Running a B&B in Ardèche
- Credit: Archant
Belgian-Dutch couple Ilse and Fons Jaspers-Janssens run a B&B in rural Ardèche and they love the relaxed pace of life there
Moving to Ardèche brought a huge change in lifestyle for Ilse and Fons Jaspers-Janssens. Before making the move to this relatively undiscovered part of southern France, the couple lived in Antwerp where they worked as sales reps in the graphic arts industry. But it was their stressful careers that made them dream of a better life. “It had become a rat race, so we asked ourselves, ‘Do we really want to pursue this way of life until our pension?’ The answer was clearly ‘no’, so we asked ourselves what the alternative could be,” says Ilse.
It was the late 1990s and the couple decided that the time was right to embark on a new venture. “We said to each other, ‘Let’s make a complete new start at the beginning of the millennium’. And that’s what we did; we planned our project carefully, and carried it out,” remembers Ilse.
The project that the couple had in mind was running a B&B in the south of France; an idea inspired by their numerous travels around the world. “When we went travelling we slept in auberges and B&Bs and we thought ‘Mmm, perhaps it’s a good idea to do it ourselves’,” she adds.
Ilse knew southern France well from family holidays when she was younger. “From a young age I’ve liked France; I love the language, literature and gastronomy,” she says, and the south of France offered the warm climate that they wanted: “We wanted to do it in the south where the sun shines and
we can have an outdoor pool.”
The couple began travelling regularly by TGV from Brussels to Avignon, renting a car and searching Provence for a house where they could realise their dream. Twice they almost bought a house near Mont Ventoux, and twice they hesitated: “It was important for us that our four kids had finished their education and were independent,” says Ilse. In 2000, when the children had left the family home, Ilse and Fons knew that the time was right and they sold their print consultancy agency.
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Before finding a property, the couple decided to spend a year backpacking across North and Central America, staying at small hostels and B&Bs. “The trip gave us a lot of ideas about how to create our future B&B in France,” says Ilse.
Once home, the couple put their house in Antwerp on the market and began househunting. Despite holidaying in the south of France when she was a child, Ilse wasn’t familiar with Ardèche as her family had always travelled through the department without stopping. “Somebody suggested that we consider Ardèche because it’s really very authentic. The people are very generous and open-minded,” she says. And from a financial perspective, house prices in Ardèche were lower than in Provence so they could get more for their money.
Ilse and Fons contacted an estate agent: “We explained that we needed an old property that would be suitable to start a B&B; we wanted to have good scenery and lots of sun,” explains Ilse. The estate agent showed them a charming maison de village, a former auberge in the medieval village of Antraigues-sur-Volane in the heart of Ardèche. It fitted the bill perfectly and while they discussed the price with the estate agent, their Belgian estate agent called with an offer on their house in Antwerp.
On an icy winter day in early January 2003, Ilse and Fons settled into their new French home. “We made a big step in our lives: new country, new project, new language and last but not least; a culture which is quite different from ours,” says Ilse. The couple named the B&B ‘L’Angelot’, meaning ‘cherub’, after the cherub in the fountain in the village square.
In 2007 Ilse and Fons decided to move again, this time to a large 17th century farmhouse a 15-minute walk from Antraigues, and took the business with them. The couple knew the previous owner – an English friend who used it as a holiday home. The house occupies an idyllic location with spectacular views of the village and the surrounding verdant wooded mountains. “Often we said, ‘This house would be ideal for running a B&B’. So when it was for sale, we were keen to buy it,” says Ilse.
The farmhouse needed to be completely refurbished and decorated. It had previously been used as a holiday home, inhabited for only three weeks in the year. “The septic tank, water and electricity needed changing, as did the bathrooms and kitchen,” says Ilse. The couple used local tradesmen for the work. “We still use them if we have a problem. They are always very quick to come and help us because they know we are a B&B.”
When it came to the interior décor, Ilse gained inspiration from a range of books and magazines. The couple sourced their furniture from brocantes and markets, both in France and Belgium.
Marketing the B&B was straightforward as Fons previously worked in publicity. “Fons created our website and got us listed on other websites, in magazines and newspapers. He also contacted a lot of people we knew. In a few weeks, we were fully booked – it was crazy,” says Ilse.
The couple have a close relationship with Sawdays, which attracts guests from all over the English-speaking world. They also work with a German agency Umfulana, which brings guests from Germany, Austria and Switzerland. “Since Dutch is our mother tongue, many Belgians and guests from Holland come to L’Angelot and, of course, we should not forget the French who visit us throughout the year.”
Meeting people from all over the world is one of the things that the couple most enjoy about their venture. “We have guests from everywhere. We like to meet people from other countries – it brings a lot of life to the B&B,” says Ilse, who speaks English, French and Spanish as well as Dutch.
As well as enjoying the social aspect of running a B&B, the couple make the most of the natural environment they now live in. The property has 17 hectares of land, so there is plenty of room for a potager vegetable garden where Ilse grows organic produce for her home-cooked meals. “I do less cooking now. At the beginning I cooked a lot for the guests. Now I do it twice a week, mostly when people arrive,” says Ilse. Ardèche is famous for its chestnuts and there is no shortage of chestnut trees on their land: “One of our neighbours, a farmer, comes every autumn to pick the chestnuts which he sells. In return he brings us potatoes, cherries, peaches, salad, eggs and much more. We love rural life!” enthuses Ilse.
Compared to their former city lives, Ardèche offers a much more relaxed pace, although Ilse admits that they sometimes miss the shopping and culture that a big city offers. “When we lived in Antwerp, we could drive to the city in a few minutes. It’s another life now. At first we missed a lot of things – friends, family, the culture. Here, we are really close to our neighbours and friends. We enjoy barbecues and spend lots of time outdoors.”
The couple get their culture fix by visiting some of the cities and towns about two hours’ drive away, such as Lyon, Montpellier and Marseille. Even on their doorstep there is much to enjoy, as Ilse reveals: “In summer there is a lot of culture. Every day there is something going on – a festival, concert, organised walks – there is always something to do. In winter it is very calm, but we visit family and friends, or go on holiday.”
As the couple reach retirement age, they have started to reduce their B&B activity. Having run three guest rooms for 11 seasons, they now run two. “The combination of Fons’s pension and moderate B&B income allows us to do this. It’s a fantastic way of staying active in a gentle way,” says Ilse. Overall, Ilse and Fons are very happy with their new lives in France. “Looking back, we are convinced that we made the right decision and that we would have missed a lot in life if we had stayed where we were in Belgium. We now both speak French fluently, we love the French way of living, are fully integrated in the village and we love welcoming people from all over the globe who come to stay with us. We adore this beautiful region; a peaceful and unspoilt part of the world.”
Thinking of setting up a B&B in France? Read our how-to guide for ideas on what to think about before you start