At Home in France

By Gayle Keck
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, February 22, 2004

"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 (www.gites-de-france.fr). 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.


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