Housesitting in the French Countryside

Housesitting takes me and Melissa many places, but this is the first time it has taken us somewhere with no street address. The address of the house we’re looking after in rural France is Lieu-Dit les Gauthiers, which means “the place called Les Gauthiers.” That’s the name of our little hamlet of six houses clustered together on a hillside. We all share that address; mail carriers deliver mail to the right house by knowing the residents (or, in our case, by reading the names we taped on the mail box).

We’re here for two months taking care of an old, but comfortably renovated, farmhouse with three cats and four chickens. It’s located in east-central France, in the southernwestern corner of the historical region of Burgundy. Despite being just an hour and a half from France’s third-largest city, Lyon, this is a quiet area that’s far off the beaten path for foreign tourists.

View over rolling green countryside from Dun hilltop

The countryside around here is beautiful: a landscape of rolling, emerald-green fields divided by hedgerows, and hillsides covered in tall, dark-green pine trees. We’re lucky because apparently it’s unusually green this year, thanks to a rainy summer. Burgundy is famous for its wines, but the soil or the microclimate in our area must not be right for grapes. Instead, the fields here are mainly occupied by large, whitish, Charolais cows, a breed that is thought to produce some of the best beef in France. As a result, restaurant menus in this area tend heavily toward steak and beef stew.

Three while Charollais cows in a green field
Some of the local Charolais cows, named for the nearby town of Charolles

Our house, and most of the other old buildings that dot the landscape, are built of light brown stone with wooden roofs covered in terracotta tiles. A lot of buildings in France are made of stone, and we’ve noticed before that the color of buildings changes from area to area along with the geology. The stone here is beige-brown, but with a dark pink tint that glows in the late-day sunlight.

Village of St. Racho with church spire amid green fields in rosy late-day light
Saint Racho near dusk, as seen from our house

A 5-minute walk up the hill from our place is another hamlet of about six houses, called Le Corneloups. A five-minute walk down the hill is the sleepy little village of Saint Racho. Besides about 20 houses, it boasts a church, a town hall, a cemetery, and some municipal recycling bins. There are no shops, but there is one so-so restaurant.

Our nearest “big” town—eight kilometers (five miles) away—is La Clayette (pronounced “la clet”), with a population of about 1,600 people. It’s the commercial center for all of the smaller villages and hamlets in the surrounding area. It has all of the things you’d expect in a flourishing French town: grocery stores, bakeries, a cheese shop, restaurants and bars, pharmacies, clothing stores, home and garden centers, hair salons, veterinarians, a school, a movie theater, a library, and a post office. There’s even a very high end chocolate shop, for when we feel like a splurge.

But what makes La Clayette truly special is that, as you crest the last rise on the road into town, you look down on an avenue of trees and a small lake that lead to a picture-perfect chateau. The oldest parts of the chateau date from the late 1300s and resemble a fortified farmhouse. The chateau was expanded and “modernized” in the 1800s with the addition of the sorts of arched windows and pointed towers that we associate with fairy tale castles. The house is still in private hands (the same family has owned it for the past 300 years), and you can’t see the inside. But it serves as a beautiful backdrop and symbol of the town that has existed next to the chateau for at least six centuries.

Old stone castle of La Clayette with moat
Two views of the chateau in La Clayette: the stocky stone farmhouse with defensive towers from the 1300s (above left), and the fanciful “modern” residence from the 1800s (above right). Melissa with her plein air painting of the chateau at the end of its fishing lake (right).
Chateau of La Clayette with tall pointed towers and lots of windows
Melissa holds painting of La Clayette chateau and lake, with the real ones in the background

Every Tuesday is market day in La Clayette. The main street is closed to cars and filled with vendors selling produce, meat, cheese, and other foods from the local area. Just as we love farmers markets at home, we’re regular patrons of the weekly market in La Clayette. After our shopping, we stop at a bar on the main street to enjoy coffee and fresh orange juice with a group of local English speakers (mostly former U.K. residents who now live in France full time). The owners of our house introduced us to the weekly get-together before they left for vacation. Chatting with friendly people for an hour or so each week provides a nice social fix for a pair of introverts like us. Plus, we’ve gotten good tips about local cultural events and places to visit.

Next: Everyday life in our old farmhouse

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