There's No Place Like (Someone Else's) Home

The Yonne River flows  past the Moulin d'Eguebaude's bed-and-breakfast cottages in France's Champagne region.
The Yonne River flows past the Moulin d'Eguebaude's bed-and-breakfast cottages in France's Champagne region. (By George Cagala)
By George Cagala
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, August 5, 2007

Four trips to France, and neither my wife nor I had ever spoken to a French person -- not really, not beyond the minimal "bonjour" or "merci." Never asked about the family, the job, futbol, the president; never got to know the French as anything other than waiters, cabdrivers and innkeepers. Language barrier notwithstanding, this seemed odd. And inexcusable.

That changed on trip number five last summer, when we discovered a way to live among the French.

We found Web sites, a half-dozen or so, that could connect us to those willing to open their doors and share their homes with us -- and sometimes even their tables. The site we settled on was Gites de France, an association of mom-and-pop property owners established more than a half-century ago. We derived comfort knowing that each of its property owners must comply with the organization's national charter, which rates properties one to five ears of corn based on setting, comfort and amenities; the more ears, the better the digs. With a listing of 56,000 accommodations on farms, vineyards, centuries-old chateaux and even houseboats, the site promised precisely what we were searching for: "authenticity, hospitality, friendship, and the chance to experience the joys and pleasures of the French way of life firsthand."

At first blush, the idea of renting a gite -- an entire house, typically in a rural area -- seemed like our best bet. But because we wanted to change locations every few days, we ultimately opted for chambres d'hotes, the French equivalent of bed-and-breakfasts. These can be booked by the night, whereas gites usually rent by the week or weekend. Chambres d'hotes also offer the convenience of having breakfast and linens included; gites are self-catering, meaning you have to cook and clean for yourself.

After narrowing our itinerary to the regions of Champagne, Burgundy and Beaujolais, we selected three hosts from a choice of thousands: a trout farmer, a winemaker and a teacher-turned-administrator.

On a Trout Farm

Moulin d'Eguebaude, a trout farm on the outskirts of Troyes in Champagne, is situated on a grassy sweep of land bisected by a narrow river, the Yonne , that meanders past an old timbered mill (the moulin) before cascading into a pond behind a row of red-roofed cottages. A sign on the mill door points us toward an ivy-covered manor house, where a sign directs us to "sonnez la cloche."

I see no bell to ring, but do find a button to push. It startles the hell out of me, because instead of a sweet jingle, it detonates a loud, uncouth buzzer.

Thus beckoned, a lanky fellow with a beard and ponytail rounds the corner and approaches. He's a rough cut of actor Antonio Banderas, even sounds like him. He is, however, Alexandre Mesley, who manages this property with his wife, Sandrine.

Following my hesitant efforts in French, Alexandre smiles and extends a welcome in fluent English. As he leads the way to our cottage, one of those with the red roofs, I ask about the Eguebaudes. "Who were they?"

Alexandre smiles again and explains that the name is a French derivative of the original Latin, which means "crazy water." It is here on the banks of the crazy water, at the edge of the modest village of Estissac, that we will be spending two nights.

The moulin has been here a long time. It served an order of monks in 1255 and later was a paper mill and a wheat mill.

In 1968, Alexandre's parents turned the property into a trout and salmon farm that now raises as much as 50 tons of fish a year. The bed-and-breakfast idea evolved relatively recently.

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