Franco-British couple Gail and Christian Bodiguel transformed a neglected farmhouse in Provence into an elegant maison d’hôte. Find out how and take a look inside
Written by Stephanie Sheldrake
The first thing that strikes guests when they arrive at Gail and Christian Bodiguel’s luxury guest house in Vaucluse is that it definitely has the ‘wow factor’. The attention to detail, in both the stylish decor and the level of service on offer, bears testimony to the couple’s extensive careers in the luxury tourism trade. Having studied hotel management in Devon where she grew up, 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.
Gail and Christian met through work and became a couple in 2003. Despite their long careers, they had no intention of retiring, as Gail explains: “We’ve both worked very hard over so many years in the trade, and we love people. We love creating an environment where people can have a wonderful experience and enjoy life, so we couldn’t imagine just stopping at retirement age and not doing that sort of thing anymore.”
Having decided to open a maison d’hôte, the couple spent three years searching for a suitable property, first in Bordeaux, but it was Provence that won their hearts. “We decided that we’d love to be in Provence,” says Gail, going on to list the many reasons: “The beauty of the countryside; the quality of the food and wine is amazing; the quality of life; the beautiful villages – each with its own atmosphere and character.” But for Gail, the most important thing is the people. “They are sincere; they are close to nature, living in harmony with the countryside,” she says.
The fact that the area is popular with people from all over the world was important for the business, as well as the region’s warm climate, as they wanted the guest house to be open for most of the year.
Finding a suitable property proved to be harder than Gail and Christian had imagined, but the couple enjoyed every minute of the house-hunting process. “We visited more than 50 properties, and when I look back, I really enjoyed it. We visited places we never imagined existed, and we met some really wonderful people. it was a great time and a great experience.”
At first, the couple began looking for a guest house that was already up and running. “We finally came to the conclusion that we were going to pay a lot of money for a property, which we would have to modify in order to make it what we wanted, so we would have to spend more,” says Gail. “We hadn’t found anything we really liked either, and then what we did find was horribly expensive. So we took a step back and started looking at properties which were big houses in need of renovation.”
With a new brief to work towards, the couple gave themselves a deadline to find a suitable property. “We’d said to ourselves that if we didn’t find what we wanted, we’d have to think about something else, and would you believe, this was the very last house we saw on our very last day,” laughs Gail.
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. Despite its idyllic location, and the fact it met their criteria, the property did not immediately win the couple over. “it was badly decorated, it didn’t have any atmosphere, and the garden was very sad. it wasn’t really what we wanted, but my daughter said something, which was absolutely fantastic. She said, ‘it’s a white page on which you are going to draw’. This is exactly what it has been. We spent a lot of time, money and energy bringing together in one place what we believe guests really appreciate.”
Having bought the property in 2012, Gail and Christian spent a year and a half renovating the farmhouse into a five-bedroom luxury guest house. Gail already had extensive experience of hotel renovations, having assisted in the coordination of projects at hotels including the Hôtel Bristol in Paris and the Grand-Hôtel in Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat. One of the architects with whom Gail worked closely during the renovation of the Grand-Hôtel, recommended a local architect who knew many local artisans.
“From my past experience, I knew how difficult renovations could be. Obviously when you’re in a personal situation, it’s quite a different thing because it’s much more emotional, and a bit frightening, because there were quite a lot of bad surprises,” admits Gail.
The most expensive problems they came up against concerned the electricity supply (not knowing where cables had been laid) and also problems with drainage.
For Gail, using an architect was an essential part of the process. “i’m always glad we paid that extra amount to have an architect; they have a different way of looking at things and managing things,” she says. “They were finding solutions that iwould never have been able to find because I didn’t have sufficient knowledge of the technical problems. We’ve had very few problems following the work and we had guarantees for a year afterwards. Also the quality of the work was exceptionally high due to the skill, passion and care put into it by the local artisans, many of whom work on restoring historic monuments and buildings in Provence.”
As well as creating a beautiful environment for their guests, Gail and Christian were keen to make sure their visitors feel at home. “We wanted to create a relaxed atmosphere where people feel at ease and happy,” says Gail. When it came to the interior decoration, Gail explains that she let the property guide her. “At first I wanted to use cream materials, as I think they’re very quiet and relaxing, but when you put the cream against the stone walls, it didn’t work because the stone is more yellowy, more blue and grey, so I had to abandon the cream idea and go more towards the greys and the yellows.”
“I think what is important is finding the harmony and balance between the house and what you would like to create in terms of the fabrics and materials.”
Over many years, Gail and Christian have visited brocantesand 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.
“We worked with a fantastic gentleman, who has a beautiful shop called imaginaire in isle-sur-la-Sorgue, which is one of the main antiques towns in France. He collects items that he likes – it can be anything from a foot of a bath, to a door, a window, a piece of metal – and he gives them a second life by creating something new with them,” says Gail. “In our house we have a lamp which is made from the foot of a bath, and the table in the sitting room is made from some iron balustrades which he’s constructed the table around. Our bookcase is made from the frame of a beautiful picture and our light fittings also come from his shop.”
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,” she says.
In June 2014, L’Atelier du Renard Argenté opened for business and, with all of their experience in the luxury hotel industry, the couple did not encounter any problems; although maintaining the very high standards has been hard work, as Gail explains: “I do find it’s a tremendous amount of work. We keep having to say to ourselves, ‘we are a maison d’hôte and not a luxury hotel. However, we wouldn’t have it any other way, and it is both a pleasure and rewarding for us to see how much our guests enjoy their time here.”
For Gail, one of the most important things is to cater to each guest’s individual needs. “We only have five rooms so we can do that,” says Gail, adding that they both enjoy spending time with their visitors and making sure they are happy. “Christian also loves the interaction with our guests – from conceiving the menu through to talking with them and making sure they are enjoying their meal.”
Despite only being open for a year, business has been good, with bookings during the winter months, and reservations for this year. The majority of guests are French, and come via the property’s listings on websites including Avignon et Provence tourism, and the Maison d’Hôtes Design accommodation group, which has brought guests of other nationalities.
Christian’s cookery lessons have been a big hit and are already bringing guests back for return visits. “We have some guests who have already been back three times. They love the cooking lessons, and are already deciding before they leave what they will do next time they come,” says Gail.
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. “What is wonderful is that our guests get to taste all this fresh food and have the experience of living with the seasons, only using fresh produce,” says Gail.
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.
Motivated by a passion for making their guests happy, it seems that Gail and Christian will not be retiring for many years to come.