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
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”