Courtesy Gîtes de France
By Rachel Stella
Wherever you are in the world, motels lack charm, and no amount of “French touch” seems to improve the concept. So if you are looking for a cheap — and charming — place to sleep in France, stay away from the chains like Etap, Formule 1 and Ibis, and seek out the thousands of private Chambres d’hôtes or Gîtes de France.
A really pleasant alternative is the “Chambre d’hôte,” which translates literally as “guest room.” The concept is the same as the British bed & breakfast in that a private person rents out a room or two in his home and provides the guests with their morning meal.
This can be very tasty, with homemade jams and fresh bread and pastries. But don’t expect to eat anything as filling as kippers and eggs, for it is already a cultural leap for most French people to imagine anything but black coffee and a Gitane for breakfast.
Prices are usually around 200-250 francs for two people, breakfast included. Some proprietors also offer a home-style evening meal for an extra fee, and this is called “table d’hôte.” This is not a restaurant situation; you may be sharing the table d’hôte with other guests, and you must reserve ahead of time and respect your host’s timetable.
GÎTES DE FRANCE
There is a national federation called Gîtes de France that inspects and rates over 55,000 alternative lodgings, ranging from Chambres d’hotes to self-catering cottages. The rating system is based on the way the Ministry of Tourism rates hotels.
Just as any recognized hotel in France posts a sign showing the room rates and the number of stars attributed by the ministry to denote increasing levels of luxury, so the Gîtes de France attributes “epis” (an ear of corn) according to comfort criteria which include sanitary facilities (private bath or not), on-site amenities (parlor, games, garden, jacuzzi), and quality of furnishings and decoration.
The Gîtes de France also has a sustainable and responsible tourism angle: they claim (rightly), that the creation and maintenance of gîtes around the country enhances and preserves the countryside and cultural heritage; helps local populations prosper through tourism; and contributes to local development.
The Federation des Gîtes de France publishes a number of guidebooks and also runs an English web site www.gites-de-france.fr/eng/index.htm. You can reserve many of the lodgings through this site, or at least get a phone contact.
- Types of GîtesThere are several categories of accredited lodgings. Besides the “chambres d’hotes” — urban and suburban b&b’s — there are also “gîtes ruraux” which are self-catering houses, or independent lodgings. They can be rented by the week, and sometimes for just a weekend out of season. These lodgings contain one or more bedrooms, sanitary facilities, living area, kitchen and depending on the rating, a garden or terrace.
- The more “epis” the place has been attributed, the more amenities it will have. So if you want to be sure of having a washing machine, dishwasher, and television, you must select a lodging with a rating of at least 3 ears of corn. Self-catering means there is no maid service and you are expected to leave the place perfectly clean — wash the floors and everything else — or pay a cleaning fee. There is usually a sheet and towel fee for the less pricey rentals.
- Heat is rarely included in the published rate, so if you are planning a winter trip, it is best to ask about the extra charges beforehand. Expect to pay 2500 Francs per week at least for a Gîte Rural during peak season.This kind of informal alternative to hotels is so popular with families that many gîtes are booked up for school holidays at least six months in advance.
- On the other hand, French kids start school much earlier in September, and are in class until June 30th; so there are opportunities for those on a different schedule. Travelers with children might also be interested in the “Chalets-Loisirs,” which are kind of “cozy cabins” sleeping 4 to 6 people. Like their American counterparts, they are located on sites containing 3 to 25 buildings, usually near campsites, nature activities, and sports facilities. Gîtes de France also offers rooms on local farms.When reading the Gîtes de France publications, you will also come across mention of “Gîtes d’etape” which are more of a hostel style situation, sleeping anywhere from 8 to 20 people. Usually, these are booked by groups. However, during vacation season in hiking and biking areas, beds are sometimes rented out to individuals the same way as spots in youth hostels are.
- Theme GîtesThe Federation also produces special guidebooks concerning theme holidays. For instance, there are special gîtes in wine growing regions which include wine tasting sessions in the rental price. Certain gîtes are located on equestrian farms and offer trail rides, hay rides and riding instruction.
- Others come with a fishing license. A number of gîtes have the WWF panda label because they are located inside of a national park. This label means the lodging is within walking distance of nature trails and also that a teaching kit (guide books, trail maps, brochures etc) is at your disposal upon arrival.
Though the Federation des Gîtes de France is the single simplest way to find an alternative lodging in France, there are other options for Bed and Breakfast in France. Many fine lodgings have a variety of good reasons to avoid too much publicity, and do not list with the Federation.
In small towns and villages, you can get a list of private accommodations through the town hall (Mairie) or through the town’s “Syndicat d’Initiative” (get the phone number from the Mairie), which is a community-based office to promote tourism and business in the area.
The Syndicat d’Initiative is also the place to get information about cultural activities, restaurants, hiking and biking trails and all local sites of interest. Just remember that their “initiative” doesn’t go beyond the office hours of the municipal functionary who holds the job, which is often a mornings only part-time position.
With so many options for unique alternative lodgings in France, there is really no reason to stay in chain hotel in France. So, “bonne chance et bonne route.”
Contact Rachel Stella
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