IF YOU want to enjoy the luxury of staying in one of the three Bordeaux chateaux owned by wine mogul Bernard Magrez, then you have two choices: get to know him really well and wangle an invitation, or sign up for one of his bespoke chateau holidays.
His "luxury wine tourism" packages include wine tastings and tours of his vineyards – he was named French wine producer of the year in 2009 – plus a chance to stay in one of his chateaux. The basic package, with a day and a night spent staying at Chateau Pape-Clément, including a five-course evening meal and luxury picnic lunch in the grounds, comes in at €990 per person.
If you include a tour by helicopter or a chauffeur-driven Rolls-Royce, expect to pay anything up to €5,500 for a two-day break.
While no doubt providing an unforgettably luxurious experience, breaks like these are, frankly, beyond the reach of most of us. Of course, there are cheaper options for those hankering after a fairytale chateau break; France is littered with chateaux that have been turned into hotels, charging anywhere from €180 to €450 per night.
Meanwhile, many chateaux still in the possession of aristocratic families or owned by wine producers offer bed and breakfast. Expect to pay around €120 a night per person. But what if the credit crunch has squeezed your budget? Is there a way to enjoy a chateau on a tight budget; or will those dreams of waking up in castle luxury have to be put on hold?
Well, if you are prepared to work a little, there are ways of staying in luxurious surroundings for little or no money, and you may even learn new skills along the way.
For many people, buying and restoring a French chateau is a dream come true; afterwards comes the reality. The costs of employing people to do the work can often exceed the not inconsiderable cost of buying the property.
This has, however, opened up some interesting opportunities. An increasing number of websites have sprung up that pair cash-strapped tourists with cash-strapped property owners who need help completing building projects.
One such site is Workaway.info, which was set up by British-born David Burton. Fifteen years ago, he managed to extend his holiday in Hawaii from a week to two months by helping out at a local hostel.
Now his website links people around the globe in search of working holidays with people in need of help. The premise is simple: you provide some labour in exchange for board and lodging.
Among the chateau-related projects currently appearing online are a couple with a 15th-century chateau in the Limousin who need help with looking after animals on their estate, gardening and general house maintenance.
In exchange for five hours' work a day (excluding weekends), all meals are provided, as well as accommodation in the renovated chateau.
Meanwhile, in the Pyrénées, French-born Dalila and her British husband, Pete, are looking for people to help renovate their outbuildings and build stone walls. Once again, accommodation in en-suite rooms in their fully renovated castle is free, as are meals, although offering to lend a hand with the washing up would not go amiss.
Opportunities to learn new skills combined with staying in chateau surroundings are on offer at the Eco-Chateau project in the Corrèze. Volunteers pay around €22 a day, plus a contribution towards food, to stay in the 17th-century Chateau de Cautine and spend about three hours a day working at the site. Projects have included creating a vegetable garden, building a straw bale house and installing a pump to make use of the chateau's well.
If the idea of working set hours every day doesn't grab you, then you could try chateau sitting. Liz and Kit Thompson have been doing just that for more than five years.
Kit said: "I was in the television business and my wife was an education inspector. We had early retirement forced on us and decided to sell our house in Oxford and buy two flats; one in Oxford and one in Spain."
When they headed for Spain, a series of delays in the building of their flat meant they ended up temporarily homeless. "We needed somewhere to live for a while and found an advert in Prospect magazine asking for people to house-sit a chateau in the Charente," Kit said.
"We replied and had an interview in London, then went to visit the couple at their chateau. They invited some of their friends round to meet us. We all got along and that was how we got started."
Liz and Kit spend six months every year looking after Chateau Brossardière as the owners are non-EU citizens who are tax residents in New Zealand.
The couple say they can't imagine going back to living in one place. "We do have a flat in Oxford, but house-sitting gives us a chance to live in a style we otherwise couldn't afford. The rooms here are enormous and the views are stunning.
"The chateau looks out over the river Charente."
What is more, except in the summer, when they help guests staying in the chateau's two gîtes, they do not have a lot to do.
Kit said: "The chateau has a gardener and a cleaner. We simply keep an eye on the property. If small things need fixing, then I'll do them, otherwise we call someone in.
"We don't look at it as work; the owners don't pay us (although they do pay the utility bills and house insurance). We pick up the tab for little things like light bulbs."
Are there any downsides? Kit said: "It can get pretty cold in the chateau sometimes, even with the large diesel stoves running.
"Also, it is desirable to speak pretty good French.
"Otherwise, house-sitting is a very satisfactory way of life."
Where to find your chateau
If you want to find out more about staying in a chateau on a limited budget, you can get more information from the following websites:
Work in exchange for accommodation:
Help at the Eco-Chateau:
A quick check on the housecarers.com website gave a list of homes where owners are looking for house-sitters; however, some owners prefer not to go public on a list and use the site forum to advertise.
On most sites, you have to register or become a member to make full use of the site and to get details.
For example, Housecarers is a one-off $50 payment; Helpx.net is €20 for two years, Workaway €20 for two years.