Af­ter more than a decade search­ing for the per­fect property, Michiel Jaspers and Iris Cour­jaret swapped their hec­tic life in Bel­gium to set up a lux­ury fam­ily-friendly gîte busi­ness in France, as Anna McKittrick dis­cov­ers

Living France - - À La Maison -

When it comes to run­ning a stylish but fam­ily-friendly Dor­dogne re­treat, one couple who know just what par­ents want from a lux­ury break in France are Michiel Jaspers and Iris Cour­jaret, who have been run­ning their suc­cess­ful gîte and ta­ble d’hôtes busi­ness, Le Guinot, for more than a decade.

While it’s been 10 years since the DutchBel­gian couple made the move south, the seeds for their life in France were sown more than two decades ear­lier when they first dis­cov­ered the charms the coun­try had to of­fer.

The couple, who have six-year-old twin daugh­ters Lou and Jill, have known each other for 22 years and en­joyed spend­ing their first hol­i­days to­gether ex­plor­ing France and dis­cov­er­ing the joys of the French way of life.

“We didn’t have much money so we went camp­ing, but we al­ways ended up sleep­ing in our car be­cause our tents were such bad qual­ity. So, for three years in a row we ended up first in the car and then in cham­bres d’hôtes, which we liked so much that we said, one day that’s our fu­ture,” re­mem­bers Iris.

In 1999, the couple took a ca­reer break, bought a camper van and spent six months trav­el­ling around France search­ing for a place to start their dream gîte or cham­bres d’hôtes busi­ness. “We looked all over France, ex­cept Dor­dogne, but we didn’t find the per­fect place; they were ei­ther too ex­pen­sive or too com­pli­cated. So we went back and started a restau­rant busi­ness in Bel­gium; Michiel was a chef so it was the log­i­cal way to do it,” says Iris.

Michiel and Iris opened a restau­rant and a café/bar in Meche­len, a small city be­tween An­twerp and Brussels, but kept the idea for their French ven­ture on the back burner.

Five years later, while vis­it­ing Iris’s aunt in Dor­dogne, the couple de­cided to con­tact a few im­mo­biliers, and much to their sur­prise, dur­ing their three-day break, they ended up find­ing what they’d long been search­ing for: the stun­ning manor house with vast po­ten­tial, they now call home.

“It wasn’t our in­ten­tion to buy some­thing be­cause we still had the two restau­rants, but we said: ‘It’s now or never’, and signed for the property. We then had to sell our busi­nesses in Bel­gium, which took a year-and-a-half, so it was only in 2005 that we could really move and start work on the build­ing and ren­o­vat­ing,” adds Iris.

The for­mer wine­maker’s property, which dates back to 1903, is sit­u­ated on the edge of the vil­lage of Saint-Martin-de-Gur­son, near Saint-Émil­ion, and con­sists of the main manor house and sev­eral out­build­ings, in­clud­ing a farm­house and a wine ware­house, which had all been left to go to wrack and ruin.

While the manor house didn’t have any mod­ern fa­cil­i­ties, such as heat­ing or in­su­la­tion, it was hab­it­able from the out­set, so with a need to gen­er­ate an in­come, the couple de­cided to live in the laun­dry room and rent out the five bed­rooms as they were, start­ing their first foray into run­ning a cham­bres d’hôtes.

At the same time, they set about con­vert­ing the for­mer wine ware­house, which was just a stone shell with a sand floor, into gîtes, with one com­pleted the first year and the other four not long af­ter­wards.

Their long-held dreams of run­ning a gîte busi­ness, cou­pled with their wealth of ex­pe­ri­ence of ren­o­vat­ing prop­er­ties in Bel­gium, meant that when it came to trans­form­ing the out­build­ings into spa­ces for guests, they had a clear idea of how they wanted them to look.

While Michiel and Iris did much of the work, the big­ger projects, such as the elec­tric­ity and plumb­ing, were done by lo­cal trades­men. But, when it came to the interiors, the couple firmly took charge.

“With the restau­rants, we were al­ways in­ter­ested in interiors and look­ing for new trends while also com­bin­ing an­tiques and old things from bro­cantes with very mod­ern, very de­sign-led pieces, so that’s what we did again,” says Iris; adding that they loved the cre­ative process of plan­ning the dé­cor.

Af­ter trans­form­ing the out­build­ings, the couple up­dated the stone manor house but adopted a dif­fer­ent de­sign tack here; choos­ing to make it less mod­ern than the gîtes, as Iris de­scribes: “We de­cided to keep it very au­then­tic be­cause all the old floors are still there, and we didn’t want to spoil the look. We found a shop in Bel­gium that stocked the old wall­pa­per – a fab­ric style with French lilies – that dates from the 1920s.”

The couple con­tin­ued to of­fer bed and break­fast to guests in the manor house un­til they had their twin girls, who were born

“We de­cided to keep it very au­then­tic be­cause all the old floors are still here, and we didn’t want to spoil the look”

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