place gave it a quaint charm.

It was certainly a novel experience.

After unpacking, they went to the dining room, where they were served a simple but satisfying meal of eggs, steak and potatoes, washed down with lager. After such a meal, the four had no problem settling down in their rooms for a long, untroubled sleep.

The next morning, the travelers returned to the dining room, where they had a breakfast of bread, jam, and thick, strong coffee that they found virtually undrinkable. As they ate, they noticed that the other guests looked as oddly retro as the hotel itself. Opposite them was a woman wearing a silk evening gown and carrying a small dog under her arm. Two gendarmes came in wearing curious uniforms unlike any other they had seen in France.

The travelers, enchanted by the strangeness of it all, decided they needed a memento of their visit. Geoff photographed Pauline standing by the windows, while Len took a picture of Cynthia inside the hotel. He took an additional photo of the hotel itself.

After their picture-taking, Len and Geoff tried to ask the two gendarmes how to take the freeway to the Spanish border, but the policemen--clearly puzzled by the Englishmen’s terminology--just gave classic Gallic shrugs. Finally, the Frenchmen comprehended that the visitors wished to go to Spain, and told them to use the old Avignon road. Len and Geoff knew enough of the local area to think this was an unnecessarily roundabout way of getting to their destination. They decided to retrace the way they had come to the hotel in order to return to the Montelimar freeway.

When the two couples were ready to leave, Len went to the manager to pay their bill. He was flabbergasted to see that he was being charged only 19 francs (about $3 in 1979 dollars.) Certain that the manager did not understand, Len endeavored to communicate to him that he was asking for the bill for all four of them. Four people who had eaten meals there. In response, the manager just continued to nod. Len showed the bill to the two gendarmes, seeking confirmation. They just smiled. Yes, yes, that was the correct amount.

The cobbled little road was just as deserted of other traffic as it had been the previous night. They had no trouble finding their freeway, and went on to spend a very pleasant two weeks roaming around Spain.

On their way back across France, our tourists decided to make another stop at the same hotel. You certainly couldn’t beat the prices. They found the turnoff, and drove down the cobbled road with the buildings promoting the same circus. It was definitely the right road.

Except...the hotel was gone. Puzzled, the travelers went to the motel by the freeway to ask for directions. The employee they questioned had never heard of any such hotel. And they had never had anyone working there who wore a plum-colored uniform.

This was all getting way too weird. The two couples drove along the cobbled road several times, desperately trying to find the hotel. But it was as if it had evaporated, leaving no trace behind. One of the four suggested that it had been demolished. Certainly, at the rates they charged, the establishment couldn’t stay in business for long. But Geoff pointed out that it was impossible for the building to vanish completely in a mere two weeks.

The shaken and confused couples finally gave up, and found lodging at a hotel in Lyon. Which cost them a very modern 247 francs.

The four travelers were puzzled by what had happened, but they assumed there was a rational explanation. At least, that was what they assumed until the photographs they had taken on their vacation were developed. The three snapshots of the hotel were in the middle of the rolls of film used by Geoff and Len. But none of those images came back from the developers, even though each roll of film had its proper amount of photographs. The negatives of those hotel shots had not been defective. They had just disappeared as thoroughly as the hotel itself.

Now more confused than ever, the Gisbys and the Simpsons resolved to tell no one of their adventure outside of family and close friends. A friend of Len’s who was an amateur fashion historian, pointed out to him that the odd uniforms the gendarmes had worn matched the description of those used by the French police--in the very early 1900s. Another confidante suggested that they had experienced a “time-slip,” and, without knowing it, spent the night at a hotel that had not existed for decades. While the Gisbys thought there might be something to that theory, the Simpsons opted to just put the whole strange affair behind them.

Geoff and Pauline did not get their wish. Word of their story reached a reporter at their local newspaper. In 1982, she published a story about their alleged brush with The Weird, and before the two couples knew it, they were famous. From that day to this, paranormal researchers have scrutinized the case--it is now among the most well-known “time-slip” stories--but it is, of course, impossible to come to any definitive conclusions. In 1985, Geoff Simpson told paranormal investigator Jenny Randles (who subsequently wrote an article about the mystery for “Fate” magazine,) “You tell us what the answer is. We only know what happened.”

So. Either the Simpsons and the Gisbys had the vacation that could truly be called “out of this world,” or these two middle-aged, seemingly sane couples pulled off an epic hoax. It’s impossible to say for sure which was the case.

Either way, it’s a heck of a good story.


  1. If they'd left a better tip...

  2. I was thinking that there would have been a problem with the money, as francs from 1900 would have looked different as francs from 1979.

    1. In the years since this story became public, people have raised a number of such questions, but it's such a neat tale, I wanted to write about it, anyway.

    2. I love these stories too, and thought about the money issue. Wouldn't look for Gendarmes to be so friendly when tourists try to pass funny money.

    3. Yes you are right.
      By the way I found your Blog last week and have spent hours reading the fascinating posts :)

  3. Being things are weird here, maybe the money and the clothes the couples were wearing appeared different to the "ghosts"? They would have really stood out in 1979 garb otherwise.

  4. If it were a fake story, you'd think the couples would have tried to explain the anomaly of no one in the 'past' caring about the travellers' 1970s automobile, or their relatively strange clothes. And why would a French hotel, especially of the early 1900s serve lager instead of wine? There's beer in France but English people found turn of the twentieth century French beer gassy - and I don't think southern France doesn't produce much of it.

    I find these time-slip stories often contain some creepy or bizarre anomalies, beyond the obvious ones.


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