The first time Donna Critcher clapped eyes on Château Saint Michel, she knew she had to have it. Two years on, she has turned this old wreck into a thriving events venue…

 

FRENCHENTRÉE MAGAZINE: What brought you to France?

DONNA CRITCHER: It was the property. I’m from London, sunny Walthamstow to be precise, and I was looking for a new challenge. Having worked in management consultancy and teaching for several years, I was searching for something different. My friend and business partner Alex is a property developer and we decided to look for a place to renovate together in Europe. We shortlisted a few properties in Italy and France. On the last viewing  weekend,our eagle-eyed property finder Nadia Jordan added the château at the eleventh hour. I was absolutely blown away. Alex wouldn’t let me out of the car until I had calmed down as, apparently, I was giving the game away!

 

FE: What was it about Château Saint Michel that pulled at your heartstrings?

DC: For starters, the setting is stunning – it’s on the outskirts of Saint-Lizier an hour south of Toulouse in the foothills of the Pyrénées. It’s a genuine year-round destination with skiing and snowboarding in winter, and cycling, hiking, kayaking and horse-riding the rest of the year. The area has a rich history; the beautiful village of Saint-Lizier is a UNESCO World Heritage site on the pilgrims’ route to Santiago de Compostela. The château itself sits at the end of a long wooded drive and I can still remember my first glimpse of it through the trees as we rounded the last corner. My mouth dropped open. My decision was made before I had even looked inside!

 

FE: What state was the property in?

DC: It was built towards the end of the 19th century by a local entrepreneur and had stayed in the family for nearly two centuries, until it was sold in 2015, and then to us in January 2016. It was in good shape structurally, but the electrics and plumbing needed a complete overhaul. The interior was more than a little tired. Our approach was to strip everything back to neutral, and let the space ‘talk’ to us.

 

FE: What was your inspiration for the interior style?

DC: Actually Alex had experience designing from his property development projects. When we took possession of the place, it was beautiful. There were so many gorgeous original features. Even the wallpaper and fabrics were lovely, but when you got up close, they were damp and old and it dawned on us that the best thing to do would be to strip everything back to the original features and white backgrounds. Doing this has brought the place completely back to life. The 12 en-suite bedrooms are now light, spacious and airy. The minute you walk into the rooms, you’re drawn straight to the windows and views of the beautiful grounds and woodland. The attic has been converted into a spectacular one-bedroom apartment – it is one of my favourite corners of the property. I love how its bright-and-airy feel always surprises visitors. The château is now an exclusive-use venue. Available for rental as a whole unit, it offers privacy from the outside world, making it a perfect place for weddings, retreats, and very special luxury holidays. On the ground floor, there are three exquisite lounges that can be used for reading, playing games or watching TV. We fully equip the kitchen, pantry and butler’s room with everything guests need if they prefer to cook for themselves.

The antique wood-panelled dining room leads out onto the beautiful terrace, large pool and decking area, where there are various spaces to lounge, eat, and enjoy this historic environment while feeling completely at home.

 

FE: Now for the painful bit, what about the budget?

DC: Oh my God, the whole budget was blown away so long ago! It’s nothing but a vague memory now. Seriously speaking though, it’s just the nature of these things. Until you’re really in the property and you start to peel things away, you really don’t know.

 

FE: What would you say to someone who is thinking of relocating to France?

DC: Do it! Make sure you speak at least basic French and you’re equipped with infinite patience with anything bureaucratic. Actually, with anything at all. Just make sure you can pick your battles…

FE: With what you know now, is there anything you would have done differently?

DC: I’d have counted the bathrooms! There were two toilets in the entire property. Luckily Alex’s experience came into play and he made sure that every bedroom now has a bathroom. It’s amazing what he’s done blending in the plumbing and fixtures without any visual disruption at all, including three massive fosse septiques (septic tanks) that we had to install.

FE: What is your favourite aspect of the whole adventure?

DC: Every time someone visits the château and falls in love with it the same way I did. It makes everything worthwhile.

 

ARIÈGE

A rugged and beautiful land of mountains, forests, and fast-flowing rivers, the Ariège département sits in the foothills of the Pyrénées so whether you like to ski, hike, fish – or simply enjoy the good life – this region could be for you. The Cathars left their mark here, as did many others – there’s a rich history to soak up. Local specialities to sample include cured ham, fruit-filled croustade and wines from Minervois, Fronton and Gaillac.

 

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