Retiring to the sunshine is a popular daydream and one which has gained a lot of traction in recent years with the airing of the hugely popular Channel 4 documentary series, Escape to the Chateau.
The addictive show follows the story of Dick Strawbridge and Angel Adoree who bought 19th-century Château de la Motte-Husson in Martigné-sur-Mayenne, France, and have captivated viewers with their account of restoring the property and settling into their French idyll.
The prospect of long hot summers, being on the doorstep of Europe and of course the abundance of fabulous food and wine has enticed many Irish people to France over the years (recent figures show up to 24,000 of us are living there). Willo Renehan, an accountant from Kilkenny and Mandy Murphy, a business coach from Meath are no different as last year they bought a six-bedroom house in the Loire wine region.
“We had watched the Escape to the Chateau and to be honest, it made the whole idea of buying in France seem doable for us,” says Mandy. “We spent many holidays exploring different wine regions and fell in love with the Loire, for its beautiful valleys and castles (chateaux) and the food and wine. So we decided a couple of years ago we wanted somewhere to base ourselves.
“And size was important as we were keen to buy somewhere that we could entertain with our friends and turn into a business for events and experiences.”
So in December 2018, the couple bought Maison Bourgeoise in the historic town of Saumur. Built in 1850, the house is approximately 400sq m (4,305sq ft) with high ceilings and period features. It had been vacant for many years and needed a lot of work, but Mandy says it has been worth the effort.
“There is a great sense of achievement when renovating,” she says. “And reminding ourselves that we are bringing life back to a big old property is the perspective we hold onto, even more so when historically it was a house of such grandeur and has the potential to be this again. But renovating an old house is hard work and the TV series only scratches the surface of the amount involved – it can be all-consuming and challenging, particularly if you still have a day job to keep money coming in.
“There are also additional complications when renovating in France – the regulations are different and there is quite a bit of paperwork and process involved – even the measurements of pipes and wiring is very different to home. And then couple this with learning the language, particularly for technical terminology when it comes to regulations, plumbing and electrics and working with local tradesmen.
“The other surprising challenge we had is French websites which are tricky to use so we’ve learned to go back to the old-fashioned way of picking up the phone and speaking to people. But this is all balanced with plenty of rewards of new experiences, connections with local people and seeing our vision for the house come to life. We’ve enjoyed the renovation journey so far, researching how we can stay true to its period roots and bringing it back to life. We’re even discovering new hobbies and learning new skills such as upholstery and rewiring of chandeliers.”
Éanna Hassett from Maynooth, Co Kildare, also lives in the Loire Valley. As the director of operations in Chateau du Coudreceau, a private chateau and Golf Resort, he both lives and works on the estate.
“I moved to France in September 2018 and feel very lucky as the role here was a hugely exciting prospect and enables me to do what I love most in luxury hospitality,” he says. “It is such a beautiful country – rich in history, diversity and there are so many places to explore. I am also very lucky to live in Chateau de la Chesnaye which although it is a chateau, is smaller than it looks and is a very homely house – not grand by any means. But it is beautiful with parquet floors, original beams and a Louis XIV fireplace which sadly is not in use anymore. It is on three or four acres with some trees which are two centuries old.
“Built in 1776, it is located very close to where I work and I’m very fortunate as I would not want to be taking on a chateau to refurbish as the hidden costs can be enormous so it’s something to really research if you are undertaking a project like this. And I know from my parents, who have had a property here for about 20 years that the most important thing with buying anywhere is to research and always talk to people who have already completed a purchase or renovation so that you don’t get caught with any hidden costs.”
Having lived in many different countries, Éanna had no trouble settling into his new home in France and says the only downside is the national tendency towards industrial strikes.
“I found it very easy to adapt to the culture and in my locality the people are really lovely, for example when you pop into the local bar in the village for a glass of wine everyone shakes hands, which is a lovely gesture,” he says. “I find that it’s so important to take an interest in the history of the country and the French really appreciate when you do.
“My base expectations on everyday quality, ingredients, experiences and craftsmanship have risen since living in France. I go food shopping and pop to the bakery daily for the freshest of bread straight from the oven rather than filling up on one or two larger shops as I find that everyone lives in the present and thoroughly enjoys life rather than getting caught up in the future.
“I adore it here but the only [negative] thing is that they do love a good protest so sometimes your plans can be scuppered if trains are cancelled.”
Mandy also loves France and would advise anyone who is thinking of it, to “just do it” but to remember that it’s important to adapt to their way of working.
“It is a wonderful place and really does feel like home from home,” she says. “But it’s important to manage your expectations as French tradesmen and workers have very different attitudes to work and the two-hour lunch break is a reality which everyone abides by. There is no point fighting against it so you might as well go with it. We still haven’t managed to take such long lunch breaks ourselves, but we respect this is their way and manage time with tradesmen around this.”
So if you fancy escaping to a chateau of your own, the message seems to be: do your research, adapt to local customs and enjoy the food and wine.
A chateau of your own: four on the market
2 This impressive large five-bedroom art nouveau Maison de Maitre in the Aquitaine region. Dating from 1901 with numerous period features such as decorative tiling, ornated doors and staircase nad fine fireplaces. Over 300sq m (3,230sq ft) of living space in total, standing on almost 4.8 hectares (12 acres) of land. It costs €589,000.
3 This vast six-bedroom house in the Limousin region is being sold with all its furnishings including four poster beds, art and chandeliers and kitchen equipment. It has grounds of just over 2.2 hectares (5.5 acres), a pool and numerous outbuildings for €745,000.
4 This large six-bedroom property of over 400sq m (4,305sq ft) stands on just over 4.8 hectares (12 acres) in the Haute-Garonne. It’s been renovated in a contemporary style and is ready to move into. The asking price is €449,000.