Every now and then we get an email asking for advice on setting up a yurt camp or glampsite in France. You may be reading this because you just asked me that question and I sent you this link. Or you may be starting to explore the possibility of a life-changing adventure by putting appealing words into a search engine.

Either way, the first thing to say is: “Hi”.

(If you’ve stumbled across this post because you already run a glampsite, yurt camp, tipi place, safari encampment, tree house village or something similar in France, please add your thoughts in the comments section. You never know what our future friends and eco travel colleagues will find useful. Oh, and come round for a drink some time. Don’t be a stranger.)

Before you read on, if you haven’t read the bureaucracy category posts on this blog, now would be a good time to do so. These will give you some idea of the journey we’ve been on vis a vis the authorities. But we’ve left out some of the more horrible stuff because it’s just too upsetting to live through again.

Next, here are some thoughts based on our own experience, in this part of France:

o It’s complicated – you’ll hear this expression a lot, so you may as well start hearing it now. The good news is that it may not be as complicated as it was in 2006, but I’d be surprised if it wasn’t still very, very, mind-bendingly complicated.

o We’ve been through hell putting our yurt camp together – even though it was always a beautifully simple and lovely idea – and there’s a good chance the same will happen to you. So prepare for hell. Expect to be lied to, ripped off, treated like an imbecile, lose all your money, spend huge periods of time in fruitless meetings, and just try not to be one of those people that lose everything only to return to the UK broken and disillusioned. It’s not personal. It happens to most people.

o Rules change very regularly, often on a Thursday, and usually just before you have successfully achieved everything the previous set of rules asked you to do. This can feel personal. It might be.

o If someone is not doing exactly the same as you a few hundred metres away, you may have a very tough time getting your project off the ground. It can seem that French authorities are not open to new ideas. This is why much of France is still beautiful and unspoiled (which is why people come here), but that’s not much help if you’re trying to do something new. We’ve heard about plenty of French people who have moved to the UK or US where they will not spend their lives banging their heads endlessly against rules and regulations.

You will have a greater chance of success if:

o You buy land with a building on it – this building may need modernising especially regarding sewerage – which can cost a lot of money. But it does mean you have the right to have a certain number of yurts on your land (unless this law has now changed). If you have already bought land that is non-constructible, you may have the right to camp on your land from April to October. But you might want to think about selling it and staring again.

o You have a good-to-excellent level of French. (Lower levels of French just mean it will take longer, while you learn the language. Ce n’est pas grave.)

o You have a dossier explaining your project very simply. This dossier should be extremely comprehensive, containing aerial photos, plans, mission statements, facilities, amenities, pictures, permissions and more – and it should be in French. Do not worry. You will meet French people and some of those will be more than happy to help.

o You have written support from your Maire, which will smooth the way with the DDE (planning department), the Services des Eaux (water people), the DDAF (department of agriculture and forestry), the CCI (chamber of commerce) and anyone else you may come into contact with. Given my time again, I would approach a Maire with a dossier and get their approval in writing before even looking for land in their commune. Some Maires will bend over backwards to welcome new people – especially if they have children of school age – you want to find a mayor like that. If you have any doubts about the mayor’s support (lean hard on your intuition here), I’d end the meeting and walk away. If a Maire seems genuinely supportive, I’d ask if they know of any suitable land and hope he/she doesn’t take the opportunity to rip you off.

There is another option. One we were told to take many times:

o Declare nothing. Just get on with it and hope the neighbours don’t report you. If your land is hidden and you don’t bother anyone, there’s a good chance you’ll get away with it. (Worth noting here that you can’t do this if you’ve already asked the Maire. Also worth noting that the Maire could have you arrested and fined.)

And of course, you can always:

o Find another country where there aren’t so many rules and regs.

If that hasn’t put you off, I wish you every success in the world. You’re about to go on an incredible journey that will test you beyond your limits, emotionally, financially, spiritually and physically. I’ve said it before but it bears repeating: You only live several hundred times – you might as well enjoy it.

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I’ve been resisting writing it for a couple of years and more. Partly (I realise now it’s almost done), because I didn’t know who or what it was for.

Let me make that a little less clear.

In France, you are nothing without a Dossier. You need one for your bank, your social services, your utility companies, your planning applications and, most especially, your new business ideas. I suspect most of these dossiers sit on desks, or on shelves, and are only referred to by the person to whom they are addressed, with a sweep of an arm, to demonstrate how much work they have to do. I’ve resisted writing one because I find writing quite hard (even after 18 years as a professional) and absolutely do not like wasting my time.

So what’s changed?

We have a meeting this week with Someone Really Quite Important. I won’t go into details, but (our old friend coincidence making a welcome return) he is a proper politician whose responsibilities are tourism and durable development. To make the process of turning it into French a little easier, I also have an offer of help from some previous owners of our land, who are near neighbours, one of whom is an English teacher at the local school, and both of whom have been active environmentalists for the last 30 years.

You can see why I might be eversoslightly excited. The temptation to feel that it’s all falling into place (what with a big meeting going on in the regional capital today about natural waste treatment on campsites) is strong. But let’s not get hasty.

I spent what was a beautiful day outside yesterday, inside, putting the dossier together – with further help from iWork on this laptop, which could put a lot of people I used to know out of business – and it looks pretty good. I just need to have a read through and send it to my neighbour.

Then I need to getback outside and do some proper work.

I have to compile a large and detailed dossier to present to the local Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Mairie, banks and anyone else who wants to see it. Part of this dossier should, ideally, contain Market Research on our Target Audience, which could be done by phone.

Or blog.

If you have a moment, I’d be very grateful if you could send me your thoughts on the following to ecovallee@mac.com. When you come down and see us, I’ll pour you an extra large glass of wine and let you try some of our outstanding prosciutto:
o Are you intending to travel to France in the next 5 years?
o Do you consider yourself an ethical or responsible traveller?
o Do you have children under 10?
o Have you visited one of those kids’ farms in the last 12 months?
o Which parenting magazines do you read?
o Would you consider a yurt camping holiday?
o How long would you want to stay on a yurt campsite?
o What facilities would you want in to see on the campsite?
o What animals would you want to see in/around the campsite?
o How much would you want to pay per week?
o Would you travel by plane, train or automobile?
o Anything else you want to add (other than I’d never get a job in market research)?

Thank you in advance for you help. Would you like some cheese to go with that glass of wine? I can recommend the camembert (although it is a little runny).

So I stapled the barbed wire round the bottom of the veggie-bed fence (and learned that turning the electric fence off while working nearby might be a good idea).

Then the pig ark roof blew off. (I said the weather had gone a bit English.) Which meant I had to go and buy a rivet gun and some Very Long Screws. It wasn’t much fun – I’ve never used a rivet gun before and it didn’t have any instructions.

Then the local tree place phoned up to say our ten Blue Spruce had arrived and could we come and pick them up as soon as possible (it’s a long-term project that should pay for Christmases in about five years). Clare’s up there right now in the drizzle, digging holes for them.

Then the local garden place phoned up and said the polytunnel’s arrived. Which means we need to get hold of a friend with a digger to level that corner of a field that will be forever under plastic.

Then a friend phoned up and said the new mayor’s been elected – not the candidate half the people we know know, but a woman about whom no one knows anything. Which means we have to put the MASSIVE DOSSIER together NOW, have it translated into French by a friend of a friend, and go and have a Very Important Meeting with her.

But yesterday, I did finally put the stock fencing round the veggie bed above the barbed wire. Very nearly. After 100 yards (metres), I ran out of wire just two metres (yards) short of the final gate post. Which means I still have to finish that before I start building the chicken house.

There is a glaring omission from the “Current Projects” sidebar that has kept me occupied for the last several days. It’s something I could have done without – and something that has already proved indispensable.

It’s called: Building a Dossier.

As you may or may not know (if this doesn’t cover you, let me know how), the French love paperwork. Many people (most of them French) see it as backward, tedious and unnecessary. Coming from a world of voice recognition and computerised call centres, I see it as refreshing, charming and very forward looking.

For example: a few weeks ago, I wanted to know when our planning permission had been submitted. I went into the Mairie and asked the woman on reception. She reached for a book, flipped a few pages and – voila! – I had my answer. It was quick. Easy. And to use a French word, “exact”. (As far as sustainability goes, I’ll put money on that book outlasting every hard drive in existence today).

In contrast, a couple of weeks ago, there was a fire in nearby hotel. The electricity for the whole block was out. (It was that nearby.) Our accountant, who has an office next door, was on the street. Lost. Unable to work. (For a man who routinely arrives at work before seven, either because he’s very good or very bad at his job, this must have been mortifying.)

But I haven’t been building a dossier for fun.

I’ve been doing it because, many weeks ago, a friend handed me a piece of paper. A few weeks after that, I called the number on that piece of paper and spoke to someone also called Alex. And she asked me to bring a dossier to the meeting we had yesterday.

Which is why I spent too much time in front of this screen in the last week, typing and re-typing, copying and pasting images like this:


and this:


And phoning, and driving around, getting costs for industrial A+ rated washing machines, fridges, integrated solar panels and more, until I had something vaguely impressive.

The meeting went well. I think she was vaguely impressed.

Then today, I found myself getting costs for business insurance. They were asking me all kinds of questions about prices and values, and I was trying to think…

And then I said: “Hang on. I’ve got a dossier.”

“Ah,” said they, as I whipped out my pen drive. “A dossier. That’s alright, then.” They liked it so much, they asked for a copy.

And I went back to the land and helped Clare with some dry stone walling. Which was much more fun.