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FOR RENT : FARMHOUSES IN FRANCE : Staying in a private cottage in the French countryside is a way to soak up the local atmosphere and avoid the high hotel bills

August 30, 1992|RONE TEMPEST and LAURA RICHARDSON | Rone Tempest and Laura Richardson live in France with their two children and dog, Freckles . Tempest is Paris correspondent for The Times. and

ST.-JEAN PIED-DE-PORT, France — A large private cottage with ample room for three adults, two children and a fat, spotted dog named Freckles. Clean and fully furnished, perched high in the foothills of the Pyrenees Atlantiques, overlooking the white-water river valleys of French Basque country.

An attached tennis court and high-walled fronton for players of pelote , the Basque national sport and cousin to jai alai. Fully equipped kitchen, television set and stack of wood for the fireplace. Cattle guard to keep out the cows, goats and sheep that amble along the rocky road in front of the cottage, announcing themselves by the clinking of bells tied around their necks with rope. Pyrenees eagles soaring in the dramatic, turquoise-blue sky. Sweet regional Jurancon wines, first liquid to touch the lips of the French king Henry IV at his birth in 1553. Splendid restaurants featuring river trout and wild salmon on riverside terraces in the ancient pilgrimage town of St. Jean Pied-de-Port.

Twenty minutes by car from the Spanish border, on the road through the Plain of Aragon that leads to the famous bullfight town of Pamplona. An hour's drive to the Cotes Basques beach resort towns of Biarritz and St.-Jean-de-Luz. Accessible from Paris by a 3 1/2-hour, high-speed train to Bayonne in far southwest France, and a 1 1/2-hour drive in a car rented at the Bayonne train station.

Nice deal at any price, right? Try $275 for the whole week, which is what we paid during our stay in this French farmhouse last June (it goes for $350 during the high season, July and August). At that price, there's money left over for a bottle of good local Irouleguy red wine and a spectacular meal at the Les Pyrenees Hotel, the Michelin two-star restaurant in St.-Jean.

Prefer the Normandy region? How about a two-story cottage on a working dairy farm? Fresh raw milk every morn and eve. Chance for the kids to learn that milk comes from something other than containers. Stone fireplace. OK, so the beds were deep-valley and the shower was unpredictable. We paid $200 weekly in high season.

Something a little more upscale? Try a 19th-Century chateau with its own lake and 10 acres of wooded land in Beaujolais wine country. Three double rooms, two bathrooms, terrace, fireplace, etc. Telephone, washing machine and television. Off-season: $400 weekly. High season: $500.

All three of the above (the last of which we didn't test ourselves), and approximately 38,000 other rural cottages, are part of the remarkable and little-exploited (by Americans, at least) French vacation gite system. Since they were introduced in 1954 by a creative French legislator as a way of providing alternative sources of income in rural areas, gites have become an important source of vacation housing for French and other European travelers.

To belong to the gite (pronounced ZHEET) system, the cottages must meet French government standards of sanitation and amenities. Nearly all, for example, have a fireplace. Kitchen utensils, silverware, plates, cups and glasses Are always provided. Linen usually is not. Some of the gites are as modest as a hermit's cabin. Others are truly luxurious.

The reason they are so inexpensive is that they are subsidized in part by the French government. For example, when Madame Jeanne Ourtiague-Paris decided to convert an old sheep barn on her family property in the hills above St.-Jean Pied-de-Port into a gite , she received a grant worth several thousand dollars from the Ministry of Agriculture. The government, in exchange for certain quality and inspection standards, finances up to one-third the cost of each gite. According to government statistics, the average weekly price for five people in a gite is 1,200 francs, about $240 U.S. It doesn't take a math wizard to calculate the rates: about $7 per night, per person.


Working with her brother, Pierre, a retired Roman Catholic priest, Madame Ourtiague-Paris converted the sheep barn into the attractive Basque Country cottage, named Le Fronton because of its attached pelote court.

Foxglove--spikes of fuchsia flowers with spotted throats--and purple campanulas thrust out from the dense hedgerows of blackberry brambles that line either side of the winding, stoney road that leads up to Le Fronton. Its eminence, crowning one hill and backing up to another, commands a soaring view across hay meadows enclosed by these old-fashioned hedges, over which butterflies and fat bees gather.

The folded hills that rise up on the other side of the valley are softened by distance to become mossy shapes of sleeping dinosaurs, and the children are excited to pick out monsters' paws, ridged backs, lowered heads; the earth's own sculpture made friendly by imagination. The wind is fresh. In early summer, it is a green and pleasant place.

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