the château dilemma

by Sharon Santoni

The chateau dilemma is a real thing here. It is no joke to inherit a French château. An old stone château may look great on Instagram, but behind the pretty pictures lies the harsh fact that a château has a lot of roof to maintain, high spaces to heat, damp walls to dry out and so on…

Sadly, I know a couple whose marriage couldn’t take the strain when the husband inherited a small château from friends of his parents. The pair loved the property, but they didn’t have the funds to maintain the ageing framework or repair the ancient plumbing and electricity. She wanted to sell it, but he felt duty-bound to do his best to revive it – whatever the cost to the family finances. This story, unfortunately, ended in divorce, and a château with only a couple of rooms that were truly liveable.

All around France, there are thousands of these grand properties in similar situations. Sometimes, a foreign benefactor will alight, often in the form of an Australian, American or British couple full of new energy and great plans; frankly, they work wonders.

But for a dozen châteaux saved by determined, weary muscles, there are surely hundreds who will slowly fall apart.

french chateau corner view
@chateauchantilly

A highly visible example is currently that of the château of Chantilly. A true bijoux, built by the Duc d’Aumale and bequeathed to the State on the understanding that the museum and private collection of books and artwork it houses would be kept intact. It’s a place that I love to visit. The Museum inside is wonderful, and I like to attend their Garden Fair in the grounds each Spring. For many years, it had a fabulously generous benefactor namely the Aga Khan, renowned for his love of racehorses and his fondness for investing in cultures around the world.

The Aga Khan enjoyed the privilege of racing his horses on the adjacent and very chic Chantilly hippodrome, and he donated upwards of 70 million euros between 2005 and 2020… until he pulled out. The result was (and remains) catastrophic – work is urgently required and nobody has found a solution.

Here in France, we have a great affection for these beautiful buildings, which often date back up to five centuries or even more. Sprinkled across the country, châteaux speak of other eras and different economies, but, today, it is difficult to know how to defend them. They cannot all be made into hotels, especially those that lie out in the most remote of locations.

french chateau entrance details
@chateauchantilly

And while I don’t think that any of you are going to pull out a checkbook and offer to save Chantilly or any other landmark, I’m very curious to know how the rest of the world sees this situation. We all know that (pre-COVID), the châteaux of Europe and their gardens attract tourists and paying visitors from afar, but entry tickets to gardens rarely provide enough income to fully maintain these magnificent old buildings.

So my question to you is this: if you were magically made the Minister of Culture here in France and were tasked with the responsibility of doing your best by these properties within a given and limited budget, what would you do? Sell to the highest bidder, no matter what their plans were for the property? Draw up a very short list of a few properties to be prioritized, and say sorry but goodbye to the others? Create the biggest crowdfunding that this world has ever seen in the name of beauty and a fading architectural patrimoine?

Do tell me please, in the comments below – I’d love to know!

french chateau on water
@chateauchantilly

Interested in more château life? Read a fictional short story I wrote for fun last summer about saving an old château HERE!

40 comments

Ceew August 19, 2021 - 6:51 pm

I wish I had an answer or solution but alas, do not. These magnificent beauties deserve to live on in all their glorious beauty and solitude. But of course, the funds to do so and the folks that can provide such funds are limited. I suppose drawing up a list of properties to rescue (if I may be so bold to use that word) is the most sensible option and hope the remaining chateaus will be bought. Then the new owners can start their own crowdfunding. Oh if only each town or community that encompasses a chateau supported it and did their best to breathe new life into an old villa. But again, its down to funds…
I would love to walk through each one, regardless of their current state.

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Kameela August 19, 2021 - 10:09 pm

A very interesting article on the preservation of French chateaux like Chantilly. Indeed on Instagram those brave people who have invested in their châteaux seem to have endless budgets but in reality they are asking followers for donations and to become volunteers to help them out because they are preserving it for future generations. I think that a scheme like becoming a friend of a Château with a donation would work . It could be through crowd funding managed by a committee chosen by the Minister of Culture. I will be happy to support this rather than giving to those who bought private châteaux through tinted lenses. There already exists an organisation Dartagnans preserving heritage and they have several on going projects. As a Minister of Culture I would get in touch with them. For a certain sum you can adopt a Château and even become a knight. Gift boxes can be bought for someone as a present for Xmas for example. Imagine receding a gift saying you’re a co-owner of a château.

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Charlotte Fahy January 28, 2022 - 4:19 pm

So sad to hear of the decaying chateaux. I believe the government should do something to save these beautiful homes. Also, have lots of fund raisers continually to help with these projects. Look at the Highclere Castle where Downton Abbey is filmed. They give tours to gain monies to update.

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Joanne du Plessis August 20, 2021 - 12:46 pm

I wonder what the French Government does to assist the owners of these magnificent properties? Are they given tax rebates? Grants to carry out the big jobs like roof restoration?
We have the same problem here in the UK and I do not envy those tasked with their preservation especially now after Covid when public and private resources are so tight. We do need to do our level best though to preserve all these buildings in one way or another as it is a huge part of our culture and in France, the epitomy of the famous French aesthetic.

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Dominique couzens September 24, 2021 - 9:08 am

Ah if i was minister of culture I would sell at a low cost to the highest bidder who could demonstrate they had finances to replenish and repair the fabric of the building to a standard determined by my heritage staff who would have a set of best practices in place. I would also ensure any bureaucratic red tape would be streamlined and fast tracked to ensure a smooth process.

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Rob August 19, 2021 - 6:56 pm

‘Friends of…’ – where everyone contributes a small amount, on a regular basis.

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Marian - UK August 19, 2021 - 7:10 pm

Minister of Culture – Well, he or she would need to organise a visit to each chateau to assess it’s condition and historical value. Then a priority list would be drawn up of those that should be saved for the nation’s heritage, those that would benefit from being purchased by an entrepreneur with funds for restoration and those that are so far gone that no realistic revival is possible and they would become beautiful ruins. A Government fund would need to be established to fund those chateaux that were to be saved for the nation’s heritage and perhaps a French National Trust could be set up (if not already in existence) to save some of those with lower heritage value, but still with lots of history. I’m sure the NT in the UK would be a great source of information! A plea could be send around the world for anyone looking to buy and restore such a building maybe…… Well, there are my ideas. It would be such a shame to lose these beautiful buildings, but it will take the will of the government as well as innovative locals to begin saving them. Bon chance mes amis.

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Sherry August 19, 2021 - 7:25 pm

Goodness – such a problem.

As you say, they look enchanting but the reality is that saving and then maintaining these beautiful buildings is a major issue. Here in the UK, the NT have problems with funding some of their properties.

Community funding is such a wonderful idea but often villages are busy keeping clubs and village halls open and the thought of saving a chateau is simply daunting.

We have come across so many magical chateaux where the buildings seem to be sighing and waiting.

When they are restored, they are breathtaking to visit. Chantilly is one I remember fondly xx

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Lorrie Orr August 19, 2021 - 8:38 pm

It’s sad to think of any of these chateaux disappearing into rubble, but economics seems to dictate the future of these buildings. It would be difficult to choose which to save and which to abandon, but perhaps that’s the best solution. I love visiting these places when I come to Europe and Great Britain, and hope to visit once again when the world settles down.

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Gill Body August 19, 2021 - 9:57 pm

It is a romantic notion to live in a chateau but the reality is far from it. Think of the history, maybe going through the revolution and even perhaps living in the times of Louis x1v. Now in desperate need of restoration, so, so sad. France has managed to keep so many of it’s ancient buildings so there must be cooperation between government, public organisations and wealthy citizens. They are a national heritage.

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robert August 19, 2021 - 11:45 pm

This chateau properties would have to be rated based upon architectual and historic significance. Unfortunately, the highest ratings would be the priority and lesser ratings would be at the bottom
of the list. All the above suggestions are wonderful but there is a financial reality. The size of the chateau
has no bearing on its importance…..just architecture and historical significance.

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Michael October 30, 2021 - 11:18 pm

As an unemployed American, I don’t have too many funds to dip into but I am aware of the plight of Chantilly. I recently dipped into my savings after having a few reservations and became a member for $1,000. I just can’t bear to see collections disbursed or grand buildings fall into ruin so it felt like the right thing to do. France has been so good to me in the past and I primarily visit because of the chateaux. If I were the minister of culture, I would get the word out about so many fantastic chateaux needing funds. We all can do this together!!

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Pamela Joyce Wright August 20, 2021 - 12:17 am

I am lucky to be able to offer my stained glass restoration expertise a few times a year to an enterprising owner who also opens her Château in the Summer. People come from all over to assist in the restoration. Everyone wins.

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Rômulo lima September 17, 2021 - 8:24 pm

Just one word , wonderful…

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John August 20, 2021 - 12:28 am

Interesting article. I’ve been to the Chateau Chantilly – just north of Paris. It’s a fabulous national monument open to the public and not – I would have thought – in any danger of falling apart. But yes obviously lesser chateaux remain in peril and not all will be rescued in time. Meantime there are the people of Afghanistan etc and I guess People should always take priority over Palaces.

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Mickie August 20, 2021 - 12:47 am

The State could prioritise a group if chateau to preserve and establish a longer term marketing plan to showcase these as destination experiences. Others could be organised in groups to benefit from Crowd-Funding. Without a long term strategy and tactical plan for the properties including the ability to service property and other needs locally. Reinvigorate building and maintenance skills as local businesses; create farming and shopping for day-to-day sustenance of chateau will contribute to a renewed and strong local community.

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Maywyn August 20, 2021 - 1:11 am

Create a fund to save all, and more. Sell memberships, and give it creative events to raise funds.

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Roxane August 20, 2021 - 2:26 am

I would probably end up divorced.
xo

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Nancy Brantley August 20, 2021 - 3:03 am

Have all the wealthy siblings passed away? It’s sad to see property built long ago go to ruins. I always want to know why didn’t each owner keep property repaired before it gets too far ruined? If you can’t afford the upkeep then give to someone that can upkeep property. At least it wouldn’t go to ruins….

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Sabrina Brown August 20, 2021 - 3:09 am

How about thoughtfully and carefully creating apartments out of the chateaux that can be owned or rented inexpensively?It could bring a new standard of elegance to public housing and prospective home owners could get a good rate for taking care of the repairs and restoration themselves. It wouldn’t bring a lot of money in for the government but it would save the chateaux and who wouldn’t just love living in a portion of a chateau that was affordable? Just don’t sell them to commercial developers.

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Lyn JOHNSON August 20, 2021 - 1:12 pm

My thoughts too Sabrina.

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Lorna Hall August 20, 2021 - 4:13 am

I love all these ideas—but particularly the notion of a new form of government subsidized housing. I suspect that having the buildings occupied once again is the only reliable way to ensure continuing maintenance in the future. I am wondering whether this dreadful pandemic will have at least one silver lining for abandoned chateaux—the possibility of providing gainful employment through virtual work while living in areas that decades (or centuries past) could not provide a livelihood…Let’s see what happens..Perhaps a new movement to rescue these fabulous structures is already beginning to emerge?

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Lynn Taylor August 20, 2021 - 4:17 am

They must be saved! Creative fund raising, renting out for special occasions / films. Finding a group of benefactors per property who make annual donations. It would be tragic to lose these treasures.

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Bob Pfister August 20, 2021 - 4:54 am

I don’t know the legality of a lottery like a 50/50 but it might be worth a try. I’m guessing that maybe putting down $50 for a ticket to sell 20000 would provide some funds yearly to keep it going? Maybe a benefactor level of $250 each also gets you a nice meal and wine? We would definitely join that endeavor!

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Anita August 20, 2021 - 5:27 am

This is a chateau whose restoration I’ve been following that may be of interest to your readers:
https://chateaugudanes.com/
It is a Class I Historic Monument. It’s also a labor of love and the first years were especially challenging. Their story is fascinating to read.
In addition to an online shop, they offer overnight stays and the ability to host weddings and other events.

I agree with many of the other comments. Maybe castles, chateaus and the like are a dime-a-dozen in Europe. But not here in the US, so it is a romantic fantasy to want to save them. And, as romantic as the idea is of living and restoring a chateau, it takes a tremendous commitment of time, money, resources.

To answer the questions – if I was the Ministry of Culture, I would try to save as many as possible. Get the public involved. History students, art students, architecture, concerts in historic places, etc., etc. Also, sell to highest bidders. They don’t all have to be public spaces. A mix of everything suggested above.

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Lisa Smith August 20, 2021 - 7:17 am

I literally ache, and my eyes well up with tears, at the thought of these incredible chateaux falling into such desperate disrepair. I can think of so many things, depending on the area in which they are located; the history attached to the building; the time of year; musical events, wine tasting events, localized craft fairs…on and on, it all would have a price of admission on to the grounds, with a portion of the admission going to the ” Restore the xyz Chateau”. It would have to be overlooked by a board of Directors, at least one person from each region represented, a secretary a treasurer, and an executive officer who runs the day to day business. Reports would need to be filed regarding expenditures, and progress, along with individual budgets for the projects. It can be done. Further down the road, events can include, depending on the project, a weekend stay at the chateau, or buying a share of the chateau, purchasing bricks to rebuild walls,etc. Fundraising dinners prepared by some of France’s best chefs! The opportunities ore endless. And yes…students of history and architecture could be of enormous help. And also horticulture, too! If only I were there… I would love to think tank with folks eager to save these treasures!! Best of luck…

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Tiloup August 20, 2021 - 10:40 am

Taking care of prestigious castles (Chantilly, Versailles, Fontainebleau, Chambord etc etc) is needed but there are numerous private castles or manors in France. Some are exceptional (Vaux le Vicomte, Cheverny for instance) and many many many others are more modest but of real interest. Being a french owner of a modest manor, I DO NOT WANT any public support or help. I just want they are stopping the increasing and increasing taxes … But politicians do not care and I am a dreamer!

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Rita Prangle August 20, 2021 - 1:24 pm

So many great ideas! I would try them all, determine a few that work best, and then run with those! I think that there is a huge potential in the USA for marketing products and services.

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Catherine McCartney August 20, 2021 - 4:14 pm

General Tax and Inheritance tax, these could be modernised for sure to support those who want to save these treasures.

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Mary August 21, 2021 - 12:20 am

Perhaps some could house colleges or universities?? – houses of fashion, where beautiful clothing could actually be manufactured ?? wineries?? and house the workers in apartments??

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Marla Patterson August 21, 2021 - 2:38 am

Sharon this is a very interesting article. It would be interesting information to have to find out what kind of money it would take to restore one of those Château’s. I understand in Italy they will actually give one a Villa if you can prove you have the funds to restore it! I am not sure if that is accurate information but I thought it was interesting. Anyway some kind of dollar estimate would be the beginning of finding out how to take care of these places. Thank you for your blog sure and I always enjoy it.

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Patricia Burditt August 22, 2021 - 4:09 am

Sharon, I belonged to the French Heritage Society when I lived in Atlanta, GA. May I suggest you contact the French Chapter to inquiry about their work and help this Chateau apply for a grant to assistance? I am sure there are similar organizations in Europe that cherish these wonderful historical treasures.

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June August 24, 2021 - 7:25 pm

Just as a temporary solution during these COVID times, maybe the French Government could select some and update these chateaus to provide temporary housing for the homeless and refugees.

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Patricia Hawkes August 31, 2021 - 9:07 am

There may be a few sad tales about abandoned Châteaux in France these days, but there are many more happy stories about Châteaux sold to a wide spectrum of French and international buyers with remarkable restoration projects in hand.
In the last 45 years that PHILIP HAWKES has been selling these beautiful homes, the market has improved substantially and even today we have dozens of requests for information on properties for sale in our portfolio each week. Australian purchasers were the most active until Covid curtailed travel but many, particularly those ‘Classé Monument Historique’ have found enthusiastic French buyers too as anyone paying French Taxes has fiscal advantages both for restoration projects and for general maintenance.
Buying a Château is not too expensive when one realizes what the original construction costs might have been, but it’s true that yearly running costs can be onerous. There are comparatively few of these ‘Demeures Historiques’ lived in full time by their French families, but the international purchaser often lives there ‘en résidence principale’ and makes the property financially viable through extraordinarily hard work !
There are some – many – wonderful examples of the contemporary ‘Vie de Château’ on Instagram – search ‘Chateau de’ and thousands of heartwarming stories appear …
At least the French never intentionally pulled down their ‘Stately Homes’ as the English did in the first half of the 20th century ! A few Châteaux may have been allowed to fall into disrepair but in our opinion these historic houses have, for the time being at least, the perspective of a rosy future.
Thank you Sharon for bringing up this subject… I hope this perspective on the situation gives you hope ? !

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david terry September 2, 2021 - 3:43 pm

Dear Ms. Hawkes,

Oddly enough, scrolling through these comments?….. I know who you are.

You and your husband are featured in one of those large, lovely books on France I have at my house. I don’t happen to be there right now, or I wouldn’t be in this morning’s dilemma. I recall your being quoted, in regard to your having sold your first chateau (was it in Normandy?) in order to move to another in Burgundy. One of them is/was named “Yvil”. You amusingly noted that you and your husband had left _____ for Yvil (which, of course, sounds like “Evil” if pronounced correctly. What was the name of the other chateau???? This is going to bug me all day long. It was a very funny remark, and now my aging brain can’t recall it, I hope you can help…. Sincerely, David Terry. Charlottesville, Virginia

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Lorri September 9, 2021 - 12:49 am

These grand houses were once lived in by one family who usually entertained on a grand scale with an army of servants and groundskeepers. I think many people assume that one family would live in them today, as long as they could afford it. Obviously there are not enough people with that kind of money who want to do so.

I’d like to see several families come together to buy one of these houses and all live in it together. They’re like small hotels in size, so multi-family or multi-tenant would work. I’m surprised it isn’t already happening.

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Janey September 19, 2021 - 1:23 am

Do you not have the English equivalent of their National Trust?

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Simone October 4, 2021 - 8:25 pm

What a beautiful chateau! So, I too am contemplating how to become maximum self-sufficient while praying for wisdom! and also realizing that a community of nice, hardworking people with , yes, a good work ethic and some respect for other’s comfort, heath and safety could be of great help to you. This no government can guarantee but we but give it to ourselves first. So, I would 1st study your BAZI chart according to the Chinese Feng Shui Calendar to see if you are supposed to actually reside in the Chateau or live in a healthier square or rectangular house that you live in and reside , to be able to manage your inheritance. According to Feng Shui The shape of the Chateau and the front door matter a lot! If the shape is shaped like the letter ” L” or “U” …. it is bad luck for whoever resides as the letter L shape is called a Cleaver shaped house = Bad Luck and the U shaped how also attracts bad luck like a Dust Pan that you sweep into from the floor. So, According to Feng Shui every building, home or store or government building has an invisible 9 Square grid on each floor structure like the Tic Tac Toe # game. So every Chinese New Year there is a different Animal – and different squares on the # grid which are either Good Luck or Very Bad Luck !!! So, I would plan a 12 year rotational plan to only renovate the particular rooms best able to tolerate the Repairs and ONLY dwell in the Good luck Quarters of the 9-Square grid and keep the Bad Luck rooms very quiet and UNdisturbed !!! according to the specific Chinese new year. This way, If you maximize the Good Luck rooms Each year by keeping them Correctly decorated and No dangerous objects on display – You may be quite Happy to leave the Chateau in better condition for future generations to enjoy. Outside you must think like the Amish Here in the USA, No Churches No Chapels, no Houses of worship in sight on your grounds…. but of course do pray, pray, pray for wisdom and guidance! Churches and Cemeteries are very bad luck and should be hidden from sight. I would own goats and sheep to keep the grass cut. Have a wonderful Garden to supply you with more than enough food and give 1/10 or more to the poor nearest to your location. And if you have an expert do the math and run the Feng Shui Birthdate and BAZI numbers for which generation, person or groups of people- could safely live or work out of each room during “given Chinese New Years”…. and yes, keep Unsafe ” Dangerous rooms sealed and quiet- then see what artists or crafts people could actually produce shoes , boots and clothing to sell online or in local town. Basically, Carefully become profitable. If you read the book of Blessings and yes, Curses in Deuteronomy 28, 29, 30 etc, and the book of Job, Proverbs and Ecclesaties all these wise sayings are there it keep our heads straight. Do you best to understand them from a profitable stand point.

Feng Shui can be very complicated so best to stick to the basics and do your best to learn how to avoid using 4/9 or 5/9 rooms on every floor Each year ,depending on the location of the rooms. . So Leaving 40-50 % of Chateau quiet and undisturbed on a rotational basis each year can make the long term plan more manageable.

I would invest in sheep and goats to eat the grass and to provide wool and milk and if you have a fabulous garden be sure to donate 10% of the produce to the poor near you. Make the oustide and the inside profitable. Read last Chapter of Proverbs. And study how the Amish here in USA do not need the US Government. I wish you God’s wisdom as to how to make this inheritance profitable. it is a humbling task.

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Barbara Bass February 11, 2022 - 7:09 am

The chateaus are incredible examples of craftsmanship, architecture, creativity and beauty. For these reasons, their preservation and sharing with the community are important. On the other hand, I can’t help but think about the new rich who built these grand, excessive and extravagant structures in the 1800s or earlier, on the backs of the laborers, and what these laborers were paid/not paid for their back-breaking work. That extravagance of chateaus is a turnoff for me personally, but I recognize that they are important history nonetheless, and efforts should be made to preserve these historic buildings. The more these chateaus can be shared with the public, the better. Most modern owners of these chateaus are struggling to keep them running, let alone make a profit, so cheers to you for your efforts to preserve and share these historic chateaus.

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Dot Berube Blevins June 17, 2022 - 9:40 pm

It is the responsibility of the French citizens to take care of their heritige. a small tax on everyone of voting age. Then, if other world citizen could get a tax write-off if they donated an other plus. I am part french, so this is important to me, and I hope the rest of the world also.

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