La Ramoneta of the month – Mariëlle Zandvliet

Mariëlle Zandvliet

Every month, we introduce you to an interesting woman living in Languedoc. Curious as we are, we like to find out why she lives in this beautiful region, what she does for a living, and some of her Languedoc favourites. This month we would like you to meet the warm and welcoming Mariëlle Zandvliet as Ramoneta of the Month. Hospitality is her middle name as the owner of Domaine en Birbès in Laurac.


My love for France came to me early. My father used to be a wine importer whose work brought us from Holland to France every holiday. He always had to do some work before pleasure, and my sister and I joined him and my mother at business dinners. In our pretty dresses, we would order what the adults were having, and we loved it. This is how I was introduced to French habits from a young age.

After being an au pair in Grenoble for a year, I learned to speak French well and my love for France grew stronger. My Economics and Linguistics studies brought me to the world exhibition in Seville, Spain, and a wine castle in Beaune, France. Back in Holland again, I met Rob- my now-husband- at a musical theatre club. He just had taken a job offer to run a ski chalet in Switzerland. And after three years of going back and forth, I decided to join him.

First time visiting the region

Rob and I worked in Switzerland for another three years before moving back to Holland. We knew we wanted to run a place for ourselves, and France was our first choice. In the meantime, we got married and had our two daughters. We used our time back home for thorough preparations and to look for a suitable house. For almost every holiday, we picked another French region and a different type of accommodation to visit. This way, we discovered our preferences and what could work for us.

One evening, while having dinner in a restaurant, we decided to write down all our individual requirements on Post-its. Comparing our answers, our destination became much clearer. Our new home had to be in the South of France, close to the mountains and sea, and near a ski resort. The Aude department ticked all of these boxes. We knew this region from earlier holidays, and it was the perfect place for both our wishes.

Domaine en Birbès

Settling in Languedoc

Finding a house was easier said than done. The search took several months, many trips to France, and over 30 house viewings. One house was sold right under our noses, and I thought we would never find the right place. But then we found Domaine en Birbès (1 & 2) in Laurac. Rob went alone to the first viewing, and our second viewing together was only one week later. We felt that this could be the perfect place for us. We immediately made an offer that was accepted on the same day as the viewing. As if it was meant to be, we sold our house in Holland three days later. It couldn’t get any better!

In September 2010, we received the keys and moved to France at the beginning of October. As we wanted to open in the summer of 2011, I had made a strict plan. So, we started the renovation full of energy and learned a lot along the way. As a result, in July 2011, we could welcome our first guests!

Domaine en Birbès

Over thirteen years, Rob and I created a small piece of paradise for young and old at Domaine en Birbès. And now, we can host twelve families in six gîtes and six safari lodge tents with private sanitary facilities. For the ultimate holiday feeling, you can splash into the secured swimming pool with a sweeping view over the meadows. The kids can explore the car-free grounds to live endless adventures. And the big barn has been transformed into a play slash relaxation slash meeting area. Here you can also enjoy a freshly prepared meal twice a week, and Saturdays we have pizza nights.

From the moment we started, we were fully booked. Many families make new friends and come back several times. The summer season is always booked up a year in advance. Running Domaine en Birbès is made for Rob and me, and luckily, we work well together. Maybe because we have a clear division of work. Rob takes care of the renovations and logistics, whereas my strengths lie in administration tasks and cooking.

Setting up a business in France

It is quite intensive to set up a business in France, mainly because of the many rules. After thirteen years, I still need my full attention to get through all of the bureaucracy. Everyone has a different opinion, and the accountant doesn’t always agree with you. However, every time I get wiser and learn new lessons. But I do recommend a sparring partner, someone you trust to discuss business with. We have found great colleagues in the area that now have become close friends and with whom we can exchange views.

Mariëlle Zandvliet

Living in the South of France

To me, living in another country isn’t that different from living in Holland. I’m happy as long as I have my family around me in our own spot. Living in the French countryside means we have a lot of space around us. The kids love it too; however, they do miss going out and meeting friends sometimes.

The Aude department and our region have everything we want. We love skiing and can be on the slopes of Ax-les-Thermes or Andorra within an hour. The beach of Leucate is also an hour’s drive, great for having a dip and a feast of fresh oysters. Although we enjoy living in the countryside, I sometimes like visiting a big city or town. Toulouse (3) is one of my favourites, and fairy tale-like Carcassonne (4) is a fun day out. I also love to go to Mirepoix’s weekly market, even after all this time. Locals still go to this picturesque village to buy their groceries, and it has a vibrant mix of people.

Best Languedoc wine

Being so close to Limoux (5), I have to mention a sparkling blanquette. One of my favourites is the Toques et Clocher from Sieur d’Arques.

Our house wine- that we serve during the table d’hôtes dinners- comes from Domaine Rose & Paul. This is a small wine estate in the heart of the Malepère, offering a lot of different white, rosé, and red wines. The lovely Foussat family has run it for already five generations; Rose and Paul were the third. And now Clément- the sixth generation- is ready to follow in the footsteps of his father, Gilles.

Favourite restaurant

My first pick would be the beach restaurant Biquet Plage at Leucate or Le Bastion in Lagrasse. But when we go out with the family, we unanimously choose L’Escargot in Carcassonne. This tapas-style restaurant is in the middle of the touristic citadel; however, the owners don’t treat you like that. They are such sweet people that have remained true to themselves.

Perfect day out in Languedoc

Of course, Rob and I are available for our guests during the high season. However, once in a while, we do like to snap out for a couple of hours to relax and take a moment for ourselves. Life is good with our feet in the sand at Biquet Plage! Going back home, we’ll pick up some oysters from the little oyster street to share with our guests.

Mariëlle Zandvliet

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