Proud guesthouse owners Gail and Christian Bodiguel tell Sylvia Edwards Davis about the extensive property search that eventually brought them to L’Atelier du Renard Argenté in Vaucluse
Meet The Movers
Name: Gail and Christian Bodiguel
Bought in: 2013
Live in: Loire-Atlantique and Devon
Property in: Mornas, Vaucluse
FRENCHENTRÉE MAGAZINE: What brought you to France?
GAIL AND CHRISTIAN BODIGUEL:
Christian is French and has been the executive chef on the Orient Express train for 32 years, so he is over here at the weekends and during holidays. I hail from Devon and have lived in France now for 42 years. I was 19 when I won a scholarship at catering school to work in the famed George V hotel in Paris.
When I finished my training, I received a letter from the George V asking if I’d like to come back. It was an offer I couldn’t refuse, and it sparked a career working in luxury hotels like Le Bristol and the Warwick. I was the youngest executive housekeeper in Paris at the time. After my first marriage, I moved to the Côte d’Azur and worked for the Grand-Hôtel du Cap-Ferrat. Christian and I met in Paris when we were both at the Warwick, but our story didn’t start until 25 years later. We have now been together for 15 years and got married in 2013, when we created Le Renard Argenté here in Mornas.
FE: Was Provence your first choice?
GCB: Our dream together had always been to have a guesthouse, as we have both spent the whole of our lives dedicated to hotels and hospitality. So we looked and looked for three whole years – viewing over 50 properties. We travelled to the Luberon, we even looked in Bordeaux, but that cemented our decision that we wanted to be in Provence. It’s so beautiful, with lovely weather and the people are just so friendly. We felt happier in Provence than anywhere else, so that’s how we chose the location. Mornas is in the Vaucluse, and is not as well known as other areas, but is absolutely beautiful – the forest, the little villages. We are in the centre of the Côtes du Rhône wine region too, so we are surrounded by vineyards. One big plus in this area is the wonderful road infrastructure. We are just 11km from the motorway and it takes less than an hour to get to the Luberon, less than 90 minutes to Lyon or Marseille, while the TGV is just 35 minutes away in Avignon.
FE: Why did you choose this property?
GCB: Initially, the idea was to find a going concern. After looking for a year, we came to the conclusion that we wouldn’t find an existing guesthouse that was to our taste. It would cost a lot of money to buy something that was already up and running and then we would have to pay a lot more to take it all apart and get it how we wanted it. We also realised that buying an existing clientele doesn’t guarantee that the guests will like the new owners or their style.
That’s when our approach changed and we decided it would be best to buy a large home that could be turned into a viable guesthouse. It was important to have a list of criteria. When we first saw this property, we weren’t enamoured with it – there was no coup de coeur, but it satisfied each of the requirements on our list. My daughter, who is an artist, said: “You must look at this like a piece of blank paper that you’re going to draw on.” She was so right. The property has now been totally transformed.
FE: How did you go about the renovation?
GCB: We hired a local architect – mainly to establish contacts with good local artisans. Peter Mayle was 100 per cent right: finding good local contractors is so difficult. Our architect was brilliant. He specified every single job and would ask several companies to make an offer and then negotiated the price on each item.
My prior experience with renovation in hotels came in very handy as well because it meant the architect only needed to come for two hours each week. I was here all the time – even though the living conditions were quite difficult – to keep my eye on things. This was absolutely necessary. When you are renovating, you come across so many surprises and sometimes have to make immediate decisions.
FE: Did you manage to stay on budget?
GCB: We did when we bought the house because we got a very good price, but we went over our renovation budget because of all the surprises that we had no way of anticipating. I did the interior decoration myself, so that helped. There was lots of painting and hard work, but it was worth it. Each room is different with its own feel.
FE: Do you have any tips for prospective buyers?
GCB: If you are looking to renovate, definitely hire a professional or choose an architect who can have a look at the property before you actually buy. In England, you can have a “If you are looking to renovate, hire an architect who can have a look at the property before you actually buy” survey done. In France, this doesn’t happen. There are surveys of the electrics, but they are very superficial. Nothing would have stopped us from buying the property, but it would have been useful to know more about the potential problems in advance.
FE: Tell us about the property…
GCB: We have five rooms for guests, which is the maximum allowed for a guesthouse. We have a private suite for us with bedroom, bathroom and dressing room, but we don’t get much time to sit down. We have a large kitchen, which is the main meeting area and where we spend the most time. There’s also a lovely sitting room with a cosy fire for winter, and a beautiful veranda with floor-toceiling windows where we serve breakfast and dinner if the weather is not warm enough to sit out. In the summer, everybody is outside enjoying the swimming pool.
We also have a lake and a fantastic garden – my favourite feature of the property. It takes my breath away every morning when I look out of the window. In the garden, we planted 33 olive trees, plus fragrant lavender, rosemary and all the herbs we use in our cooking. When Christian is here, we hold cooking lessons for groups, couples or individuals. It’s very flexible.
In winter, we run truffle stays. These are complete weekends where guests arrive and have dinner – every single course includes truffles. The next day, Christian takes guests to the truffle market and for a rustic lunch, followed by a cooking lesson. Dinner is what guests themselves have prepared. We all sit together around a big fire – even people who don’t know each other and don’t speak the same language. It’s fabulous. The next day, we go truffle-hunting with our neighbour and his trained dogs and after lunch there’s horse riding in the forest.
FE: What has been the toughest challenge?
GCB: I think the worst day was when I woke up to find that a large group of wild boar had trampled across our garden and dug up the watering system from the beautiful lawn! It’s hard to imagine that they could do so much damage. I think that because it had been dry they were attracted by the worms in the lawn. They had a lovely bath in the lake too! I can laugh about it now, but I definitely wasn’t laughing then.
FE: What has been the highlight so far?
GCB: Each day is beautiful – especially when previous guests come back to stay. Or when we become friends with guests and they leave with tears in their eyes, saying, “We’ll be back!”.