After a lifetime in the theatre, Gray Veredon is making his home centre stage and inviting guests to share his lttle piece of heaven in the heart of Ardèche, as Debbie Curtis discovers
When Gray Veredon first laid eyes on La Mirande, he knew it was special. The house stands on a 700m-high plateau called the Coiron set out above the surrounding Ardèche countryside with uninterrupted views in every direction you look.
“This is a volcanic area; and has the feel of a volcanic island in the middle of the Ardèche,” says Gray. “The land and vegetation are different, and people tell me that there is even different magnetism in the earth underneath.
“To the north-east you look across the Rhône Valley to the Alps – the other way you can see the beginnings of the Massif Central. ‘La Mirande’ means ‘the view all around’ and that’s what I have; a view in all directions. You’re a little bit above it all here, so that you feel: ‘It’s all going on down there, but it doesn’t have to bother me!’”
When Gray bought the house near Privas, it was the 1980s and he was working with the Le Ballet de l’Opéra de Lyon.
“I was working as a freelance choreographer all over the world and had done quite a lot of work in France,” he recalls. “I was offered the directorship of the ballet in Lyon, which I took, and I spent a wonderful few years there.
“In Lyon at that time, it was the custom to have a country house, so I bought this place. In the beginning, I used it as a holiday place; a party house where I could invite all my friends.”
He found La Mirande, which is made up of the main house and a cottage that he lets out as a self-catering gîte, with the help of an estate agent, who was initially reluctant to show it to him. The agent felt it wasn’t the right place, but Gray was intrigued by the ‘monumental fireplace’ mentioned in the details and insisted on taking a closer look.
“At the bottom of his file, he had a property that stated it had a ‘cheminée monumentale’, but he said “You won’t like it. It’s too big. It’s away from everything. It’s not good for this; it’s not good for that…” I wanted to see it anyway, so we came up here and I went inside, and I said: ‘I’ll take it.’ It was just like that.”
The house, which sits in 6,000m² of land, was the perfect country retreat and Gray, who is originally from New Zealand, regularly entertained friends there. It was also a place to escape the pressures of his busy working life that frequently saw him travelling all over the world; initially as a dancer, director and choreographer, and then more recently as an independent tour director for several international travel companies.
“When I left Lyon, I was working a lot in America, France and Germany, Australia and New Zealand,” he says. “I used to come back here in the summers and use the place to relax, but also to prepare my work for the next season. It was wonderful for that. I could listen to my music and read and write, and do everything I have to do at that stage of preparation.”
Gradually the effect of time spent at La Mirande worked its way more and more under his skin, and he began to imagine what it would be like to live there all year round.
“About eight years ago, I decided I really needed to do something with the house or sell it, and I started to realise that it would be wonderful if I could come here in the winter as well. I wasn’t working so much and I needed the house to earn its keep, so after much soul-searching I decided I would renovate it and turn it into what is essentially a small hotel.”
The renovation was no small undertaking, and Gray employed a team of local artisans to carry out much of the major work.
“It was an enormous decision and when I started, I wasn’t sure if I could afford to do it, but I got through it,” he says. “Essentially, I built a new house inside the old house. The stone walls were not very good in terms of insulation. There was no insulation in the roof, so I put on a completely new roof with big slabs of the most efficient insulation; then I put in new inside walls, new windows, under-floor heating, and a new floor.”
The property is now home to Gray’s new business venture: luxury, all-inclusive holidays where guests can fully relax.
“Through my tour directing, I’ve met a lot of early retirees who want to travel, but are a bit tired of driving everywhere, so I pick them up from the train station in nearby Valence. For the time they’re with me, they don’t have to think about anything.
“They can decide the night before if they want to visit Avignon or Arles, or to take a couple of interesting little tours, or if they want to stay here and relax then they can do that as well. At the end of the week I take them back to Valence for the return train journey.”
The décor Gray has chosen for La Mirande includes souvenirs from his ballet and opera work, including some striking David Hockney posters from a time when he worked with him on a production at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.
“I got him to sign them,” says Gray. “They are enormous posters; very narrow. They look beautiful on these stone walls. The place has a theatrical feel because of things like that; and also because it is one huge space. You have to establish an identity for the different areas, so lighting is terribly important, which I love anyway from my time in the theatre. I’ve spent a great deal of money on lighting.
“You can isolate areas with different options, so when we’re eating in the dining area, it’s quite light from the lovely chandelier, and then around us I can dim the lights. In that way, it’s like a stage where there is a focus point for the action and the rest fades back. It took a lot of thought to put it together; trying to maintain separate areas but still keeping them all part of a whole.”
He has spent the past 12 months honing his plans and perfecting the delicious menus that he will cook for guests himself.
“It’s exciting but I know it is a lot of work,” he says. “Once it’s run in, it will be fine, and I have a couple of good people to help me. The ideas of what I want to do with the house have developed over a number of years, and now I’ve arrived at this point, and I’m happy with them.
“I’m the sort of guy who likes a challenge, so I’m really looking forward to it. It also gives me the wonderful luxury that in the off season I can have friends here, and give them everything that I’ve learnt through doing it professionally as far as the food and the location are concerned. It’s fantastic to have that privilege to be able to offer that to your friends. It’s all about sharing.”
And networking. For Gray, 62, one of the most important pieces of advice he would give to anyone thinking of taking the plunge and moving to France, is to learn the language and to be prepared to completely integrate into your new adopted community.
“You must realise from the beginning that to survive here, and to really enjoy your experience of living in this country, you have to be prepared to get to know people. You really have to start working on learning the language.”
His own journey to becoming a confident French speaker began when he first came to Lyon and was something of a baptism of fire.
“I had a little bit of French from my travels, but I soon realised I’d dropped right into a rather complicated political situation, because I was directly responsible to the mayor and there was no way they would speak English with me.
“I had to knuckle down and learn it, so I found a good teacher, and I did an hour every morning before I started work. Within a year I was starting to be able to get by. I’d done it before with German when I was a young dancer in Stuttgart, but I found German easier than French.
“I really stuck to it and it’s paid off now; especially living in the country here. When the people know you can speak the language, or at least get by with the language, first of all they’re surprised and then you’ve won them, especially those who live in the country.”
And the ease with which you can get to this beautiful corner of France appeals to Gray as much as he knows it will to his guests.
“I can be at Lyon airport in half an hour. I can be at Paris Charles de Gaulle in 2 hours 20 minutes. I feel I have the best of both worlds. I have the countryside that I love and also I love big cities and here I feel close to the best of both.” LF
Let’s get practical
* Gray opted for geothermal heating to heat La Mirande. He carried out extensive research into the technique, which was developed in nearby Valence, and having talked to all the companies in the town, he selected a small company in Privas to carry out the work. “The volume of the house means that it would have been almost impossible to heat with other types of fuel but this system works very well and I’m very happy with it,” says Gray.
* Over the years, Gray has built up a trusted team of builders on whom he can rely to carry out any work he needs doing. He has always used local artisans because they understand the building techniques of the region. In the early days he found good people by asking around and following up word-of-mouth recommendations.
“I talked to a lot of people. There is a building supplier here in Privas called Point P and they know everyone. I’d speak them and say I needed someone and they’d give me a couple of names and I’d call them, and we’d go from there; that’s worked very well.”
* For guidance and help navigating the system in France, Gray uses the services of a notaire. His notaire is based locally in Privas and has been on hand to help with many aspects of Gray’s life in France. “It’s something that I’d highly recommend. They know exactly what you have to do and they can help you with everything. Through them I met a young accountant; they know what to tell me and where to go for whatever help I need.”
* La Mirande has wifi throughout the house and the broadband is extremely efficient. Gray did a lot of investigation into the packages on offer and eventually opted for Freebox (www.free.fr), which was the best in his view and also proved to be the cheapest. “They also provide telephone and television too, if your broadband is wide enough. I get lots of free calls to America and most of Europe so it’s very good for me.”
* His electricity is supplied by EDF and he says they provide a very good service. “Quite often, as you can imagine, up in this location, the wires are down, through a storm or lightning. We get a lot of lightning here which can do a lot of damage. EDF are there within a minute. You think that’s it for the month, and then they’re fixed in a minute; very reliable.” There is no mains gas to the property but he cooks using bottled gas, which he says is very clean and efficient.
* Gray is assisted in the marketing of the holidays at La Mirande by French Connections (www.frenchconnections.co.uk) as well as through his own website http://lamirande-en-coiron.com.