The Gîte Life
“What is a gîte?” you ask. Well, here’s the story. In France after WW II, people began to leave the countryside and abandon their homes in search of better opportunities in the cities. In order to preserve some of the economy in these rural areas, the government established a program whereby they would provide certain incentives such as money for renovation, advertising, reservation services, and a rating system if people would fix up their homes and other outbuildings and offer them for rent. This idea really caught on and today there are literally thousands of gîtes throughout the country. Many small communities subsist only on tourism trade and several shut down completely during the months of the year when tourists are almost nonexistent. Two of the regions where you will find the most gîtes are Provence and the Dordogne where many of the owners are British. They’re attracted by the warm, dry weather of which they have little in their native England as well as the more affordable price of housing.
A gîte (pronounced “zheet”) is a self-catering accommodation. As such, guests are responsible for maintaining it during the length of their stay. This includes cleaning, making beds, taking out the garbage, and replenishing any supplies that have been provided. Typically gîtes are rented from Saturday to Saturday and guests generally stay from one to two weeks. They vary widely in size, style, and amenities with prices ranging from about $500-1500 per week. It’s really like having your own home away from home while you are on vacation. Gîtes are rated by 1-5 ears of corn called épis based on how much comfort and convenience they provide. There are several reputable sites where you can search for a gîte — two of the more popular are Gîtes de France and Gitelink France.
As we thought about what kind of experience we wanted our vacation to be, this concept really appealed to us. So in February I set out to do the necessary research. Even with a lead of four months, many accommodations were already full. If you are willing to do a little work, you can’t beat the price and convenience of a gîte versus a hotel so they are very popular with travelers from all over the world. In addition, many gîtes cater to larger families or groups. Trying to find one meant to accommodate only two people limits your choices. It presents the same challenge as renting a cabin in a ski area where most offerings will house 8-10 guests.
Aside from saving money on both accommodations and food, the whole point of renting a gîte is to have enough space and facilities to live somewhat like you would at home, or rather, like the residents of that country would live on a daily basis. By necessity, it brings you a lot closer to the people and their culture and helps you learn about the idiosyncrasies of their lives. If you take advantage of the situation the way you should, you need to make a grocery list and go to the local farmer’s market or grocery store and shop for your meals. You have to mix with the locals, read product labels in another language, speak a little of the native tongue, and figure out how to handle the foreign currency. Of course, this means that you need to enjoy cooking for yourself or it won’t seem like a vacation which we do. You will be amazed, even enthralled by the number of culinary choices you have that you won’t find in a restaurant. I think everyone would agree that eating out non-stop for several weeks can get very boring never mind expensive and fattening. If you cook, someone has to do the dishes and clean up, but it’s kind of fun to do that when you’re in a another country. You’d be surprised at how “romantic” it can be. Next you have to figure out where all the garbage and recycling goes. France is big on separating all of these items and depositing them in the proper containers which are sometimes convenient and close by and sometimes not. Occasionally you’ll have to do laundry. Many gîtes have a washer located in the kitchen, but some places have a shared laundry facility or none at all necessitating a trip to the laundromat — another opportunity to mix with the locals and figure things out. At the end of your stay, it’s time to clean house. We both pitched in to do that together and it really didn’t take very long. We do this at home once a week anyway. We usually left the place cleaner than we found it and our hosts were thrilled. Most of them did not charge us cleaning fees or take our security deposits.
All of this is more work than many who prefer the conveniences and comforts of home provided by a 5-star hotel are willing to do. But if you are brave enough to jump into your travels from this angle, you will reap the benefits ten-fold compared to the sterile experience you will have at a hotel with a hotel clerk and concierge, both of whom will likely speak English.
We stayed in three very different gîtes during our vacation as well as an apartment in Paris which for all intents and purposes provides basically the same experience. A couple of other excellent resources I used are VRBO and New York Habitat. Stay tuned for details on each of our accommodations. Then you can decide whether or not the gîte life is for you next time you travel abroad.