For some, the word gîte conjours a slightly hazy image. It’s definitely a self-catering thing in France, it has an air of simplicity to it, perhaps, but what does it really mean? Well, there's no better person to give us a little clarity than our very own Nicky deBouille, who’s been entrenched in the Loire Valley and wallowing joyfully in French culture for many years. Here's what she told us:
Since the Middle Ages, the French word gîte (from the Latin verb giser, to lie down or rest) has been used to describe the humble lodgings of a traveller or a pilgrim. It is also the French word for the home of a hare, giving the term appealing connotations of snug and simple cosiness.
In 1955, the organisation Gîtes de France was founded by the government, allowing farmers to make extra francs by renting out empty cottages on their land. The goal was that unused farm buildings would be restored and upkept, rather than lying empty and falling into ruin, and town dwellers would be able to enjoy inexpensive holidays in the countryside.
A French owner of a luxury villa, château, town apartment or beach-house would be horrified if you referred to their place as a gîte. To the French, a gîte means a house in a rural area where families can gather, with a garden large enough for outdoor play and long lunches in the sun in summer. The furniture is basic: a no-nonsense kitchen with a big farmhouse table, several bedrooms with simple beds, and a cosy sitting area, with a cupboard packed with board games and some well-read books. The huge increase in demand for self-catering places has led to more gentrified offerings, with cook’s kitchens, landscaped gardens, swimming pools, swanky furniture and far more creature comforts than any humble gîte would ever have aspired to before.
When I search for a gîte to book, I look for architectural charm, then (picturing myself happily shopping for delicious seasonal goodies at the local market), I carefully assess what the kitchen to cook these imagined goodies in looks like. The next most important question is, “Is there a pretty place have meals outside?”
Once there, surrounded by family and friends, a wonderful feeling of staying put sets in, as local landmarks become familiar and, like the hare, I feel at home in my gîte.
Nicky has gone from roots in the mountains of New Zealand to her home in an 18th century merchant's house on the banks of the Loire. Armed with an eccentric soundtrack from Bach to Radiohead via Beirut and Herbie Hancock, she goes on the road for weeks at a time, in search of new special places. What matters most to her is connecting with the owner, because it's the person that creates the place. She loves that she can give them an alternative to booking.com, and they love the fact that she's "gone native".