As the global yurt craze wanes—you mean you hadn't heard?—refurbished Gypsy roulottes have become France's trendy accommodation. Christopher Petkanas joins the caravan
Whether you view it generously as borrowing or disapprovingly as stealing, France's talent for cherry-picking the domestic savoir-vivre of others is hard not to admire. It's no accident that the French word for "cozy" is cozy, shorthand for le style anglais, an organic cocktail of proudly chipped creamware, cracked-leather fireplace fenders, and squishy chintz sofas. Generations after being introduced, the look has lost none of its potency, succeeding still in making French ladies in velvet headbands and boiled-wool jackets quiver and swoon.
For better or worse, la cuisine américaine, which describes an open kitchen that spills into another room, is also here to stay in France, while apartments from Le Mans to Marseilles are stuffed with a souk's worth of embroidered straw mats, mosaic tiles, and hammered-copper platters the size of Humvee hubcaps. (If you had lost Morocco as a colony, you might be nostalgic for this stuff, too.) And I won't soon forget the Hexagon's recent fugitive affair with yurts. Something about the typical provincial back garden, with its sighing hollyhocks and lettuces soldiered in rows, did not lend itself to fantasies of Kirghiz nomads.
Fashion is cruel. Call it opportunism, or itchiness, or avarice, but the French waste no time moving on. Having folded those yurts away in the attic to recharge their novelty for the grandkids, they are hitching themselves to roulottes, or covered Gypsy wagons, and the footloose bohemian esprit that goes with them. Transgression is also part of roulottes' appeal, allowing a population with famously conformist (and bourgeois) ideas about taste to express their inner magpie. The interiors of these veritable maisonettes on wheels are not so much borderline kitsch as kitsch. Light the campfire, tune up the violin, put a hedgehog in the oven, and bring on the dancing bears.
From Burgundy to the Bouches-du-Rhône, it seems you can't open an inn these days without a roulotte as a piquant alternative to the prosaic chambre avec douche. Tucked under trees or planted on well-chosen patches of green, they are used by home owners as guesthouses, offices, salons for reading and napping and taking the evening aperitif, or simply as spare rooms, exotic and transporting. Like mobile homes in France, roulottes benefit from the official designation HLL, Habitation Légère de Loisir, or Light Leisure Dwelling. As such, they require only parking permits, making them an easy way of adding square footage to a house or inn without enduring the red tape of an actual build. Anything not to deal with town hall.
Roulottes rolled across my imagination in the early eighties and never left. My enchantment is traceable to a little book called Pierre Deux's French Country, that sun-soaked volume about Provençal houses and textiles and pottery that transformed the south of France from an unself-conscious region into a self-conscious religion (500,000 copies in print worldwide). A lovely roulotte appears on page 143. This was my first exposure. Like photographs of unclothed people I find attractive, the picture kept me going for a while but then ceased to.
Working for W magazine in Paris, I casually contrived to assign myself a story on the founders of Souleiado fabrics, who—don't look at me, I was only doing my job—also happened to own the roulotte. With perfect innocence they led me to it, mysterious and melancholy, beside their little farmhouse. Isn't it crazy the things a person can get hooked on?
Roulotte culture is vast. My education had begun. In 1888 van Gogh painted Encampment of Gypsies with Caravans, a signal work of his Arles period. In Madeline and the Gypsies, Bemelmans has his star schoolgirl join the circus and make a tour de France in a roulotte ("Gypsies do not like to stay— / They only come to go away"), with postcard stops in front of Chartres cathedral and Mont-St.-Michel. Zola recalled how as a troubled schoolboy he longed to bump along forever in a roulotte to nowhere. "He lives as one dreams of living, in a caravan," Cocteau noted of the great Gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt. "And even when it was no longer a caravan, somehow it still was." Today, roulottes are part of the iconography used by the Gipsy Kings, who come from Gypsy communities in Arles and Montpellier, to sell and explain themselves and their rumba flamenca to gadje, the often hostile outside world.
Most scholars agree that the Gypsies are an Indian people who left the subcontinent in the 10th century for Persia. From there the exodus continued to Armenia, Syria, the future Iraq, Byzantine Greece, the Balkans, Western Europe, and North America. "The Gypsies have no home," Isabel Fonseca writes in Bury Me Standing, "and, perhaps uniquely among peoples, they have no dream of a homeland." Long past World War II, roulottes remained a way of life for European Gypsies, serving as both dwellings and conveyances, until government-enforced sedentarization in many countries forced them off the roads. Given their anguished history, some see the fetishization of roulottes in France as trivializing and politically insensitive.
Before innkeepers unlocked their romantic potential, the vehicles were tough if not impossible for gadje to penetrate. For years before and after restoring an 1814 ruin in Provence in 1994, I have gone out of my way to stop at a roulotte that sells olive oil and dried herbs at the entrance to Fontvieille, the village made known by Lettres de mon moulin, Alphonse Daudet's humanist masterpiece. My interest in the dusty herbs is feigned, but at least they get me inside. And there is always some fashion lesson to be learned from the owner, who may or may not be a Gypsy and who wears clanking jewelry and a cinched blouse pulled down to expose her shoulders. But the last time I visited she showed what seemed like a dangerous level of admiration for my friend Odile's long and colorful flounced skirt. We both felt that if we lingered any longer in that dark airless room a line might be crossed. "J'aime ta jupe!" the woman exclaimed, pulling at the hem. "I love your skirt!"
There are more recycled roulottes in Provence than anywhere else in France because the Provençaux have long observed les gens du voyage, or travelers, and been students of their customs. Every May, Gypsies from all over the world make the pilgrimage to the Camargue to the whitewashed coastal town of Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer to celebrate their patron saint, Sara. The pilgrims believe that in the ﬁrst century A.D., Jesus' two aunt Marys, Jacobe and Salome, and their Egyptian servant Sara miraculously crossed the Mediterranean from Jerusalem without a sail, oars, or provisions, landing and ultimately being entombed in Les Saintes. (Actually not everyone agrees that the servant was on board.) During the spring celebration, effigies of Sara, who is depicted as black, and the Marys, all in festive spangly capes, are held aloft in a procession into the sea. It's a frenetic moment made more so by a splashing convoy of horses.
In the quasi-cryptic realm of second-use roulottes in France today, all roads lead to Jeanne Bayol, who chases down vintage examples from England to Estonia, then rehabilitates them in her plein-air atelier in St.-Rémy-de-Provence. An average model, in wood or tole-faced wood, is 20 feet long, has seven-foot ceilings, costs $18,000, and is not capable of doing more than a short turn around the garden. Bayol's reputation was sealed, and the vogue for roulottes informally ignited, when Jacques Grange, a neighbor and the nearest thing the French have to decorating royalty, became one of her first customers.Since then she has supplied roulottes to a portfolio of auberges de charme in the region, including La Pauline, Le Mas dou Pastre, and Le Mas des Câpriers. Les Roulottes de la Serve offers a similar experience in the Beaujolais. And though the roulottes at the hotel-restaurant La Fenière, in the Luberon mountains, are new, they follow traditional designs and are made by artisans, Les Roulottiers, in the Midi-Pyrénées. The wagons at most inns are gently priced. Except for Serve, all of the above places also have conventional lodgings.
I'm going to stick my neck out and say that Mas des Câpriers, lost deep in the countryside, has the most arcadian setting of any guesthouse in Provence. Delivered on a flatbed truck, its 1897 roulotte is marooned on a rise on the edge of a bosk and attended by cement mushrooms—garden ornaments—daubed with polka dots. A birdcage hangs from the hourglass chassis, beveled windows betray a kind of Art Nouveau wishfulness, and potted pansies line the steps to the front door (where, by the way, you can check your fears about spending an onerous night: the roulotte is a lot more comfortable than you might think, and you'd be surprised how quickly and naturally you tailor your movements to its constraints). Inside, French doors separate a sitting room and a bedroom with a queen-size bed, both naïvely paneled in oak. Crocheted curtains, long-stemmed cloth roses, a floral patchwork bedcover, an Eiffel tower snow globe, and a crucifix complete the look.
Cloth flowers are lovely, of course, but not strictly necessary, not like, for most of us anyway, a toilet. And hot water. And heating. The roulotte has all three. The toilet is retrofitted in a tiny closet. Water flows just like at home, into a porcelain sink. Space heaters chase the chill. Only the shower is outside. What a shower: banged together from the thick, hairy planks of packing crates, the huge alfresco stall is snuggled under a canopy of pines.
Most of us have memories we fear are too cinematic, or too fantastic, or too picturesque to trust. I checked into Câpriers with what I thought was a complete mental inventory of everything I knew about ambulant Gypsy habitats. But by morning I was remembering something additional, the time some 20 years ago when, driving on a back road in the choking heat between Arles and Fontvieille, I saw a roulotte, drawn by a lumbering mule, being used the way it was meant to be used, by a Gypsy family on the move.
Christopher Petkanas is special correspondent for Travel + Leisure.
Where to Stay
Prices are for a two-person roulotte.
Le Mas des Câpriers Chemin de Raoux, Cabrières d'Aigues; 33-4/90-77-69-68; www.luberon-masdescapriers.com; $115, including breakfast.
Le Mas dou Pastre Quartier Ste.-Sixte, Eygalières; 33-4/90-95-92-61; www.masdoupastre.com; $128.
La Pauline The roulotte is being renovated and will reopen in the spring. Chemin de la Fontaine des Tuiles, Aix-en-Provence; 33-4/42-17-02-60; $90.
Les Roulottes de la Serve La Serve, Ouroux; 33-4/74-04-76-40; www.lesroulottes.com; $55, including breakfast.
Auberge La Fenière Rte. de Cadenet, Lourmarin; 33-4/90-68- 11-79; www.reinesammut.com; $245, including breakfast.