When Erin Choa and Jean-Baptiste Gois clapped eyes on the Château de Bourneau, it was love at first sight. Sylvia Edwards Davis takes a tour of the romantic folly that stole the châtelains’ hearts.
FRENCHENTRÉE MAGAZINE: What attracted you to France?
ERIN CHOA: Jean-Baptiste came over to the UK for what was supposed to be just one year as a student, but we met and one year became nine. He always dreamed of returning to France. I am a huge Francophile, love the culture and the language. So we were planning our next stage and where to buy our family home and soon realised that in France we could afford a much bigger property and our dream lifestyle.
Initially, our idea was to purchase a historical property requiring renovation that would be our family home but also with the potential of supplementing our revenue by creating holiday lets, should my French not be good enough yet to work as a doctor in France. We started looking at manoirs. Then our ideas evolved to a property capable of supporting us full-time, and grew into something bigger: creating an events venue to serve the local community as well as attracting an international market to host weddings and private events.
FE: How did you find Château de Bourneau?
EC: We started a year ago and looked at hundreds of properties online, then fine tuned these down to a shortlist of ten, but none were right for us. We were feeling a bit disheartened. Then, my father sent me a link to a property that looked too good to be true, but as we were only 45 minutes away, we decided to make the detour just in case and I am so glad we did! It was a complete coup de foudre (love at first sight) for us! We reached the top of the village and there was this ‘wow’ moment which we hadn’t really had with any of the other properties. It seemed to us a château more in keeping with the grand Renaissance edifices of the central Loire Valley than this tranquil corner of Vendée. In fact, its architecture is unique to the region. Although there has been a château on this site for over 500 years, the building you see today is actually a 19th-century folly, built in 1863. Edmond Möller commissioned architect Arsène Charrier to create a Renaissance-style palace suitable for a 19th-century gentleman of means, and Charrier took inspiration from the magnificent châteaux of the Loire. So we have the best of both worlds – an homage to the Renaissance but with the advantages of Victorian plumbing. We saw the château at the end of February, signed the compromis de vente in April, but it was only at the end of July that we actually got the keys. It is surrounded by a moat and set in a park and woodland of 16 hectares. There’s about 50 rooms including 30 bedrooms, if you count the tiny servants’ quarters in the attic. There are four large holiday cottages that were the outbuildings and stables, each with a private swimming pool and garden. They sleep between eight and 12 people, so that’s 42 people in total when we are full.
FE: Did you stick to your original budget?
EC: We were quite firm. It is easy to get carried away with the romance, especially when you realise that for the price of a London one-bedroom flat, you can buy a 20-bedroom château with land. But it can be a false economy because some of the châteaux on the market require several million euros before they are even liveable, not to mention the annual running costs, taxes and insurance. What initially seems like a bargain can easily turn into a money pit. Although we were willing to put in the restoration work, there are limits to our skills and finances so we had to increase the budget. We wanted to generate an income immediately, so it was very important for the property to have holiday lets and the right location in a touristy area with easy access.
FE: Did you tackle the restoration straightaway?
EC: Restoration work is already underway, and we are fizzing with ideas, but it is still perfect in its imperfection. We love DIY and getting stuck in, so we have been doing all of the renovation work ourselves so far: painting the bridge over the moat to the original white, restoring the marble staircase, putting back boiseries in the honeymoon suite, and restoring the solarium. The interior is more Napoleon III and we love the period detail: the gorgeous Victorian tiles, the ceiling roses, marble fireplaces and cornicing in the downstairs salons.
In some rooms we have a strong idea of the look we want to achieve – period appropriate and sumptuous. We’ve been pinning ideas from Pinterest, but our biggest help and inspiration has been our talented interior designer and friend Joanna Draper, who completely understands our vision and has been incredibly helpful on how to best approach such an enormous task. Our ability to continue to restore the château will depend on the income from our holiday lets and events. The château has such a lovely and warm atmosphere already, it feels right out of a fairy tale. We love hosting weddings here. It’s a real privilege to be guardians of this beautiful piece of French history for this generation and to be a part of its story.
FE: What’s your favourite corner?
EC: Probably the turret room off our bedroom. It’s the perfect secret reading nook to curl up with a good book and peer out through the stained-glass windows over the rose garden.
FE: What would you say to someone looking to buy a property in France?
EC: If you do not speak French, engage the services of someone who can help you navigate the complexity of the system. The whole process was long and seemed unnecessarily drawn-out. My brother managed to buy a property in the UK within two weeks. It took us five months and we are still not entirely sure why.
FE: What was the most nerve-racking part of the process?
EC: A few days before the completion date we were suddenly told that there might be a delay for the transfer of funds due to some new form that no one expected. Luckily, everything worked out fine.
FE:What has been the highlight so far?
EC: The best day was opening the château up to the public for Heritage Days. It was such a pleasure seeing the enjoyment the château brings to other people. It was a lovely moment for us.
We Say… “Buying a château in need of renovation is a huge financial commitment, so be realistic about your budget and how much work you’re willing to put in yourself.”
Part of the Pays de la Loire region, the coastal département of Vendée is notable for its long stretches of white sandy beaches bordered by swathes of pine forests, world-renowned salt marshes and picturesque seaside towns. The area boasts some of the fi nest seafood in the country too. Around a third of all mussels farmed in France are produced in the Baie de l’Aiguillon.
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