© Jeremy Ferguson
The inside story
All the details on how to ditch hotels and find a holiday rental in France
In Paris, on Rue Saint-Honoré, it’s possible to rent the historic quarters of Maximilien Robespierre, the fiery revolutionary whose gift to French history was the Reign of Terror. Robespierre’s ghost, which could still be searching for its head, would hardly recognize the place. Today it’s a pretty, airy space with exposed beams, a rain shower, big-screen TV, kitchen with Nespresso maker and Wi-Fi. It sleeps up to four and it’s yours (via homeaway.com) for €195 a night.
If you think this might be a tad creepy, alternatives abound by the thousand. The City of Light — the most popular city in the world with 27 million visitors annually — has spaces aplenty for visitors anxious to avoid ultra-expensive hotels, settle into their own cozy digs and live for a while as Parisians do.
If Paris is the urban jewel of the planet, it’s also true that France is the most popular destination. In 2012, 83 million tourists arrived to wonder at and delight in its incomparably beautiful countryside, medieval villages, seaside resorts, 38 UNESCO World Heritage Sites, castles, cathedrals and, of course, legendary pleasures of the table.
The countryside offers a still vaster range of rental accommodations from gîtes de France — holiday rentals targeting the family market — to elaborate châteaux and fortified castles.
So what will it be? A barge on the Seine? A villa on the Côte d’Azur? A farmhouse in Brittany? A house in the Dordogne? A renovated pigeon house in Languedoc?
Simply Châteaux (simplychateau.com) is an agency catering to aspiring aristocrats. It represents 270 châteaux that can accommodate up to 50 guests apiece. Another outfit, A Castle for Rent (a-castle-for-rent.com), has 50 châteaux in the Loire Valley. Bring your own powdered wig.
My wife and I have rented for years. Rentals, even with often-hefty agency fees, are much less expensive than hotels. We save fortunes by cooking at home, taking advantage of marvellous French produce and wine at prices to make a Canadian drool. And we have a neighbourhood to call our own.
Last fall, we blueprinted a seven-week stay encompassing two Paris apartments, a townhouse in a Dordogne village and a gîte on the outskirts of Toulouse. What follows are on-site notes to give the reader a more comprehensive notion of what to expect.
Paris apartment #1
Because we were travelling with two doctors in the family, we sought out generous living space (we’d once rented an apartment only 32 square metres in size and spent the week bumping into each other). Next was the issue of an elevator (we have friends once forced to climb six floors to their garret accommodation; it nearly killed them).
Diligence bought us a two-bedroom apartment on the second floor of a classical 19th-century Baron Haussmann building. The neighbourhood was the upper Marais, just off the Place de la République. Our landlord was a vivacious and charming Parisienne, Véronique Aboulay (email@example.com), whose hands-on approach became a running delight. It cost €950 a week. (Note: with most Paris apartments, the price of a two-and-a-half-week stay is the same as a month, so the longer term is something of a bargain.)
The fully furnished apartment had belonged to Véronique’s grandmother and it retains elegant 19th-century touches such as a trio of French doors leading to a balcony, high ceilings with original plaster moldings, and comfortable furniture and beds. Many of her grandmother’s personal possessions remain, imparting the warmth and character of a family home. The galley kitchen, which is merely functional, seems an afterthought.
Country home #1
Our first rental in the French countryside was a 15th-century row house in Saint-Jean-de-Côle in the upper Dordogne, Périgord Vert of yore. Officially one of Les Plus Beaux Villages de France (les-plus-beaux-villages-de-france.org) — always a superlative credential — it exudes a Brigadoon-like atmosphere that can exist only where people have been going about their lives on the old stones of centuries.
Its survivor credentials run from the Black Death and Wars of Religion to the French Revolution and WWII. It has a teeming population of 350, a few blocks of stone and half-timbered houses, a Gothic bridge, a castle, a cathedral and one grocery store with excellent croissants.
The owner of the three-storey “French House” is Karen Frost (firstname.lastname@example.org), a South African who manages to visit once a year. It has two extremely comfortable bedrooms, a living room with fireplace and an excellently outfitted modern kitchen. Its shabby chic decor of wood plank floors, overstuffed couches with white cotton slipcovers, antique shutters laying about as accents and soft neutral colours contribute to a comfy lived-in atmosphere. It costs €426 a week.
It was a perfect base for exploring a Dordogne landscape greener than Ireland, villages of honey-coloured stone and castles including the multi-turreted Château de Jumilhac. This realm could not be further from the universe of strip malls, condo developments, corporate men and Starbucks.
Not far away is the tragic Limousin village of Oradour-sur-Glane, just as it was on that dreadful day in 1944 when a German Waffen-SS company massacred all 642 inhabitants and razed it to the ground. DeGaulle ordered it preserved as a reminder, a kind of 20th century horror archeology.
Our evenings were rightly reserved for the table and the specialties du region, namely foie gras seared in the pan with peaches or apples; duck confit roasted in crinolines of its own fat paired with magret, duck breast; and truffled potatoes. And Rhône wines at six bucks a bottle.
Country house #2
Autumn was driving summer southwards and we went with it. A chill in the Dordogne gave way to the toasty climate of the Lauragais farm country outside Toulouse.
Our base was a gîte, a holiday home for rent by independent owners registered with Gîtes de France (gites-de-france.com) Commonly, gîtes are cottages or outbuildings on a larger tract of land, the owners within easy reach. In Lauragais, farmers Denis and Liliane Loubet (email@example.com; facebook.com/les.gites.de.mervilla) live next door. At a gîte, such owners quickly become friends.
Our home was a traditional Lauragais-style, redbrick barn that was renovated to include an open-plan main floor with a dream kitchen, and handsomely appointed living and dining areas. Two-storey-high picture windows open onto a patio and panoramic view of the Pyrénées. A winding staircase leads to a second floor with two comfy bedrooms and a spacious bathroom with walk-in shower. The cost was an off-season €470 per week.
Toulouse was our nearest city, with a fine selection of monuments and markets to visit. The countryside allowed for easy day trips to picturesque towns including Auch — birthplace of d’Artagnan, the Musketeer turned to legend by French writer Dumas — the medieval city of Albi, the hill villages of Puycelsi and Cordes, and the great fortress of Carcassonne.
A special pleasure, minutes from the gîte, was a stretch of the Canal du Midi, the 241-kilometre engineering marvel built in the 17th century. Its purpose was to allow goods to travel from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic without having to confront pirates on the coast of Spain. Today a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it still functions as a waterway for canal and pleasure boats.
Our stretch of the canal made for beautiful photographs. Our walks frequently finished with lunch at L’Ecluse de Castanet (Chemin d'Augustin; 31320 Castanet-Tolosan; l-ecluse-de-castanet.fr), a small, charming canal restaurant that serves considerable pleasures like fresh foie gras and ris de veau.
Paris apartment #2
As our sojourn came to an end, we decided to spend a final week in Paris. A spur-of-the-moment decision isn’t especially smart. It left us little time to find accommodation: even in early November, Paris is a sellout.
We were compelled to fall back on an agency, Paris Attitude (parisattitude.com), which we’d used previously. The agency represents 6000 lofts, apartments, private homes and even riverboats on the Seine. Its website illustrates each property amply (although a wide-angle lens can make a palace of a closet) with a slew of reviews from previous tenants. (Spokesperson Priscilla Huste says the company advocates for the client if the property has been misrepresented.)
An agency costs a chunk more, but is generally a reliable source for rentals (friends, who booked from an independent owner, found themselves above a nightclub that blared until 5am and left them sleepless for a week).
Our apartment was a one-bedroom off an interior courtyard in the 6th Arrondissement. The space could have used a spruce-up throughout, but the beds were comfortable and the kitchen was just fine. It cost almost twice what we would have normally paid for 40 square metres: €879 a week.
But the 6th was a new section of town for us, and there was much to love: a fine bakery did a booming business across the street. It was a pleasant walk (all Paris walks are pleasant) to Napoleon’s tomb at Les Invalides, the Rodin Museum, the Musée d’Orsay and the Latin Quarter. One afternoon, we walked the Seine from the Eiffel Tower to the Pont Neuf.
By this time, winter was gathering and Paris skies were filled with powerfully sculpted, charcoal-bellied cumulus. Sudden storms broke into brittle winter sunlight and vice-versa. At such moments, Paris was a woman, tempestuous and disheveled, flaunting the last of her summer abandon. She never looked more ravishing.
This article was accurate when it was published. Please confirm rates and details directly with the companies in question.