A note from David Jaggard: France is emerging from confinement and we are free to travel again. For those who share my love of the French countryside, this article, originally posted on June 24, 2015, contains some actual useful information. But mostly I was just shooting my mouth off, as usual.
Paris is a black hole. Not in the astronomical sense, of course, but esthetically: it sucks the physical beauty out of all the other places in its orbit. Inside the city’s more-or-less circular borders, the streets and buildings are virtually all beautiful (with some exceptions), but as soon as you cross the Périphérique into the suburbs, the streets and buildings are virtually all… not necessarily ugly, but at best nondescript (with some exceptions).
And then after the suburbs thin out, the countryside in the first 80 kilometers or so around Paris is flat, boring and largely covered with wheat. As a baguette lover, I have nothing against the cultivation of a little einkorn here and there, but in terms of scenery, it gets old fast. Just like a baguette, come to think of it.
Due to this not-very-cosmic phenomenon, you have to get fairly far out of town before France starts to look pretty again. But then it makes up for it:
Having grown up in the Midwestern United States (speaking of coma-inducing expanses of cereal crops), I am, even after 30 years in France, amazed by the sheer, endless beauty of the French countryside. Taking the train south, for example, I can stare raptly out the window all the way from Orléans to Arles, completely engrossed in the landscapes passing by. Which is why I had no idea how that loud, obnoxious guy’s cellphone got mixed in with my lunch trash that one time. But that’s a different story.
Anyway, the countryside in France is just as beautiful as Paris, but with more free parking, which is why Nancy and I love to spend our vacations in it. And, like so many travelers in the age of the “share economy,” we like to rent a house or apartment for our trips to the provinces. Fortunately for us, France has a long tradition of short-term rentals, dating back to years before anyone told the parents of the Airbnb founders to “Get a room!”
In fact, it’s such a part of the culture here, the French language even has a short, efficient, easy-to-say word that embodies the whole concept of “short-term vacation rental” in a single syllable: gîte (accent on the “^”). And, since this is France, there’s a tightly regulated official national organization of gîtes, called, probably because the name “Boston Red Sox” was already taken, “Gîtes de France.”
Nancy and I have been renting from Gîtes de France for many years now, and I cannot overstate the advantages of this system compared with staying in a hotel. It’s much cheaper, offers many more possible destinations, gives you lots more space in multiple rooms and, best of all, every gîte has a “wormhole” in the space-time continuum that allows you to travel back in history to assassinate Hitler and delete your nude selfies.
Oops — I guess I can overstate it. What I meant to say is: best of all, every gîte has a kitchen, so you can have complete control over your meals and don’t have to eat in restaurants all the time. This saves money, including the change that you’d otherwise put in tip jars, although if your family has a “swear jar” you’re likely to come out poorer by the end of the trip (more on this below).
In any case, the benefits are many, but, like a time traveler returning from the past to find that while he was gone Donald Trump was elected president by a margin of one vote, gîte renters need to be aware of a few potential pitfalls. To make the experience as smooth as possible for them, I have decided to explain these hazards in:
The C’est Ironique Complete Gîte Cheat Sheet
At the risk of stating the obvious, to stay in a gîte you need to rent one. I mention this because the really good ones are spoken for far in advance.
Every October, Gîtes de France begins taking reservations for the coming year, and by November the best places are all booked up for the following spring, summer and fall. So, like the legendary “strangely dressed man” who suddenly appeared in Munich in 1914, stabbed a young unknown painter named Adolf something-or-other and then vanished into thin air, you have to plan ahead.
Also, at the risk of stating the obvious twice in one article, once you rent a gîte you need to get there. This can be more of a challenge than you might expect. I have often wondered if Gîtes de France has a rule that any worthwhile rental must be difficult to access by automobile and impossible to access in any other way.
Many, possibly most, of the nice gîtes are located in tiny villages kilometers from the nearest train station, bus stop or, in some cases, two-lane road. And even once you reach the village, getting to your rental can be a test of determination and driving skill. In the course of vacationing in gîtes over the years I have had to deal with:
• A long driveway (in the Provençal town of Goult) that fell so steeply off the road that I couldn’t even see it until I was on it — the technique was to aim to the right of the mailbox and hope that no one happened to be coming out right then.
• An even longer driveway (in Annecy) that rose so steeply off the road that I had to keep the car in first gear while threading my way between two stone buildings with just barely enough room to squeeze through, not slowing down for a second because the engine would stall, then swerving slightly to the right, turning hard to the left and accelerating a lot to make it up an even steeper grade to the garage.
• A 15-kilometer-long one-lane but two-way road (to the Mediterranean village of Sainte Agnès) up the face of a dizzyingly high cliff with no guardrails, lots of blind curves and only a few places where two cars could inch by each other. Base jumping back down to the coast would probably have been safer.
Still, in all of those cases, it was like cheek-kissing, doors with knobs in the middle and paying seven dollars for a gallon of gas — I got used to it. In Sainte Agnès, by the end of my stay, I thought nothing of driving back down the mountain just to pick up an extra croissant.
Speaking of which, once you have reached your temporary home, you need to eat. Which brings us to The Great Mystery faced by every gîte renter upon arrival: the condition of the kitchen.
Every place is a bit different, and unless you’ve rented the same gîte before, you can’t know what to expect in the way of kitchen equipment and consumable supplies.
The supplies are the least predictable. In my experience, most places have a little salt, pepper and sugar, plus perhaps some instant coffee, cooking oil, vinegar and a few half-full bottles of supermarket spices that lost their flavor 12 years ago.
But some places have no consumables at all, which gives you the opportunity to savor the uncommon experience of walking the aisles of a grocery store trying to remember every single freaking thing that you need to sustain the entire nourishment process, from food and beverages to dish soap to toilet paper.
Having done this a couple of times, I recommend that gîte renters take along ziplock bags of the staples that can only be bought in large quantities, including salt and sugar but also dry dishwashing detergent, laundry detergent and flour. In other words, enough white powder to make it look like you’re packing for a Grateful Dead tour rather than a vacation in France.
The kitchen hardware is, in contrast, very predictable. In most gîtes, you can count on having a graduated set of four or five cheap, thin aluminum pots, two or three warped stickproof frying pans with the no-stick surface scratched almost completely off because all of the utensils are steel, one lid that fits none of the above, one bent (i.e., useless) corkscrew, a cutting board so small that it makes you look around for an Easy-Bake Oven, and one chopping knife so resplendently dull that it must have been used to chop other knives.
Let the renter beware: you’re going to have cheap, rudimentary cookware bought by people who don’t use it and used by people who didn’t buy it — and therefore have no particular incentive to take good care of it.
Based on previous unpleasant surprises in gîte kitchens, my recommended packing list now also includes a few everyday, easy-to-carry items that make food preparation easier:
• A good sharp knife.
• An extra cutting board.
• A corkscrew that will pull the cork out of the bottle before it pulls your arm out of its socket.
• Alain Ducasse (until 2024, when Michelin three-star robots will become standard equipment for the Gîtes de France network).
Lastly, once you’ve rented your gîte, arrived and stocked the kitchen, you have to live in it. I mention this because, although it’s usually not a problem, on rare occasions I have stayed in a rental where I had to brace myself, take deep breaths and get in touch with my happy place before going inside to face the decor.
Nancy and I once spent a week in an otherwise wonderful two-bedroom duplex in the Alps whose owner, a very nice retired woman, had filled every nook and cranny with something cute and colorful from one of those catalogues that should be entitled “Yes, There Are People Who Actually Buy This Crap.”
Her abhorrence of empty wall space was paired with an unerring eye for the kitschiest decorations imaginable. For example, she couldn’t just buy a clock — it had to be a huge clock in the form of a 12-lobed lily pad with a different colored frog for each number and a little cartoon princess with puckered lips at the end of the minute hand. Every time I opened the door I expected to find the neighborhood dogs playing poker around the dining room table.
But it still wasn’t as weird as the erotic grotto. About five years ago we rented a small stone house in Provence owned by a young couple who were apparently: a) very much in love, and b) intent on ruining their property’s resale value.
The bedroom was in an old vaulted cellar whose walls and ceiling had been entirely covered with a molded and brightly painted tableau that looked at first glance like a bunch of abstract swirls and whorls, but upon close inspection proved to be a 3D fresco of genitalia of every sex, size and description, all in a state of either readiness or action.
It was very disconcerting — if I woke up in the middle of the night it was hard to tell if I was still dreaming or not.
Nonetheless, our overall short-term rental experience has been overwhelmingly positive, and finding new gîtes to rent is one of our favorite things to do in France. As I was reminded a month ago while watching a documentary about D-Day.
The filmmakers had uncovered a trove of original newsreel footage of the invasion, including one horrific scene shot near the peak of the fighting on a beach in Normandy. I don’t remember which town it was, but it had been reduced to a smoking ruin.
There was only one building left standing. Watching as the armies in what was perhaps the largest, fiercest battle in history continued to exchange fire, I looked at that lone remaining structure, an old half-timbered house right on the beachfront, and all I could think was, “Hey, nice-looking place! I wonder if they rent it out…”
An album of David Jaggard’s comic compositions is now available for streaming on Spotify and Apple Music, for purchase (whole or track by track) on iTunes and Amazon, and on every other music downloading service in the known universe, under the title “Totally Unrelated.”
Note to readers: David Jaggard’s e-book Quorum of One: Satire 1998-2011 is available from Amazon as well as iTunes, iBookstore, Nook, Reader Store, Kobo, Copia and many other distributors.