Interview with Julie Sonveau

"I find myself saying at every stop, 'This is one of my favorite places!' The tour feels like a real vacation."

Julie Sonveau has been leading tours in France for a decade. Rick Steves found her about five years ago, leading tours of our favorite castle in Burgundy — Guédélon — where locals are taking 35 years to build a castle from scratch, using only tools and techniques from the 12th century. Here's Julie...

How does a girl from Kansas end up living in rural France?
Love...what else makes a girl stray so far from home? Actually, my experience with foreign languages and cultures began when I was fortunate enough to participate in a foreign exchange program at my high school. I studied Spanish throughout high school and college. After graduating from Kansas State, I worked for a French company in California, where I met my future husband, who had been raised in rural France (I switched cultures, so to speak). Seventeen years later, after extensive travel and adventures, we decided to leave our chocolate factory in Colorado and move to the French countryside with our two small children. My husband was convinced that health care and schooling were better in France (not to mention the 5 weeks' vacation); I just came because the countryside reminded me of summers spent at my grandmother's farm in Kansas.

Tell us about your experience with the project at Guédélon.
Arriving in the magical middle of nowhere in France, I wondered what I could do for work. Lucky enough, there was a project nearby, where people were building a medieval castle by hand. They anticipated needing English speaking guides, so I was hired. Problem was, they had no English speaking visitors yet! Within two weeks I was giving tours in French, even though I didn't speak French. It was a thrill to participate in one of the most unique endeavors the modern world has seen, and to experience how this girl from Kansas, could become so passionate about medieval history and architecture.

This year you are leading two Rick Steves tours: Paris & the Heart of France and Vineyards & Villages of France tours. How are they different?
Paris and the Heart of France is a classic "must see" itinerary. It's about what makes France...France! We cover the best of Paris but with time to do it your own way. There is nothing like the majestic Loire Valley castles or spending the night on Mont St. Michel (an experience that few travelers ever have). And the emotion of setting foot on Omaha beach is unforgettable! It is an irreplaceable French experience.

The Villages and Vineyards of France tour is something completely different. You feel like you've visited Germany, Switzerland and Italy without ever leaving France! Every destination is different, and I find myself saying at every stop, "this is one of my favorite places!" The tour feels like a real vacation. It is culturally on the lighter side, but without skimping on the French experience (especially gastronomically speaking)! First-timers love this tour as much as seasoned France travelers.

You'll also be on a Basque Country tour that starts with two nights in France and continues into Spain. What are you looking forward to on this tour?
How and why an area could hold strong to its language (which resembles no other) and individuality for so long — while straddling two separate countries with their own language and cultural influences — makes the Basque country so mysterious. I am really into the food aspect of travel, so I look forward to tasting local specialties, then walking it off in seaside San Sebastián or along the Camino de Santiago. I have become very interested in the pilgrimage route, so it will be special to walk on the Camino and learn more about it firsthand.  

Do you have any advice for an American moving from Kansas to France?
If I had worked more at studying and understanding French culture and language before coming here to live, it might have saved me from many a faux pas. An open mind, tough skin and a sense of humor goes a long way. The French love Americans, and find a Kansas accent more charming than we do. But stay on your toes, Dorothy, we ain't in Kansas anymore.