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Rent a Gîte in a Forgotten Region of France

Rent a Gite
The cloister of St. Michel de Cuxa, near Prades, France.

A friendly and forgotten part of the south of France called Le Roussillon—in langue d’oc it means the red land—sparkles with ruined castles and Romanesque cloisters tucked into vineyards and orchards. Hilltop villages are far removed from the crowded beaches below. Summertime visitors rent Gîtes—small inexpensive apartments or houses that have been restored as a way of bringing money back into the largely empty region.Last summer I took some old friends to a Gîte in the tiny village of Le Vivier (population no more than 50 in the winter) with its own hilltop castle ruins located high in the rolling hills of the Fenouillèdes in the eastern Pyrenees.

Our apartment, made over from an old sheep barn, was on the edge of the village on a street that led up into the mountains. From its garden, we could look across a little mountain stream at a friendly horse, or up at the jagged, broken towers of the lord of Le Vivier’s long-abandoned 14th-century residence. A network of narrow roads wind up and down the vineyard-covered hills, connecting one village to another. Each village has its own distinctive character.

The church and cloister of St. Michel are a mile south from Prades on the road that leads up to the great mountain looming over the town of Le Canigou. Built of an unusual rose marble from a single local quarry, it was a prosperous and important religious center until the French Revolution when all monasteries were closed and emptied of their treasures. The remains of St. Michel, including the carved capitals of its magnificent rose marble cloister, were scattered throughout the region. Then, in 1907, an American sculptor, George Grey Barnard, saw a number of its marble pieces lying around Prades in private gardens. He told the New York Rockefellers, who in 1925 bought as many of them as they could cart off—to form the crown jewels of a new museum, The Cloisters, that the Metropolitan Museum was putting up at the tip of Manhattan.

The mayor of Prades discovered the sales and stopped them. The Rockefellers, however, were not daunted. To finish the job they mined a load of pink marble from the same quarry, took it to New York, and had it carved to complete the perfect square that was once the cloister. Now, St. Michel de Cuxa is in two places: in its natural home in the Pyrenees and high on a hill overlooking the wide Hudson River.

Renting a Gîte

Visit the Gîtes de France website for more information. The national office can offer a complete listing, with photographs, department by department. The cost ranges from 10-20 Euros, payable with a credit card. You can also just pick a town where you would like to stay and write care of the mayor. You’ll be surprised at the welcoming response. Weekly rentals average from $300 to $1,000 per week, depending on size and location.

PIERRE EPSTEIN, an actor and writer, was born in Toulouse, and has lived and traveled all through southern France. He lives in New York City.

 
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