Sunday, May 17, 1992
www.nytimes.com
by GEORGE PITCHER

 

Chez Vous in the Heart of Burgundy

 

A week in a gîte, a self catering cottage, offers country living at a bargain price

 

My French dictionary tells me that the word gte can mean a number of things, including a bottom round of meat. But in the area of tourism, it means a self catering-cottage or apartment.

They are gte everywhere in France, virtually all of them in the country or in small villages. They are not fancy; heating, for example, is rarely of the central variety, but is achieved rather by wood or coal fires either in the fireplace or in heating stoves, with electric heaters in bedrooms. But they come complete with serviceable furniture, hot and cold running water, well-equipped kitchens, interior bathrooms (normally only one per gte), and anywhere from one to four bedrooms. gte are privately owned, usually by a villager who lives nearby, so if anything should go wrong there is authoritative help close at hand. And they are not expansive. You will probably want a car for shopping and for exploring the more extended reaches for your chosen region; but when you consider that for four or five people, and even more, can comfortably share a single gte, it is obvious that renting a gte is an inexpensive way to enjoy a vacation in France.

My friend and I rented a gte in the tiny village of Toulongeon, about 10 miles south of Autun in southern Burgundy. The village is nestled in a shadow valley and is surrounded by grazing field razing gently in all directions to the wood above. Herds and sheep, goats or handsome whit Charollais cattle move about on the slopes. A cottage is seen here and there, sometimes with a strand of blue-gray smoke rising from its chimney straight-up into the pure bright air of the Morvan. A setting of incomparable beauty.

Our gte was part of the boulangerie of a chteau demolished at the time of the Revolution (Madame de Svign is said to have stayed there, a favor she bestowed, we discovered, on a large number of chteaux in Burgundy-the French analogue of George Washington). The living room with its heavily beamed 12-foot ceiling, featured a very tall, very wild, but very shallow fireplace of a construction to be found throughout the region: a massive stone mantel supported on each side by huge slabs of the same gray stone. An easy chair and several large upholstered stools were grouped around a large coffee table. There were several reading lamps, some of which were handsome ceramic ones made by the owner, Chantal Dunoyer One of the two large windows in the living room commanded a splendid view of the wooded hill rising gently behind the property. Next to the living room was a well-equipped kitchen with basic appliances in good working order, as well as an ample supply of pots and pans, utensils, silverware, dishes, tablecloths and, napkins.

The three bedrooms upstairs were open to the ceiling, with large exposed beams that created an airy country atmosphere. They were reached by way of a modern metal circular staircase, quite narrow, that precluded visits by friends who had had hip operation or were for some other reasons less than agile. Sins the toilet was on the ground floor, the staircase also rendered advisable the use at night of the chamber pots in the bedrooms. The bathroom next to but separate from the toilet, had a; shower and sink, and could be warmed instantly and chilly mornings by a marvelously efficient little electric space heater made in Italy. There were plenty of towels but the French do not seem to be great believers in washcloths, so visitors who do require them had better bring their own.

Our gte was one half of the former boulangerie; on the other side lived Mrs. Dunoyer, a landlady of surpassing kindness. She showed us how to identify a delicious local wild mushroom, called le petit ros, and took us on a search through the fields around our gte, where we collected basketfuls of them. She supplied us with parsley from her garden, two huge supererogatory bath towels, and invaluable information about places to visit that we might otherwise have overlooked. She introduced us to two of her speaking-English friends from a neighboring village with whom we spent many pleasant hours. She also put me in touch with another of her friends, a wonderful, saintly woman who lives alone in a cottage deep in the woods and who very sweetly agreed to tutor me in French. (Though by no means rich, she wouldn't hear being paid for this service.) When, happened on one occasion, I couldn't turn off the hot water in the bathroom sink, and when, as happened on more than one occasion before we mastered the sensible rules of the use of electricity, all the power went off, Mrs. Dunoyer was right there, with great good humor, to set things right. (Don't have all three bedroom heaters turned to the highest level - the water heater might come on and cause the main fuse to blow." She said.). We had some difficulty keeping the fire going in the wood stove, so she bought an other one that even bumbling city slickers like us could operate, and installed it herself.

As luck would have it, Mrs. Dunoyer was as much a lover of animals as we. How pleasant it was to see Cartouche, her handsome brown and white horse and Caboche, her gentle little grey donkey, grazing peacefully just outside our windows, and to feed them carrots or the ever-present stale halves of yesterday's baguettes. (In a recent phone conversation with Mrs. Dunoyer, I was told that seven young lambs had now joined them.) The two animals when fast friends and when Cartouche, a wanderer, managed to escape from their field, Caboche at once expelled loud, heartbreaking heehaws to lament his bereft state.

And there was above all, Charlotte, Chantal's black and white Border collie, with whom we both felt immediately in love. Her affection for people knew no bounds, but she looked with special favor upon us. Not only did we take frequent walks, but when I went jogging most mornings, and it was her greatest joy in life to be part of such outings. When the rare car would come down the road, Charlotte would invariably rush up to us and stay until the danger has passed. How touching of her I thought, to come to us for protection! But it eventually dawned on me that being a shepherd, she wasn't coming to us for her protection, but to shepherd us off the road, out of danger. If we hadn't been so found of Chantal, and if Charlotte hadn't had such an idyllic life where she was, we would surely have tried to spirit her away.

There was no store in our village, a not-very-promising-looking bar-cum-restaurant that we shunned because the owners kept two magnificent German shepherds confined in a tiny cage under the front steps all day long. We did our routine shopping (and our laundry, although we had a small portable washer at the gte) in Etang sur Arroux, a town three miles away that contained, in addiction to its stores, a bank and a post office. For more sophisticated shopping - for books, jogging pants, or a portable radio - there was Autun, 10 miles away. We never tired of the drive to Autun, for the hilly, twisting road offered one spectacular vista after another; then, suddenly, through a break in the trees, we beheld a wonderful panorama of the entire city, dominated by its magnificent 12th century Cathedral of St.-Lazare.

We learned that two strangers can not live for long deep in the French countryside without word getting around. For example, when we investigated the possibility of renting another gte in our village for some friends, the owner made motions with her arms as if running, and said to me, "Ah, you go jogging every morning!" And when, after an interval of three or four weeks, we went out for only the second time to the bank in the next town, the clerk said, "Oh, yes, you are the Americans staying with Mrs. Dunoyer." Life in the country is quiet, uneventful, not to say boring; so the advent of strangers, especially foreigners, is something to talk about.

The main attraction of southern Burgundy, apart from its superb food and famous wines, lies in the beauty of its unspoiled countryside and in its abundance of Romanesque churches. There are dozens of them, including the cathedral at Autun, the abbey church of St.-Philibert at Tournus, and the basilica of Sacr-Cur of Paray-le-Monial - three glories of French architecture - and such smaller gems village churches at Montceau-l'Etoile, Anzy-le-Duc, and Semur-en-Brionnais. What impressed me most of all, perhaps, where the sculptures by Gilbertus on the great tympanum and on the capitals in the cathedral at Autun. They bring to vivid life the horrors of sin, but also express in every detail great compassion for the creatures of God's universe - for example, in the joyous raised foreleg of the donkey carrying the virgin and the Christ child. From the house base of our gte, we spent many happy days journeying forth not only to visit the great Romanesque monuments of the region, but also to enjoy in a leisurely way its innumerable pretty villages, its quiet country roads, its endlessly beautiful landscapes.

 

Things that haved changed since 1992
Charlotte, Cartouche, Caboche & some sheep died. The new dog "Patch" and the new donkey "Nana" are also very nice.
No more electric problems and a good washing machine for laundry.
See new rates in descriptive page.

 

Mrs. Chantal DUNOYER, Toulongeon, 71190 La Chapelle sous Uchon ; France ; Europe

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