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France With a Very Personal Touch

<i> Barrington is a Houston, Tex., free-lance writer. </i>

It’s unfortunate but true that many American travelers have a love-hate relationship with France. Bruised by one too many encounters with rude officials, desk clerks or taxi drivers, they come home loving France but not the French.

Enter Chez Vous. One trip arranged through this California-based firm will turn you into an enthusiastic Francophile. Offering an unusual form of bed and breakfast, French-style, Chez Vous rolls out an affordable welcome mat at more than 80 unusual homes throughout France.

Choices range from luxury peniches (barges) tied up on the Seine in Paris to private country homes, estates, villas and chateaux.

A New Opportunity

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Bed and breakfast is a time-honored institution in the British Isles and burgeoning in the United States, but chambre d’hote signs are rare in French villages. Long active in a house rental program and language seminars in France, Chez Vous recognized a third opportunity to involve Americans in French culture and life style and has spent more than two years developing its B&B; program.

Designed to be an in-depth French experience, it requires a minimum three-night stay at each host home, a policy that not only blends the American traveler with the French family but allows the hosts a chance to show off the local territory. If you want to really experience the country as opposed to learning about it through a guide or book, the program is ideal.

Chez Vous hosts have been selected for background and hospitality as well as for the quality of their accommodations. A prospective host applicant interested only in making a few fast francs by renting out the spare rooms is not accepted into the program. Each host and home is known to the four-person Chez Vous staff, down to hobbies, pets, culinary skills and family background. Each is detailed in the illustrated Chez Vous catalogue ($10).

Once you decide where you want to stay and when, there’s an additional $25 registration fee that covers making the reservations and providing confirmations, vouchers, itinerary assistance and other small details of travel.

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A Guest Questionnaire

You also will fill out a guest questionnaire that asks your occupation and special interests, why you are making the trip, whether you’ve been to France or the regions you’ve selected, what activities you intend to pursue, and whether you are fluent in the language or can only manage a shy “merci.”

Any special requirements also are noted, such as dietary restrictions, physical impairments and smoking preferences. Copies of the completed form are sent to each of your hosts so they know something about you before you arrive.

Depending on the elegance and location of the host home, nightly rates for two persons range $39-$136 a room, $68-$300 a suite. The majority of the accommodations are in the less-expensive categories. Almost all have private baths, and breakfast is included, along with expert advice on what to see locally, where to eat, shop, etc. All lodging fees are prepaid before you leave the United States.

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Some hosts also offer personal guide service and/or a place at the family dinner table at modest additional costs. Both are arranged and paid directly to the host.

A Driving Odyssey

Sound great? That’s what we thought, so we put Chez Vous to the test on an extended driving odyssey from Paris to the Riviera. Our route included Lyon and Provence, but we wandered far off the motorways onto the back roads and small villages, and our hosts were the highlight of the trip. Some notes from the road:

First hosts: Count and Countess de Jouffroy-Consans, owners of Chateau de la Commanderie, hidden on the outskirts of Bruere-Allichamps, a hamlet 40 minutes south of Bourges in central France. Two rooms with baths, furnished in charming French provincial, in a 15th-Century manor house. The adjacent chateau has been in the family for five generations, and the family operates the property as a horse farm. We felt like gentry. Rate per night, double, $88-$92.

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Next stop: The Chateau de la Beauvriere in St. Hilaire de Court, owned by the De Brach family. This 11th-Century chateau sits on 3,000 acres of parkland and has five bedrooms, one of which is a stone-walled tower. All have private bathrooms and are furnished with modest but valuable antiques. Activities include tennis, fishing, horseback riding or walks on the park-like grounds. Nightly rate, double, $52-$62.

Lyon: The handsome apartment of Mlle. de St. Albin and Mme Grandy is part of an old convent and overlooks the city from a hillside on the west bank of the Rhone River. The old heart of the city is a 10-minute walk away; a Roman amphitheater is nearby. The guest room is modest and small, and we shared a bath; hospitality was exceptional. They loaded us with maps and advice, plus cookies for a morning on the road. Nightly rate, double, $42-$44.

Wined and Dined

Exploring Provence: Antique-filled lodgings at Mas du Cours du Loup, an 18th-Century farmhouse near St. Remey-de-Provence. We were welcomed, wined and dined by the vibrant Lucchesiu family, and left feeling like relatives. Day trips included Arles, Avignon, Tarascon and the Pont du Gard. Nightly rate, double, $64-$68.

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On the Cote d’Azur: Luxury digs in a contemporary home on a hilltop overlooking the fishing village of Cassis and the Mediterranean. The Villa Saint Jean is the retirement home of Mr. and Mrs. Martinez and features a lovely terrace and swimming pool. English is not fluent but the welcome is sincere. Outstanding region to explore. Nightly rate, double, $58-$60.

Would we travel Chez Vous-style again? Yes, as soon as possible. We’ll be with friends all the way.

Chez Vous information: 220 Redwood Highway, Suite 129, Mill Valley, Calif. 94941; phone (415) 331-2535. Rates should remain constant through summer but can change with the rate of the U.S. dollar to the French franc.


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