PEACE AND QUIET
It was the tranquillity and natural beauty of the Cévennes National Park that attracted one Dutch family to start a new life in Lozère, as Stephanie Sheldrake finds out
How the beauty of the Cévennes National Park convinced a family to start a new life in Lozère
It takes a certain type of guest to make it to La Source de Castagnols. Nestled in the heart of the Cévennes National Park, far from major roads and towns, the remote chambres d’hôtes is a haven for those who seek a quiet stay, surrounded by the untouched natural beauty of this ancient forested land.
This was precisely what attracted Dutch couple Henk-Jan and Marjoleine Spruijt to this unspoilt green enclave in the south of France. The couple had been living in the Netherlands where Marjoleine worked as a surgical assistant in a hospital and Henk-Jan ran his own architect business.
It was during a holiday in the late 1990s when the couple discovered the Cévennes National Park. “We were looking for a family holiday somewhere surrounded by nature, with no hustle and bustle and far from major roads. Mont Lozère appeared as a green spot on the map and caught our attention,” says Henk-Jan. The holiday reminded them of a feeling they had during a world tour in 1993 when they stayed in a remote village near the Afghan border in north-east Pakistan. “The energy there was strong and the landscape stunning,” remembers Henk-Jan, who felt the same energy in Cévennes. “This ancient land is full of energy and steeped in history, with unrivalled silence, abundant nature, no pollution and dark nights. It was an extraordinary experience.” Having fallen in love with the area, the couple began their search for suitable properties. “We found the property on the internet in 2005, after five years of intense searching with estate agents. It was a beautiful project: completely abandoned, uninhabited for the past century with an unsuccessful refurbishment attempted 15 years ago. It was situated in the heart of the Cévennes National Park, part-roofed, part-ruin with several inner courtyards, archways, terraces and forested grounds. It was surrounded by a village with authentic character, built in natural stone,” explains Henk-Jan. Thanks to Henk-Jan’s expertise as an architect, he knew that the project was feasible, albeit complicated. “I said
to Marjoleine, ‘If you say yes, we’ll go for it’. And she did. That’s how the project started,” he says.
Since the couple bought the neglected farmhouse 11 years ago, they have continually renovated it. “When we moved in May 2006 we had no mains water or electricity; no landline or mobile phone signal; no toilet, bathroom or kitchen; and no windows or doors. We worked day and night for a year. It was very hard work and the beginning was undeniably difficult. Four months in, we finally got electricity and after nine months, we had a telephone and the internet. We had installed 32 windows and doors and we finished the chimney, meaning that just before Christmas we were able to heat the living space,” remembers Henk-Jan.
The renovation work proved harder than they had anticipated, and the lack of telephone line and internet connection in the beginning delayed the couple from setting up their website, which is the main way that guests find them.
Despite the setbacks, the finished result is stunning. The charming renovated farmhouse built from local stone fits seamlessly into its surroundings. The chambres d’hôtes bears the name of the ancient water source that flows on its land, ‘La Source de Castagnols’, and probably dates from the 13th century. It retains many character features including thick stone walls, heavy chestnut beams and a dining room with a large fireplace.
The couple were keen to do their bit for the environment and the chambres d’hôtes is recognised by the Cévennes Ecotourisme body. Henk-Jan and Marjoleine also work closely with the local tourist offices and the Cévennes National Park.
Running a chambres d’hôtes may be hard work, but the couple have enjoyed building relationships with their guests; an aspect of their new lives that they hadn’t anticipated. Meeting so many different people from different backgrounds has been interesting. “It’s like we travel in our own home. It is a continual cultural and intellectual exploration,” says Henk-Jan. “People that come here have the same awareness as we do. They too believe in being respectful of your surroundings, fellow human beings and the hard work of previous generations that is all around us. Meeting our guests has been hugely enriching for us. It is a win-win situation.”
The couple enjoy offering their guests table d’hôte, which allows them to really get to know them and truly share what they have on offer. “We do the cooking together every evening, and we have each developed our own domain of expertise in the kitchen. We have a big selection of cooking books and draw our inspiration from everything, really, from newspaper articles to television series and most of all from our surroundings. Just like the architecture, the cooking should involve local produce, respect the core values that we have set ourselves and yet have that little spark of modernity.”
When the couple moved their children were nine and seven years old. “We set 10 years old as our limit, and we found the project just before that. That was in 2006, when we emigrated to France. We always involved them in the process and projects to make sure they were a part of it,” says Henk-Jan. At the time of moving, the children didn’t speak French and as a consequence found the first few months in France difficult. “They found their way after a few months and learned French at an incredible speed. Their flexibility is astonishing. The social impact was big for them but they really do see the advantages.”
For Henk-Jan and Marjoleine, a return to nature has been of vital importance, and for Marjoleine, she never ceases to be surprised by the fact that for the first time in her life she cannot hear the noise of cars, and can see the stars shimmering in the night sky every night. The light of the Milky Way can even be seen here.
But life in this remote part of France isn’t easy. “You need to truly work to live, rather than work for a living. It makes you think differently about everything you do. It is like things here matter more,” says Henk-Jan, adding: “It makes you feel like you’re really living and gives you a purpose in life. The breathtaking countryside of the Cévennes is something we fell in love with. The diversity, the remoteness, having the feeling you are but a guest. It makes you more down to earth.” castagnols.com
“The breathtaking countryside of the Cévennes is something we fell in love with. The diversity, the remoteness, having the feeling you are but a guest. It makes you more down to earth”
Henk-Jan and Marjoleine Spruijt
Left: La Source de Castagnols chambres d’hôtes is situated in the heart of the Cévennes National Park Right: Guests can enjoy an evening meal overlooking the breathtaking scenery Below left and right: Henk-Jan and Marjoleine renovated the farmhouse into a stylish and comfortable home for themselves and their guests