Travel October 2010

French Connections

Gallic ingenuity has turned failing farms and rundown châteaux into hidden tourist gems.
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The bicycle occupies the place in French culture that the guitar does in Spain, or the horse does in America. So for a tourist to take hold of one can suggest a desire to playact. It’s the space occupied by NFL fan camps and dude ranches, and the first time someone asks if you’re chasing a Lance Armstrong fantasy, it can make a guy, particularly one on the wrong side of 40, wince.

With this in mind, my friend Jeremy and I, collaborators in dubious athletic undertakings since college, passed on the temptation to start our trip from the Champs-Élysées, and took the train to Fontainebleau. We would spend the next week pedaling the 800 kilometers from Font to the Pyrenees, crossing Loire and Limousin, and the valley of the Dordogne. We needed to make about 100 kilometers a day—a speed poky enough to take in the details and fast enough to be thrilling. And to burn 5,000 calories a day. The latter was key, as it would not merely permit us, but actually force us, to eat lots and lots and lots of really good cheese.

When he’s not biking, Jeremy is a rock climber, and our trip coincided with the arrival, in Fontainebleau, of some of his bouldering buddies. In the early 20th century, Parisian alpinists would do their winter training in Font while waiting for the weather to clear on Mont Blanc. Since then, visiting climbers have wired the local accommodations racket to their needs, and one of Jeremy’s chalk-covered gaggle had booked us a spot in a farmhouse near the rocks: our first gîte.

Among the things European socialism does better than American capitalism is concoct ways to save dying farm towns. Our host that night, Stef, had left a stressful job as an arbitrage trader in Paris and taken a government grant to rebuild the gorgeous farmhouse where we were to sleep. The French gîte system began in the ’50s but took off in the ’80s. Agricultural life had changed. Rural districts were finding it hard to keep young people down on the farm, indeed, once they’d seen Paris. At the same time, the old barns became attractive to foreigners dreaming of their own year in Provence.

France decided to create grants covering a portion of the costs (often considerable) to convert older farmhouses into rural inns. The grants didn’t always go to the farmers who had owned the houses. They went to urban professionals like Stef. The idea appears to have been based on two very French notions, which are (1) that a person can and perhaps ought to radically change his or her life now and then, and (2) that France must not allow British pensioners to buy up all the good real estate. The term gîte really refers to two kinds of inns, a chambre d’hôte, which recalls a B&B, and a gîte, which is for longer stays and larger groups. Casually, gîte covers both.

The idea was a huge hit, becoming one of Europe’s grandest experiments in rural-tourism promotion. Currently, according to Gîtes de France, which administers the program, 43,800 rural gîtes dot the country, offering lodgings for invitingly low prices of 40 to 80 euros a night, breakfast included. By comparison, the largest U.S. motel chain, Motel 6, says it has more than 1,000 locations. You will get a homemade pain au chocolat in none of them.

“You don’t make any money,” Stef told us the next morning. “Just maybe enough, you know, to keep the place going. But okay, you live here.” He waved his arm toward the window, beyond which was, well, the driveway. But beyond that was the rest of rural France.

We were setting off that morning. Jeremy, an organized fellow, had booked us a room a day down the road at an Etap, Europe’s Red Roof Inn. Hearing this, Stef sniffed. Though a Web site exists, a printed gîte directory, which looks like a phone book, is more useful, with the system operating more by regional grapevine than by modern wire. Gîte hosts help each other and send circuit tourists like us to towns we’d never have found ourselves. Stef eyed the directory’s map, poked a number into his phone, exchanged pleasantries with someone on the other end, and rested the receiver on his shoulder.

“Would you mind a castle?”

One hundred kilometers down the Loire canal, Marcel and Madeleine—I swear those are their names—did not live in a castle exactly, but rather behind a goth gate in a château filled with empty birdcages and ceramic dolls. Compared with Stef’s sunny farmhouse, it was a bit creepy, but French creepy, in a Delicatessen-era Jean-Pierre Jeunet sort of way. The doors all had smaller doors in them, and the kitchen had secret passageways. Madeleine encouraged us to visit the town bar, a hunters’ lodge full of mounted boars’ heads, where they served us the best meal we would have all week, four courses on wood planks. The house terrier sat hopefully on my lap, winning stray bits of a ridiculously good steak.

The next day, we climbed over Sancerre, slept in a converted barn, and woke to the smell of brioche, made by our latest gîte’s owner, a former staffing-agency executive.

And so off we went across southern France, following little homemade signs for gîtes, which brought us farther into the secondary, then the tertiary, roads. We wound beside fields, well trapped in the cliché we had tried to avoid. The English words for bicycle travel, tour and the wonderful randonnée, are both from French, and not by accident. Nowhere in the American Midwest will a farmer shut down a 20-ton combine to let cyclists pass unmolested by dust; even in California you won’t see a trio of retirees, their sagging bits stretching the spandex, blast past at double your pace, talking about soccer. Nowhere else (well, perhaps in Italy—perhaps) will a man who sells bulldozers turn out to have the obscure wrench needed to pop the gears off a bike, and the distant memory of a stint with a racing club sufficient to straighten things out.

And certainly, nowhere else will the government bribe its own citizens to leave successful careers to become break-even country innkeepers, then make tourists ride into the hills to rent the rooms. We arrived in Toulouse a week later, neither of us having lost a pound, both of us having forgotten we’d been in Paris at all.

Marc Herman is a writer in Barcelona. He is the author of Searching for El Dorado.
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Marc Herman is a writer in Barcelona. He is the author of Searching for El Dorado.

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