BY SOLÈNE PINHOAT
Géraldine and Mark Whitcombe-Power welcome all those who love Nature – but specifically those who have not had the good fortune to experience it – at their Domaine des Escavalins where they produce Extra Virgin olive oil. In fact, they are the first ever to be nominated best “Value of the Park” in the National and Regional Park of the Massif de Sainte-Baume, the mountains between Aix-en-Provence, Toulon and Brignoles. Go there and you will be immersed in the heart of the Var forest.
“To live happily, stay hidden”, said Jean-Pierre Claris de Florian (1755 – 94) in his poem Le Grillon, and Géraldine and Mark Whitcombe-Power do exactly that, except that the good news is they are prepared to share their home with those who want to experience a moment of great detachment from the world in their secret garden.
The adventure begins on the track. After some narrow streets and tight corners in the charming little village of Belgentier, the tarmac ends. Forget your GPS. Dare to take a forest track, be confident in yourself… and put your faith in the map supplied by Geraldine. After several winding kilometres into the hills and stunning views over rolling wooded hills out to the sea, the old farmhouse appears suddenly as you round a corner in the forest. And there, well, it is an explosion of sensations… the chanting cigales, the Provençal smells of thyme and rosemary, the warmth of the sun, the evergreens, summer oaks, spindle, arbutus and silver olive trees. Here, we are in the heart of the Massif de la Sainte-Baume. The house is nestled in a wide circle of dramatic cliffs which protect from the mistral winds and is a sanctuary seemingly cradled by Nature herself. Welcome to the Domaine des Escavalins!
A radical change of life-style
Géraldine and Mark had no thought of starting a gîte in Provence. In 2004, Mark, who is English, worked in security based in London. After running a gym, Géraldine, whose mother is French and father is Irish, became a Montessori teacher. She stopped working for a year to look after her mother who was dying of cancer, and after her death she took stock. “We wanted to change our lives. We loved climbing, the freedom of motorcycles and the countryside. As a child I spent my summer holidays with my family in the South-Eastern corner of France, and I wanted to go back.” So they criss-crossed Provence looking at many places for sale. And then one day they found what they wanted. “When we discovered this old bastide, we were struck by the awesome sweep of the cliffs, the house immersed in nature, detached from the world, and yet this is where we could feel free.”
Sharing these values and nature with gite clients
At that time, the old farmhouse was in a very bad state, but Géraldine and Mark were determined to bring it back to life. And to begin with, they concentrated on growing their olive trees and producing fine olive oil. They cleared 7 hectares of forest and planted 2,000 young olive trees, just twigs really, and they realised they would have to be patient before they could expect a useful harvest. However, the idea of running a gîte grew. “We had a stream of family and friends from May to September. It was fun, but also hard work, because of course preparing food and all the logistics fell to us. So we decided to set up a part of the house independent of us and run a gîte. We were a bit worried at the start that we would feel invaded by strangers, but in fact we found clients coming here were looking for the same things, the calm of the place, to enjoy the nature all round us and the chance to recover from the commotion and chaos of town life. These are great values worth sharing.”
Old beams, a private plunge pool and… wild boar
Authentic and neat, the gîte is laid out as a Provençale home over 70 m² and the exposed beams throughout give fantastic charm. There are three bedrooms – two comfortable doubles and a small one with two bunk-beds which is ideal for children. Outside there is a lovely private terrace with sun loungers, a delightful plunge pool and an electric plancha BBQ. Clients can also use the excellent quality sports equipment in the gym, and a washing machine. Walking routes and paths pass right by the gîte and guests frequently see foxes, wild boar, roe deer, Bonelli eagles, buzzards and a variety of other animals during their stay. At night, there are the sounds of owls, barking foxes, deer, and the magnificent Grand Duc.
The “Valeurs Parc” label is a measure of respect for the environment
The Domaine des Escavalins is the first accommodation in the Parc naturel régional (the PNR) de la Sainte-Baume to obtain the “Valeurs Parc” label. “We share common purpose with the Park, respect for the environment and we do all we can to protect the natural world around us. We recycle our waste, minimise water and energy consumption as best we can, and find natural solutions, like using vinegar as a cleaning product. We aim to reduce our footprint and ask our guests to do the same! ”
A learning curve for adults and children
Attentive but discreet with their guests, Mark and Géraldine enjoy sharing their love of the place and the Sainte-Baume with their visitors. “We show them our olive mill and explain the secrets of how we make Extra Virgin cold press olive oil from our olives. And our vegetable garden with its food forest which is developing a real ecosystem of its own. Children coming here are always delighted to see the chickens, the goats and sheep who are responsible for keeping the vegetation down among the olive trees. Sadly, it seems many people in towns have lost their sense of nature but here they can rediscover that simplicity and quiet contentment with life.” When it’s time to leave this little corner of paradise, you take the track again and return to civilisation. In fact, the village isn’t very far off, only four kilometres, but the contrast is so striking you have the impression you are returning from a visit among the elves and creatures of an enchanted forest.