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.
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.
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!