Take a look inside these stunning French chambres d’hôtes set up by expats
L’Atelier du Renard Argenté in Vaucluse
Franco-British couple Gail and Christian Bodiguel transformed a neglected farmhouse in Provence into an elegant maison d’hôte.
Gail started her career in housekeeping at the luxury Hôtel Georges V in Paris and, having decided to stay in France, went on to work in some of the country’s most luxurious hotels. At her side is French chef Christian, who worked on the venice Simplon-Orient-Express as executive chef for more than 30 years. It was during his time on-board France’s most famous train that he was given the nickname, the ‘silver fox’, inspiring the name of the couple’s maison d’hôte – L’Atelier du Renard Argenté (‘the workshop of the silver fox’), where Christian runs cookery classes imparting the culinary expertise that he has honed over many years.
The property that caught their eye was a Provençal farmhouse, situated in a secluded and peaceful spot in the heart of the Vaucluse countryside, surrounded by vineyards and forests. Gail and Christian spent a year and a half renovating the farmhouse into a five-bedroom luxury guest house, visiting brocantes and antiques markets, carefully gathering items that they like and wrapping them up and putting them to one side. They didn’t want the guest house to be too cluttered, nor did they want the finished look to be old-fashioned and were keen to use some contemporary pieces. The finished effect is a sophisticated and interesting mixture of old and new. “Every time somebody walks in here they say ‘wow’, so I’m very proud,” Gail says.
Christian’s cookery lessons have been a big hit and are already bringing guests back for return visits. The couple source all of their ingredients from the local markets, as well as local growers and producers, and plan to start a vegetable garden this year. As well as the cookery workshops, the couple can arrange visits to vineyards and wine tastings, as well as ‘truffle weekends’, where guests can search for truffles, and find out how to cook with them. They are also introducing watercolour lessons during the summer.
Read more about Gail and Christian Bodiguel’s L’Atelier du Renard Argenté
Green Chambre d’Hôte in Tarn-et-Garonne
Laura and Sid Havard run the Green Chambre d’Hôte: an organic, eco-friendly B&B and gîte, which nestles in meadows and mixed woodland, not far from the medieval town of Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val; a wildlife haven and a magnet for those eager to experience a slice of The Good Life in France. A friend had told them about a hunter’s cabin for sale, set in woodland. “It was a pre-fab – it looked like a 1960s council garage,” laughs Laura. “It was 20 square metres but it came with 10 acres of land. We fell in love with it and we bought it.”
The plan right from the beginning was to create an organic, eco-friendly, sustainable home in France for themselves and their son, and to this end, they started small and have gradually expanded; taking 10 years to design and build what is now a light, airy and spacious family home and business, which is warm and welcoming in winter and cool and serene in summer. “We did it a bit at a time and were able to get masses of reclaimed materials and take our time to perfect it. We picked up lovely old tiles and a lot of the timber in the A-frames and the ceilings is from our own woodland.” This woodland also provides fuel for their wood-burning stove, which they picked up second-hand from homeless charity Emmaüs.
Sustainability has always been their watchword, and so when the power company wanted €63,000 to connect them to the mains, they decided to look for other options such as solar panels and a wind generator. The organic element of their enterprise has been a lynchpin too, and as luck would have it, their land has never been treated with artificial fertilizers or pesticides. And what a stunning garden they have created. Starting from scratch and carving out a sunny clearing among the trees to create space and a view, they have built raised beds for the vegetable garden, constructed two raised ponds connected by a stream and have planted masses of flowers. Their guests are also beneficiaries of the bountiful garden. All meals are freshly prepared, vegetarian, and organic and use as much produce as possible from the garden, which includes fresh eggs from their chickens.
Read more about Laura and Sid Havard’s Green Chambres d’Hôtes
Maison de l’Orb in Hérault
The allure of the Good Life and the charms of the beautiful Languedoc-Roussillon town of Béziers in the south of France ensnared Mark Binmore and his partner Ben, who gave up their jobs as pub landlords in London to run a chambres d’hôtes in this coastal town. The couple wanted to be sensible about finding ‘the one’ and viewed 16 properties, but kept coming back to the Maison de l’Orb, a handsome mellow stone house built in the 1800s. During the Second World War, the house was a ‘safe house’ for those fleeing the occupied zone, and the cellars were used by local resistance groups.
The couple spent two years clearing and renovating. They felt the house had soul but lacked love. Dodgy carpets and unforgiving wallpaper marred its potential, and the entire house, which used to be four apartments on three floors, had to be rewired, re-plumbed and redecorated. Fortunately, Mark and Ben could see beyond the yellow walls and flock carpets, and realised that the view from the garden alone, over the river and the Pont Vieux across to Béziers, was worth all the work. The house now reflects the couple’s love of quirky décor. “The dining room, especially, is full of bits and bobs and something for people to look at; cluttered junk, Arabic tiles, exposed beams but then the house also has a touch of the modern too: plasma TVs, en-suite bathrooms, good beds and linen as well as some hidden extras.” Mark says he always keeps in mind that their guests have chosen not to stay in a bland, nameless hotel; they have opted for a home, and he wants them to feel welcome and as at home as he is.
Mark worked on offering guests a totally relaxing experience in their ‘vintage heaven’ with a pool, library of books, four-course dinner and fabulous breakfast. The house is large, but not overwhelming in size. It has five bedrooms that form the chambres d’hôtes, but Mark believes that is a positive point. “It’s a bit more intimate than other establishments. Our guests are here to unwind and relax so it’s less intrusive.” The centre of Béziers has a ‘city feel’ with its shady boulevards, vibrant market place, shops, department stores, theatre and concert halls – but within minutes you can be in the middle of authentic Languedoc countryside. Living and working in Béziers, says Mark, gives you the best of both worlds.
Read more about Mark and Ben’s Maison de l’Orb
Maison Conti in Sarthe
For Nancy and Richard Harrison, the decision to leave their full-time jobs in San Francisco to run a chambres d’hôtes in a small village in Sarthe, in Pays de la Loire, was a shock to most people they knew, but the couple’s love affair with France had started when they decided to buy a small holiday home in the department back in 2002. The property in question was an 18th-century house sitting at the foot of Château de Montmirail in the historic town of La Ferté-Bernard. “The agent brought us here and it was really quite magical, even though it was the middle of January,” explains Nancy. “This old house was just so amazing and interesting and was ideally suited for what we had in mind. There was a room for my studio because I do print-making here, so that was fantastic!”
Having bought the property in 2007, Nancy and Richard decided to name it Maison Conti after the Princess de Conti, the illegitimate daughter of Louis XIV, who lived in the neighbouring Château de Montmirail with her husband. Known as a dépendance du château, the house was built by the princess for her chief minister in the 1700s. The couple spent a year converting and decorating the property. The majority of the work involved putting in en-suite bathrooms for the four guest rooms, as well as in their apartment. Two of the bedrooms were already decorated: the Chambre Bleue, which is elegantly decorated in traditional toile de Jouy, and the Chambre Verte with its opulent canopied bed in rich green check and matching furnishings. Nancy wanted each bedroom to have a different colour theme and enjoyed decorating the Chambre Rose and the Chambre Jaune with lime wash paint. The couple had experience of renovating homes in California and decided to use the same Italian marble tiles in the bathroom of the Chambre Rose that they had used before in their own home. The couple also brought some of their own furniture from California, and Nancy found that buying from eBay was an easy way to find pieces that she wanted.
As the years have gone by, word of mouth has helped the business grow. They are listed on Sawday’s, and just over a year ago they joined booking.com which increased their traffic significantly. “It’s a great location for people travelling from england to the south or going to Brittany. People also come here for weddings and Le Mans 24 event,” says Nancy. The lifestyle that comes with living in this part of rural France is really what makes it so appealing. “This pretty village surrounded by countryside is such a beautiful place to live. it’s a fantastic place for walking, bike riding and kayaking. It’s so quiet compared with California, where it’s so hectic.”
Read more about Richard and Nancy Harrison’s Maison Conti
Logis du Paradis in Charente
Moving to France had long been a dream for Nick Brimblecombe, and at the start of the new millenium he and wife Sally decided it was now or never. The adventure was certainly going to be big, when in 2005 the couple bought an abandoned former cognac distillery in the heart of the Grande Champagne vineyards in Charente, an area renowned for producing the department’s celebrated cognac spirit. The plan was to renovate and transform the complex of 12 buildings into chambres d’hôtes accommodation for B&B and self-contained holiday cottages. The move to Charente also enabled Nick to indulge in another of his passions; classic car hire – something that he had been involved with since the early 1990s.
It was Nick’s old friend that he’d worked with on the 2CV programme who found the property they ended up buying. When the couple arrived, they quickly saw its potential. “It took about five minutes for us to know that we were standing in the courtyard of the property that we were going to buy. It was in a pretty awful state, which we’d not planned. We took on a ruin. The property wasn’t expensive but the property price is a very small part of the overall cost of doing it. We were embarking on a major renovation project,” says Nick. The couple renovated the 18th-century logis (the main house), making five luxury guest suites. Next, they created a large garage for the old cars, and two cottages in the former stables. They transformed the big chai outbuilding into a function room that can seat up to 120 people for a sit-down meal. The roof of the former cognac distillery had collapsed, but the alembics – the copper stills – were still intact, so it seemed logical to Nick to turn the room into a bar.
Functions form an important part of the business, and the couple prefer to host one large function, rather than trying to fill individual rooms every night. “We do like renting the whole place out. We have a total sleeping capacity of 27 here,” says Nick. “Functions are good because we’ll put on the whole thing – we can organise marriages in the chapel opposite, the catering, the music, and activities such as clay-pigeon shooting.” With 40 years’ experience of working in different businesses across France, Nick is happy to talk to guests further about their plans and pass on his advice. He also continues to indulge his passion for classic cars, and today has a fleet of 15 vehicles that guests can hire during their stay at the Logis, including a 1961 Citroën 2CV, a 1969 MGB roadster and Lotus Elan S2. “Part of what’s unique about Logis du Paradis is that it’s one of the very few places in France where there’s a fleet of cars you can use,” says Nick.
Read more about Nick and Sally Brimblecombe’s Logis du Paradis
Like this? You might enjoy: