You know the Loire Valley. You’ve heard of it in reference to wines. But as it’s not the home of Bordeaux, Burgundy or Champagne, you might not be aware of the fact that the region on either side of the Loire River—Pays de la Loire—is one of exquisite agricultural beauty worth experiencing. From green rolling hills and farmlands bursting with crop to historic chateaus (known as the Loire River Valley Castles) in various states of grandeur (many of which are open to the public), each and every department in the region provides access to the idyllic French countryside. And, as the appellation grows in respect, vines, vineyards and wineries with welcome centers abound.
In the midst of it all, equidistant to Angers, Cholet and Saumur and nothing else but the cattle and streams of the Maine-et-Loire department, sits La Gaucherie aux Dames. It’s an independently owned bed and breakfast in the bones of a carriage house or maybe even horse stalls on the grounds of an ancient farm. And its owners—an American-born woman and her French husband—settled there after traveling the world, on a mission to make it a better place. Entering the guest rooms feels like stepping into the couple’s home. Because it is—and it’s even more than that.
“I met my husband in Chad, after the famine when Chad was still at war with Libya. We were both leaders of humanitarian organizations,” Beverly Ott explains to us. “We met because we believed that organizations needed to collaborate more with one another. Little did we know that 30 years later we would still be collaborating!” Ott’s work moved to Togo and Olivier Hauville followed her. For 10 years, they developed programs to encourage entrepreneurship as a means for getting people out of poverty. Ultimately, they returned to France—to promote fair trade.
For years, they continued their humanitarian work while based in France but they knew Paris wouldn’t be home. They knew, ultimately, that they wanted a farm to reside in. “Both of us had grown up—at least partially—on farms, so… the idea of a farm in France with my favorite sheep was perfect.” They knew very little about Angers (where work had taken them) or the surrounding region, but it was sunnier than Hauville’s birth region, Normandy. They also didn’t have much retirement money, having worked for minimum wage their entire lives.
“We spent three years looking for this place,” Ott continues, walking us from the guesthouse out into the sun-drenched backyard. A “realtor took us all around. We knew we wanted a farm in a shape of a hamlet—not all the buildings together one next to the other. But we didn’t find what we wanted. I think most people thought we were crazy and would never find what we wanted. I also admitted to Olivier at about this time that maybe what we were looking for didn’t exist. It’s like psychologically we really didn’t want it, or we were looking for the impossible.”
A different agent began touring them through ruins. He would bring them to Gaucherie aux Dames—a name worth dissecting. “‘Gaucherie’ is an old French word meaning clumsy,” Ott explains. “‘Dames,’ of course, means ladies. Was this place for clumsy ladies? Or was it a place for clumsiness to ladies? It was probably a convent at one time but with other attractions too,” she adds. Their first visit to the site was as complex as the name—and required a bit of analysis.
“I had a broken foot at the time and my husband looked at me and asked, ‘Want to go inside?’ It really didn’t look like what we wanted. It was clean, but full of old pole barns made of corrugated iron. You couldn’t see the river and there was no way of knowing the history of the place at that time. We visited and left.” Ott says that in the middle of the night, her husband woke up and began laying out a plan to fix up what they’d seen. “We returned,” she says. “We signed.”
The couple began to renovate everything themselves—every roof, floor and window. They began with the home that they would‚ and do, live in. “Drywall, electricity and painting were the limits of our knowledge from the beginning,” she says. “Then we—Olivier—learned plumbing and stucco work to do the outside walls of the buildings. In all, Olivier and I have now mounted at least six stairways in our days of remodeling! There is still more to be done.”
During renovation, they learned much more about the property—and discovered things like a moat. “There are also bones in the east wall of the guesthouse building,” says Ott. “Here we have learned that those bones are probably horse bones and they are cemented into the wall with blood. This was a medieval tradition to fight off bad omens and the bubonic plague. People working with sheep and horses never caught the plague, so these animals were thought magic.” They have found stories of owners of the grounds dating back to 1428. “There are certainly foundations that date as far back as when Montilliers was founded in 1011 AD, at the request of crusader Folque (Nerra) the Black,” she says.
But the guesthouse is far from being just about the past. “We hope this place can continue to be a harbor of peace for people wanting just a bit of rest and quiet,” Ott concludes. “We have added and are improving, some footpaths that take you along the river to see the old bridge, cross the river and just enjoy. We have over one mile of riverside at the bottom of the hill. We also have sheep, horses and a dog named Indy who seems to be quite the attraction these days.” As they have the four-bedroom guesthouse, two bed-and-breakfast rooms, one suite and one apartment (both of which can accommodate four), it’s very easy to arrive, settle in quickly and simply take a moment to breathe with ease.
Images courtesy of La Gaucherie aux Dames