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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|ERIC MALNIC | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SUZETTE, France — It can still be done. You and some friends can indulge in Provence--for a week, a month, or more--see the treasured sights, dine memorably in relaxed surroundings and spend your nights in spacious comfort, all at an affordable price.

The secret: Rent a house or an apartment.

It's not nearly as intimidating as it sounds. The idea came to us last fall when my wife Martha and I, and close friends Kathy and Bob Gillespie, started reminiscing one night about previous travels in Europe, especially some memorable visits to France.

Wouldn't it be fun to go again? Yes. But with the bite of recession and the dollar plunging against European currencies, wouldn't it be frighteningly expensive? Yes again. With modest French hotel rooms running close to $175 a night and dinner at ordinary restaurants averaging about $30 a person, a conventional trip was out of the question.

But what if we rented a house together, and prepared our own meals?

"Let's check it out," someone said.

Working on the dubious premise that the journalist among us should have the task--rather than a population expert or a couple of capable wives--the group assigned the job to me.

Within a couple of weeks, I had come up with several catalogues listing hundreds of rentals throughout France, ranging in price from about $300 a week for a modest suite of rooms in a village home to more than $4,000 a week for a sumptuous villa with several acres of manicured grounds. Midsummer prices were the highest, roughly double those of the early spring and late fall. The closer you get to August--the month all of Europe goes on vacation--the more you pay.

We decided to deal with a British firm, Vacances en Campagne, largely because their attractive catalogue, while far from detailed, included the best photographs of the rental properties and offered the most information we found useful. The company is represented exclusively in Southern California by a travel agency in Santa Ana called Livingstone Holidays, which did an admirable job of serving as an intermediary between us, England and the people in France.

After considerable anguishing over how much to spend and where to stay, we finally agreed on three choices in Provence, all of them at the more economical end of the scale.

Elizabeth Livingstone faithfully relayed our requests across the sea, and the answers came back in about a week. Number one was out because the owner, an American, hadn't finished putting in the plumbing. Number two was already booked up.

But number three--described tersely in the catalogue as a three-bedroom house with a "comfortable living room," situated in a "striking setting" on vineyard property in the hilly Vaucluse region about 30 miles northeast of Avignon--was available. There were two accompanying photographs, one showing the porch of a weathered building and the other a pretty view of a rural hillside.

That was about all we knew, but the off-season price seemed right--$500 a week, to be in large part shared by the four of us.

Warning each other not to expect too much, we signed up for a month, from mid-April to mid-May, mailing in a deposit to hold the place and, several weeks before we left, another check for the remaining balance. Insurance was offered by Vacances en Campagne to cover the rental if we decided to bug out, but we turned that down, hoping for the best.

"I don't care how bad it is," said Martha, the only speaker of fluent French and the key to the equation. "It's in France."

For some reason, her argument made sense.

*

A map was mailed to us on how to get there, along with the address of M. Bernard, the farmer who had the key, and some information about bed linens and "tea towels."

With various members of our troupe arriving and departing at different times, Martha and I arranged a month in advance to rent one car from Budget, and the Gillespies signed up for another. Both of them were ugly, slab-sided, noisy little machines--one a Peugeot, the other a Renault, both stick shift--that got close to 40 miles per gallon, hung in there on the autoroutes at 80 m.p.h. and served our purposes adequately, if without distinction. Each was rented at monthly rates of about $1,300, about 20% less than if we had rented them by the week.

Martha and I were the first members of the team to reach France, and as we drove the 450 miles south from Paris, we began to wonder what we had gotten ourselves into. The catalogue had said "Shower room. Separate WC." We had seen some of France's grim plumbing before. And what is a "comfortable" living room? Why, we wondered, didn't they call it "charming" or "spacious"?

A few minutes after we reached Beaumes-de-Venise, the little town where M. Bernard lives, we were following his sputtering little truck 5 miles up the hill to the tiny village of Suzette. We soon learned that, whether through the careful planning of Vacances de Campagne or our own blind luck, our concerns had been misplaced.

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