Could you do it?
Living the Dream – Reflections on a Gîte Business in South West France
How many of us dream about moving to France, but somehow it all fails to materialize? In our case we discovered that we could turn our dream into reality by adding a French income into the equation – through running gîtes in a lovely part of South West France, namely in the Tarn et Garonne.
We never imagined that filling bed spaces or helping to revive the rural economy and endeavouring to make other people’s annual holiday a memorable one would ever become part of our way of life. These were all new to us and not a little daunting. It just shows how life has its unexpected twists and turns. Over the past 14 years the gîte experience has proved to be an exciting and rewarding part of our new life style that has allowed us to live out the French dream.
It was of course a major step to make and many who consider this option need to do their homework. Advice from ‘old hands’ may be all that is needed to tip the balance. We offer a few thoughts to those who may be seeking to swap a pressured life at home for a better quality of life such as is on offer in many parts of France.
Location, Location and Location
As a family we usually took our holidays in France. With one wine enthusiast in a family of Francophiles, the trigger of possible early retirement, combined with a short visit to see our daughter whilst she was an ‘assistante’ near Avignon, was enough to set us off on our search. With both daughters at university there were no longer any ties to keep us in England.
How were we to decide on the area? Our holidays often took us to coastal France or to regions with serious winemaking activities. Apart from steering clear of pricey areas like Provence, we wanted to avoid heavy tourist traffic and the winds of the Mediterranean coastal area whilst benefiting from great weather, proximity to some good wines, spectacular scenery and plenty of local history. We also wanted a climate that gave a green rather than a ‘dried up’ landscape.
Our explorations led us to South West France – a region previously unknown to us. As we toured around the region we soon discovered an area that suited us well. Where the four départements of the Tarn et Garonne, Tarn, Lot and the Aveyron meet we found our location in what we now consider to be one of the most beautiful parts of France. It was a largely hidden and unknown part with valleys and gentle hills, gorges and causses, and history in abundance. With the location resolved, it was just chance that we spotted in a French magazine a line drawing of a lovely property for sale with a stylish pigeonnier, a large open barn and some land.
This stone property, part of which dates from the 18th century was divided into three houses, two very recently restored and the third needing complete restoration. Mas de Cazelles was within walking distance of a village with wonderful croissants, restaurant, garage and tennis court. In fact, we discovered that the property was situated in ideal walking country, with its backcloth of stunning landscapes and views, often with hidden gems such as Beaulieu Abbey and Cornusson chateau just a short walk away.
Moreover, the property had superb views and peace and quiet, being far away from main roads and motorways yet close to small historic towns like Cordes, St Antonin and Najac. In terms of running a gîte business it was also close to Albi and Toulouse and is now very well situated for budget flights to Rodez.
We had seen only 4 or 5 properties but on visiting Mas de Cazelles we instantly fell in love with the place in its idyllic setting – moreover it ticked all our boxes. Its condition meant that we could let two parts of the property as gîtes from day 1 and restore the third part as our house a little later. It offered considerable flexibility; apart from the letting aspect we could use the whole property as a venue for our daughter’s wedding reception, or for charity events or Christmas house parties.
For those considering such a venture as a gîte business you need to think about what is important for families on holiday – what will bring people to your gîte. We felt that Mas de Cazelles offered so much, whilst good weather was virtually guaranteed. The location and layout of the property are key selling points and in our subsequent planning of the property and gardens we wanted to create areas offering privacy and enjoyment for guests and also for friends and family.
For the three years before we were able to make the permanent move to France we maintained and let the two gîtes, installed a pool and restored the third house. Working trips to the property – often with volunteers – were great fun as the project came alive. It was easy enough to find reliable local help for managing the site in our absence – notably changeovers and pool and garden maintenance. This can be a most helpful support in the early days of running gîtes.
Within a couple of years we had all three houses fully renovated, whilst retaining period features such as exposed beams, lovely stonework, including éviers (old stone sinks) and bread ovens. We built a pool and established for each gîte a south –facing terrace, great views and enchanting mature gardens with lots of variety, colour and interest to enjoy. Next to the Pigeonnier is a large open barn which is ideal for al fresco dining, whilst offering the potential for further development.
There has been a number of regulations on pool safety in recent years and a range of possibilities exist for conforming with them. We opted for a non chlorine pool that was kinder to children’s skin. The 11 by 5 metre pool has roman steps, two pool alarms to conform with safety regulations, and is partly enclosed. It is essential that you get the pool right as it becomes a focal point of enjoyment for children and adults alike.
Running The Business
Having stayed in more gîtes than we can remember over the years – some being very disappointing in terms of comforts, cleanliness and style – we knew exactly what we aimed to offer our guests. We wanted to make it home from home, so a key objective was to provide furnishings and facilities of a high standard, whilst being in keeping with French country living. It was also important to provide safe and child-friendly accommodation: cot-beds, highchairs, toys, books, video mezzanine, swings, table tennis and badminton and, of course, a safe pool. We wanted to give the houses a personal and welcoming touch. We found that guests appreciated a bottle of local wine and some fresh flowers or vegetables from the garden as a welcome.
Buying Mas de Cazelles allowed us to generate a useful income from the start. Most of our guests loved the place and have come back for second or subsequent visits, usually booking for the following year at the end of their stay – some have visited annually for nearly 10 years! They feel that the environment is relaxing, safe and peaceful and that the facilities guarantee a memorable holiday. The safe and friendly environment that we aimed to create was bringing its rewards, with an average of 15 weeks of bookings in each gîte during our May to September season. We have made some great friends, spent some magical evenings together here and some very special meals. Here are some comments from the visitors’ book:
‘The seventh visit and still as magical as that first time'(Norfolk)
‘Fabulous property in lovely surroundings’ (Glasgow)
‘Beautiful house and gardens. Loved our stay’ (Virginia, U S)
‘Our very own room with a view What a fabulous location’ (Somerset)
‘Going home relaxed, refreshed, inspired’ (Kent)
‘Stunning, tranquil, beautiful views everything we could want, inside and out!’ (North Yorkshire)
‘The memories of our stay are in our hearts, and every time we sniff the fragrant lavender it all brings us back to Mas de Cazelles’ (Hong Kong)
Running gîtes is great fun. Something else to consider is whether to run the gîtes like us or whether to branch out into long lets, winter lets, special events, linking up with specialist holidays, or targeting other geographical markets. A property that is flexible and offers potential is well worth seeking out. In the end it is up to you to decide how you want to run things – how the dream will be shaped.
After 14 years it is now time for the next chapter in our life. It will be sad to leave Mas de Cazelles. We are selling the business as we move on to our latest project – a new house not far from here. Needless to say, we hope it will pass on to sympathetic owners who wish to carry on the tradition we have developed. If further help or advice is required we are happy to offer our thoughts and respond to any questions.
Mas de Cazelles has now been SOLD.
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