Travel October 2010

French Connections

Gallic ingenuity has turned failing farms and rundown châteaux into hidden tourist gems.

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.

Presented by

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

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