A couple who swapped an ordinary house near Paris for a chateau in west France that dates from 1100 say the historic home offers a slice of paradise.
Dutch couple Paul and Sandra Las van Bennekom moved to France in 2005 after Paul, 53, was offered a job working as a general manager for Disney.
Sandra, 47, said: “We lived in an ordinary house in a village close to Disneyland with all the basic facilities around us.”
Their children Zoe, now 19, Sam, 18, Robin, 17, and Merlijn, 14, were just small babies at the time, and “it was great to raise them so close to an amazing theme park”.
The couple stayed until spring 2019, when they decided to call time on Paul’s career and let Sandra live out her dream of owning an extra-ordinary building from which to run a gîte and chambres d’hôtes instead.
Love at first sight
They drove through France from north to south looking at properties, but failed to find anything that fitted what they were looking for.
Then, in June 2019 they received a life-changing phone call: “An estate agent said he had a chateau on the market and asked if we were interested.
“We looked at each other. We’d never considered a castle!”
Paul and Sandra made an appointment to view the property – Château de la Preuille, in Saint Hilaire de Loulay, Vendée – the next day, and it was love at first sight.
“We were just walking through the gardens... we didn’t even enter the chateau. We looked at each other and that was it,” says Sandra.
Only cosmetic work needed
The chateau is one of the oldest in the Loire Valley – a feudal residence that took its present form in the 13th and 15th centuries.
Château de la Preuille has a fascinating past. It was here that Marie-Caroline de Bourbon, Duchess of Berry, launched her attempted coup in 1832 against Louis Philippe of Orléans to have her son Henri crowned, the last legitimate Bourbon.
Despite its age, the chateau was in fairly good condition, having been fully renovated by a German engineer who lived in it for several decades.
“It had double glazing, the electrics were good, the groundwork was in good condition,” says Sandra. “It was just the décor that was dated.”
Finding a chateau where the only work needed was cosmetic was a real boon, especially as Paul and Sandra wanted to put their unique stamp on the building’s interior.
“We wanted to make it truly our own – a creative castle, not somewhere where you are not allowed to touch anything,” says Sandra.
“We wanted it to be a place where kids can fool around, chase each other, play endless hide-and-seek.”
Covid lockdown gave time to plan
The purchase was completed in November 2019, shortly before the Covid-19 lockdown, but the pair remain positive about the setback.
“Confinement gave us time to prepare everything,” says Sandra. “We wanted the gîte and chambres d’hôtes to be fully operational when we opened, and a place to host weddings.”
The chateau finally opened to holidaymakers in June 2020 and was first used as a wedding venue last May.
It now boasts four large guest rooms in one of the wings, costing from €145 a night, and a gîte catering for four adults and two children, with a large heated pool. The chateau also has ‘Le Donjon’ – a single tower left from demolition 100 years ago.
“Early last century, the chateau was twice as large and they demolished half of it,” says Sandra. “Only three towers remained, and one is standing independently of the building, overlooking the moat.
“Last winter, we renovated it with a golden interior – we use it as a bridal suite for weddings or independent stays.”
Naturally, living in and caring for such a historic home has its challenges, and Sandra admits there are both good and bad surprises.
“My motto is: ‘It’s not perfect, but it’s paradise!’
From time to time, you have problems, such as electricity shorts, but we wake to beautiful sunrises and overlook a moat and a vineyard.
The area is known for its wonderful skies and special light. It really is amazing.”
As for the 80,000m² of land that came with the chateau, the couple rent some space to horse-owners to help keep the grass short.
“We have also got a million rabbits, some ducks and a beautiful owl – straight out of Harry Potter – living in the roof.
“We see squirrels and own three cats, so there is a lot of life here.”
The children seem to have given a thumbs up to their new life too.
“It took them some time to adjust,” admits Sandra, “but they have since said life here is much more enjoyable than in the city.”