The French Chateau: Myth and Reality

One of the fascinating aspects of life here in France is the mystique of life on a French chateau. The phrase conjures up visions of verdant landscapes, towering stone turrets, the portraits of ancestors lining wood-paneled corridors, sipping a glass of champagne near a huge, roaring fireplace. A life of privacy, privilege, and ease.

That’s the myth. Then there’s the reality.

Today, it’s much more likely that owners of the approximately 40,000 chateaux in the country are hard at work. Whether they’re still owned by the same aristocratic families or recently purchased, restored, and converted to bed-and-breakfast establishments by adventurous Brits or Americans, chateau life is still about a country elegance…and paying the bills.

Many are now luxury affairs, hosting overnight tourists, corporate conventions, lavish weddings, gourmet food and wine tastings, and extravagant getaways for groups of friends and families.

Others remain private, grinding out a modest living from the crops or livestock (and maybe wine) from their lands. In larger operations, it’s not uncommon to find fruit preserves or wine, harvested and processed on site, for sale, the chateau’s name and logo prominently displayed on the label. Sweaters, too, may have been knitted ‘in house’ as it were, from the wool of sheep that graze in the adjacent pasture.

With enough historical significance, some privately-owned chateaux even welcome visitors with guided tours of the buildings and grounds. The enterprise makes ends meet with modest admission fees, books and brochures, and souvenirs on offer.

The revenues hardly go into the owners’ pockets before there’s a leaky roof to repair, a crumbling garden wall to prop up, or ancient plumbing to upgrade. Staff are often a part of the monthly overhead as it’s not uncommon to have 10,000 square feet of living space in the main house alone, and those rolling hills of green, green grass aren’t going to cut themselves.

The French government is keen to preserve these cultural monuments, but many are still left abandoned and fall into disrepair and ruin.

Still, the mystique of chateau life is alive and well. There’s a heady mix of relaxed country living and sumptuous elegance engrained in the romantic ideal…and even the reality.

Stephanie, chatelaine at the Chateau de Lalande, is a sterling example of how to marry authentic French heritage to modern-day capitalism. Without spoiling too much of the fun, let me just explain that about 15 years ago, Stephanie and a couple of friends purchased the chateau and its acreage from an aging baron. His family had lived there for centuries, but it was time to go.

As he and his family departed, her adventures began. And I’ll leave it at that.

You can watch The Chateau Diaries videos on YouTube at your leisure, or browse her website (which also features videos) at https://thechateaudiaries.com .

If you can, try to watch the videos in order. This offers a real glimpse into the state of affairs Stephanie inherited when she purchased the chateau and makes her progress and success even more remarkable.

Her insights into the realities and joys of chateau life are entertaining and informative. What I’ve learned from watching a few of these videos–and from speaking with friends who own chateaux–is that it is truly a way of life.

This way of life fascinates me because I don’t see that it’s changed all that much over the centuries, aside from the recent innovation of welcoming paying guests within the chateau walls.

One still has to marshal the resources at hand to generate an income and make a life, usually with the cooperation and teamwork of people from all different walks of life. While the privileges may certainly be there, so are the responsibilities.

As it should be.

  • BGT

 

 


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