The Gîte Life

“You’ve watched too many subtitled movies,” my husband accused. He was right. My sweet little fantasy played something like this:

It’s the South of France, deep summer. Dappled sunlight filters through an ancient fig tree, bathing a group of revelers in a magical glow. They pour crisp white wine from earthen pitchers, pass olives steeped in pungent herbes de Provence, tear off chunks of fresh baguette and laugh with contentment, while fat bees buzz lazily in the lavender. These enchanted beings inhabit a big ocher-colored farmhouse with foot-thick walls that hoard the morning’s coolness and stand solid against the force of Mistral winds . . .

Fortunately, I managed to stop swooning long enough to forage through the Web site of Gites de France ( Gites (pronounced “zjeet”) are rural vacation rentals offered by private individuals but regulated and rated by the French government, which also operates a reservations system. The first gite opened in 1951 and, 53 years later, they number more than 42,000 throughout France and its territories.

The multilingual site lets you choose which regional department you’d like to visit (i.e., Normandy, Alsace, Cote d’Azur); then you can set up a series of criteria, ranging from proximity to a particular city or tourist attraction to whether a property accepts pets. Gites are also rated on levels of comfort and amenities, and the listings also indicate which languages proprietors speak.

One of the program’s best features is price. When I first clicked around looking at country houses, I mistakenly thought they were priced by the day; closer inspection revealed the prices were for an entire week. For an average cost of about $370, you can spend seven days living the gite life.

Then, surfing the site’s Bouches-du-Rhone area of Provence, I found it — an old ocher farmhouse that seemed to have been lifted straight from my most seductive reveries. There was even an outdoor table set under a vine-covered pergola.

I faxed the owner, who sent more photos and floor plans; our deposit check went out the next day to reserve the last two weeks in September. As I addressed the envelope, I smiled, noting that there was neither a street name nor a house number. It was simply a place near a small village, where it seemed everyone knew how to find it.

We, of course, needed directions. The proprietor had provided good ones, and we drove a half-hour north from Aix-en-Provence, then counted 2.2 kilometers from the nearby village, spotting the canal, the neighboring winery and finally the half-hidden gravel drive.

As our rental car passed a row of cypress trees marking the property, a mammoth shaggy dog raced across our path and ran circles around the car, barking like mad. We crept along with our canine escort until the house emerged from its sheltering greenery — exactly like those evocative French movies.

A toothy, old-fashioned key rested in the lock. There was a note in French: “Madame et Monsieur, welcome! Please make yourselves at home.”

We pushed open the thick wooden door. The ground floor of our new place in Provence held a dining room/kitchen with a big table at its heart, draped in traditional Provencal fabric — a wild combination of paisley and sunflowers. The kitchen cabinets sprouted hand-painted morning glories.

Across the hall we found a sitting room with cloth-covered walls and a jaunty flock of ceramic chickens. Next to the stairs was a “water closet” with a toilet and a washing machine, plus a small bathroom with a pedestal sink and claw-footed tub. Upstairs, two huge bedrooms and a WC/shower combination completed our gite. Everywhere, a riot of sun-drenched Provencal colors and patterns echoed the local lavender, olives and sunflowers.

I unpacked the supplies we’d picked up at the supermarket just outside of town, while Paul sifted through a mountain of tourist information. A binder held detailed instructions (in French) for the appliances, told us where to deposit trash (a dumpster down the road), described hiking trails and listed the days and locations for local markets. Brochures heralded everything from a nearby zoo to the village museum. And, mixed in with all this, a forgotten photo gave us a peek of a past guest’s birthday celebration.

As a chicken doused with olive oil and herbs roasted rather experimentally in the mysterious convection oven, we relaxed at our vine-shaded outdoor table, sipping a dry local white. Beyond massive fig and walnut trees, a lush lawn rolled down to the road where, every so often, we could hear a car whoosh past. To the west, green rows of butter lettuce caught the setting sun and, in the far distance, elevated tracks of the high-speed TGV train — an echo of the aqueducts that criss-crossed Provence in Roman times — were a reminder that this idyll was really taking place in the 21st century.

Just as we were finishing dinner, our host, Xavier Gombert, appeared at the door, offering a bottle of rosé in his work-worn farmer’s hands. Gombert’s weathered face made it difficult to guess his age, but I gauged that he was in his early forties. Forced to provide my own subtitles, I strained to decipher his Provencal-accented French, lavish with rolling R’s. He apologized profusely for the lack of a personal welcome and explained that our hostess, his partner, was still with her father, who was recovering from surgery. When we offered the $688 payment for our two-week stay, he shrugged. “No, no hurry, Marilyne will take care of that one of these days.”

Gombert also introduced us to our canine greeter, Lou-Lou. “He will run around and around your car, but just keep driving. He thinks he is herding you!” Sure enough, when we set out the next morning to visit a Sunday market, Lou-Lou bounded over, prepared to prevent our silly car from wandering off. We managed to escape without flattening him and headed for the nearby market at Pelissanne.

Like good French, we parked halfway on the sidewalk, then followed locals carrying market baskets to the heart of town. Butchers, cheese-makers and olive purveyors all beckoned. Tablecloths fluttered in the breeze like sunny flags of summer.

We breathed in the rich aroma of roasting chickens and the clean scent of verbena soaps. Paul presented me with a fat bouquet of sunflowers, and we couldn’t resist buying olive and sun-dried tomato tapenade from the woman who offered us a sample. Fresh goat cheese tasted of the green countryside; we gathered up small rounds of chevre crusted with cracked pepper for about $1 apiece.

Although I chose to practice my French when shopping the markets, non-speakers shouldn’t fear. Paul found that hand signals got him through most transactions.

Basil is a key ingredient in Provencal cuisine, so I asked to purchase a bunch. “Are you sure you want that type?” the produce man inquired. “Smell.” And he crushed one of the large leaves in his hand. Then he bruised the tiny half-inch leaves of another variety and offered them up to my nose. “This is real Provencal basil,” he declared. No contest. I chose the pungent Provencal version he plucked from a bucket — roots, dirt and all.

Our gite took up the right side of the old farmhouse, with our proprietors’ home filling out the rest. Around the corner, a recent addition housed a second gite. Late the next day, a road-weary German family pulled up to occupy Gite No. 2.

Regarding these neighbors, let’s just say that German isn’t the most soothing language when shouted by two small children frolicking below your bedroom window at 7:30 am. The gite system is set up to be kid-friendly; many owners even offer cribs. But to avoid surprises, we learned it’s best to choose gites that are stand-alone houses or to inquire about other guests.

Aside from the early-morning wake-up calls, we sank into the country life as if it were a big, comfy armchair — though the characters from my French film reverie might have been puzzled to see Paul run a phone cord though the gite’s front window to our laptop, so we could catch up on e-mail under the bougainvillea vine.

We wandered through small stone villages like Lourmarin and larger towns like Aix-en-Provence, with its sprawling Thursday and Saturday markets. I even spotted local resident John Malkovich poking around the Aix marché.

We ate simply but well, cooking most of our own meals in the gite’s well-equipped kitchen. A fall harvest of fresh figs, apples and walnuts were free for the picking, just outside our door. I feasted on my favorite tiny green beans, haricots verts. Paul reveled in cheeses — the stinkier and runnier, the better. And, I admit, we popped a frozen pizza in the oven now and then. Yes, after the initial trepidation, we’d deciphered our oven’s baffling icons and were converts to speedy convection cooking.

When we encountered Marilyne, she seemed loath to unburden us from the wad of cash we were toting around. “We’ll do the paperwork tonight,” she suggested. She was equally unperturbed when we lost our key during a shopping expedition: “Don’t worry, it’s your vacation!” she counseled us.

At the end of our two-week stay, we rose early for an activity I’ve never witnessed in those golden-hued French films: housecleaning. Guests are expected to give their gite a thorough scrubbing, which took about two hours.

Looking like Les Beverly Hillbillies, we loaded up our tiny Renault with leftover food, paper towels, laundry detergent and our hardy basil plant. We presented our hosts with flowers, collected a kiss on each cheek from Marilyne and headed out — with a rousing send-off from Lou-Lou.


The last subtitles of my French country reverie floated over the final scene.

Freelance writer Gayle Keck recommends “My Mother’s Castle” (with English subtitles) as the quintessential French countryside flick.

© 2004 Gayle Keck
Originally published in the Washington Post
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[original excerpt, Bradley changed]
It’s the South of France, deep summer. Dappled sunlight filters through an ancient fig tree, bathing a group of revelers in a magical glow. They pour crisp white wine from earthen pitchers, pass olives steeped in pungent herbes de Provence, tear off chunks of fresh baguette and laugh with contentment, while fat bees buzz lazily in the lavender.