In some ways, in fact, the bed and breakfast system is more in keeping with typical American travel needs. The rooms, usually in large country homes or converted chateaux, can be taken by the night, whereas gites are let on a weekly basis, often Saturday-through-Friday nights. A substantial number (1,400 of the 12,000 chambres d'hotes ) also offer breakfast and dinner, eliminating the need for shopping and cooking.
Both systems require the guests to have their own transportation, subjecting them to exorbitant French rental car prices. The price of the car used for our week's stay, for example, was nearly twice as much as the lodging (although U.S. travelers can pin down much more acceptable rental contracts before leaving home).
But for those experienced travelers who prefer to settle in and have a base from which to sightsee, the gite system can be a good idea. At the Beaujolais Chateau D'Emeringes mentioned above, visitors are near some of the best Beaujolais appellations (Julienas, Morgon, Brouilly, etc); the Romanesque abbeys in Cluny and Tournus and Burgundy wine country. From there, Lyon, Geneva and Beaune are all easy day trips.
In Britain over the past few years, the French program has been a big success, appealing to what Yvan Rahal, marketing director for the Gites de France office in London, described as the "Francophile independent traveler." In 1991, he said, 93,000 British families stayed in gites offered by his agency. Since 1977, the London office staff has increased from two to 40 employees. Another company, Brittany Ferries, in Portsmouth and Plymouth, is affiliated with 1,400 gites , mainly in the northern territories of Brittany and Normandy.
In addition to the exorbitant car rental costs, the main drawback for Americans is the awkward gite selection process. There are certainly gites for every taste and price range. Matching up with them, however, is a different matter (see Guidebook, page L12).
But traveling during off-season (times other than the July-August peak period and school vacation periods), chances are very good that a traveler can find a gite in a few days' time simply by visiting the office in Paris. Bookings can be made either through the Gites de France office or by contacting the gite operator directly. Veteran gite travelers employ some of their time in gites looking at other gites in nearby areas for future reference. The local tourist agency usually lists all gites in its area.
Obviously, gites are not for everyone, especially new travelers. Basic knowledge of French is helpful. Areas that deal more often with British travelers, such as Brittany, Normandy and Perigord, have a higher percentage of gite operators who speak English.
"Some people wander into our office and ask if we are like Club Med," said Rahal. "People should know what to expect from the gites ."
The Gites of France
The gites system: Privately owned cottages in rural France are registered under the Federation Nationale des Gites Ruraux de France, which inspects them and sets prices. Although a few are luxurious, most are rustic country houses set in outlying villages, away from major tourist centers but sometimes located within easy driving distance from them. They are generally available for weeklong periods beginning on Saturdays, Easter through October.
Commonly, accommodations are fully furnished and include all kitchenware, but linens are not provided (although they are sometimes available for an extra fee). Rates are highest in July and August, the traditional European holiday months, and in the most popular areas, such as Provence, two-week minimum stays may be required. The best gites are easiest to find slightly off-season, in May and June, September and October, and it's even possible travelers can find a gite in a few days' time simply by visiting the office in Paris. In general, however, long-range planning is advised.
How to book: Bookings can be made either through the Gites de France office or by contacting the gite operator directly (veteran gite travelers employ some of their time in gites looking at other gites in nearby areas for future reference). The local tourist agency usually lists all gites in its area.