Chateau de Freyssinet

A Dutch family moved to their ascetic castle near Limoges in France to fulfil their long-time dream!
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John, Ben and Eloise, the owners of Chateau de Freyssinet
A family from the Netherlands - John, Eloise and Ben - have relocated from Rotterdam to their beautiful and calm Chateau de Freyssinet located in the picturesque French countryside near Limoges. They have always wanted to own a proper chateau, especially after John's parent bought one for themselves in France. They are happy their dream has come true. The family now live on the ground and the first floors of their castle, restore four outbuildings, which they will rent out as holiday homes in the French countryside and plan a large-scale restoration of the chateau in the future. So far they've discovered precious artifacts of the past like pre-revolutionary coins, a medieval arrow slit and a local newspaper dated 1906. Their family is yet another example of expats choosing to reside and launch their dream business in France.


Castles and Palaces (CnP): Tell me about your family, what's your background?
Eloise Bruinink (E.B.): We are John, Eloise and Benjamin. When I was younger I worked in the hospitality sector and I always dreamed of starting a small hotel business but both of us ended up working corporate jobs. I had a marketing job with a large paint manufacturer, and John worked as a program manager for a transportation company. Although we were climbing the corporate ladder, neither of us was very happy with how we were spending most of our time - at the office, not focusing on what we were particularly passionate about. John's parents moved to France some 15 years ago and settled in a chateau!
CnP: So, you are another Dutch family with another French chateau! How did it happen?

E.B.: A few years ago I made a business plan just to see if running a hotel in a chateau or in a large country house could be profitable. Both of us were enthusiastic about the idea, and we'd dream aloud about it occasionally, but that was it. And then the pandemic struck. Forced to work from home, we started to spend more time together and with our son.
E.B.: To be honest, it was such a relief. The before-Covid life was such a rush, we had to travel all the time. It seemed we had no time to pause, breathe and enjoy the moment. Both our employers trusted us and let us work away from the office fulltime – just like we did during Covid. There was another thing which factored in. The housing market had been booming for a few years by then and it allowed us to sell our home in the Netherlands profitably. This was the money we invested in our property in France.
CnP: How long did you search for your chateau? Is there a story behind it?

E.B.: Well, imagine, the 2021 New Year holidays. On our way back from John's parents we stopped in Paris for a night. Ben was asleep. But not us. We were watching a show called 'Ik vertrek' on the Dutch television. It is about couples who move to a foreign country to start a new life. They often buy large properties and transform them into holiday homes or B&Bs. The show brings the associated challenges and mistakes into the spotlight.
What the hell did the devil do at Chateau de Bonneval?
E.B.: Next morning John told me that we could do a better job than those people on the latest episode of 'Ik vertrek'. I agreed with him. I said I am all for it! "Remember the business plan I made?" "Really?", he asked. "If you want to go, I want to go". And that was it. We looked at each other with a big grin and John asked his mom to search the web for properties the same afternoon. Four months later, we found Chateau de Freyssinet after visiting only four other properties. We came up with our offer which was accepted. This was the family history in the making!

CnP: Who was the seller?
E.B.: They were the family that have lived here for centuries, going back to the revolution.


CnP: Why did you choose Chateau de Freyssinet?

E.B.: This is interesting. Even though the search didn't take long, we learned a lot and fine-tuned our search criteria in the process. At first, the plan was to start a hotel and a wedding business. So, we were looking for a chateau with a big plot of land with enough rooms to accommodate many guests, with no neighbors around so that we could make some wedding noise. In the process we understood one important thing - running a hotel and a wedding business means that you need to make people's beds every single day, serve breakfast every single day, and work incredibly hard to organize someone's most important day in life.
E.B.: So, we asked ourselves: do we really want this? Our goal was to renovate and save a historical building, we wanted to spend more time close to nature, together and to share that experience with our guests. We went back to the drawing board and shifted our focus to finding a much smaller main house with plenty of outbuildings. The outbuildings would become holiday homes and the chateau would be our den, which we would share with our friends and family. With holiday homes it's possible to retain a lot more privacy and save ourselves the housekeeping troubles.
CnP: Looks like a more appealing and less problematic model, doesn't it?
E.B.: Indeed! So, driving to Chateau de Freyssinet was like driving into a fairytale. Once we left the highway after Limoges, we entered a magical land of wood-grown hills. The road was getting smaller and smaller, and finally we saw a stately house on a hill. We drove around the tall stone wall surrounding the estate, through the gate, and were enchanted.
E.B.: The chateau was less elegant or dainty than anything we'd seen before. Instead it was fierce - a fortified building, with a proud tower, on a hill looking out over a shimmering valley. It seemed to rise up out of a forest, which cast its magic spells. We're pretty practical people - so being enchanted alone was not enough. The 17-hectare estate had 4 outbuildings and a gorgeous park. This was a perfect match! We found our new home!
CnP: You've said that you've removed 10 000 webs, 8 000 dead flies, mouse poop and the centuries-old dust – was the chateau in rather a deplorable state?

E.B.: No, it wasn't! And that was another reason for us to choose this very place. It was dirty, especially in some places, like the attic, the two top rooms of the tower, and the kitchen. The outbuildings were in a bad state. But it had only been empty for 1,5 years and the owners had taken good care of it. The roof needed only minor repairs. The chateau's central heating worked fine. It has electricity supply, the plumping system is old but it still works well enough. In the future we'll have to replace it. The previous owners had even replaced several old windows with double glazed ones.
CnP: Tell me more about your castle? How many rooms does it have? What's inside the tower?

E.B.: We know that there stood a fortress in this location as early as 1280. The local family of knights built it. The Freyssinet, later Joussineau family, remained the owners of this chateau till the French revolution. Back then the fortress would have been a stone keep on a hill, surrounded by a wooden enclosure and other wooden buildings. During the XVI century religious wars, it was fortified and the then owner fought on the side of the future king in two big battles that took place very near to us.
E.B.: The building was renovated in the late XIX century. Firstly, the owners broadened the tower on three stories to make room for toilets. And secondly, they broke through 2-meter thick granite walls on the 3 floors to build the right side of the chateau to create a symmetrical look at the back. It must have been a hell of job - just for the sake of symmetry. Imagine - it was done by hand. Incredible! We still have the renovation drawings and I will frame them one day when I find a moment.
CnP: You moved to France from The Netherlands – any relocation is quite a stress for all – how did your son take it?

E.B.: The relocation went smoother than I had expected. Maybe the trick is to imagine it's all going to be very hard and difficult, and then it can only turn out easier than you'd expected. Ben was great. Of course, the first few weeks at school were difficult. He did not speak a word of French. But he made friends quickly and two months in - he was happy in his new class. John's very happy here, and I am too - although now that we're a little over a year in, I am starting to miss the big city a little.
E.B.: What's been great, is that so many of our friends have made the trek over here. It's a pretty long drive from NL! Their help and good company are very important to us! Instagram has really helped us in that regard too. I used it to find people around us who were in the middle of their own expat adventure, It's been a great way to make new friends and to get introduced to the region.
CnP: And what about your rainforest garden? Did it survive?

E.B.: The majority of my plants survived the trip, their long stay at my parents in law and my subsequent neglect in their new permanent home. We're pretty busy right now and sometimes I forget to water them!
CnP: What are the challenges the restoration of the chateau poses?

E.B.: I think our biggest challenge is time. Right now, we are focused on building our business. We devote all of our time to transforming the outbuildings into 4 holiday homes. The first one opened last June, the second one is on the way and hopefully it will be ready early next year. We'll have to take care of the last two houses. They are quite large, so it will be an extra challenge. So, it means that the true restoration of the chateau will have to wait until our holiday homes are completed. We only do the things that are necessary to keep the building in good knick and things that help us become more sustainable - such as double glazed windows and a new heating system.
CnP: Is it a DIY-restoration or do you hire craftsmen, masons or any other skilled workers?

E.B.: John enjoyed helping his parents with their castle. He has always been passionate about building things, and he has a real talent for it. He's never had any formal training, but if he puts his mind to it, there aren't many things he can't fix or build. So, it's mostly DIY. We hire people for some really big or specific jobs. So far, we've hired people to install a septic tank, to place a new roof, and to put in double glazed windows in the chateau. And in the future, we will continue hiring local partners for big tasks – like the installation of a new heating system.
What does it feel to be the Lady of Germany's oldest inhabited castle?
CnP: I know that you've found an ancient arrow slit and a local 1906 newspaper. What are other discoveries and where do you keep them?

E.B.: We have found a ton of treasures. And when I say treasures I mean historical treasures. We've found beautiful pieces of furniture in need of some TLC, we've found giant mirrors, letters and receipts from the late XIX century, books, some pictures, some pre-revolutionary coins.
E.B.: We've discovered a set of fancy dresses from the late XIX century. We presented them to our friend who lives nearby. She creates historical dresses professionally. She restored them and it was absolutely wonderful to see them in all their glory.
CnP: You've mentioned the furniture in need of TLC. What is the state of the chateau's interiors?

E.B.: There was some furniture, but really not that much. We do have the original wall fabrics, a gorgeous fireplace in each room, very high ceilings, an imposing granite spiral staircase and my favorite: the old oak floorboards - they creak and moan in some places, but they have that honey-colored shine that can only come from hundreds of years of feet padding over them.
CnP: Sounds cozy! Any ancient mechanisms which still operate?
E.B.: Look, most of the underground plumbing system consists of aqueducts and not pipes. I think it's pretty incredible that it still works without an issue.

CnP: Do you live in the castle? Where are your rooms located?
E.B.: Yes, we do. We mostly use the ground and first floor, where we have a kitchen, our living room, and dining room. There are also three bedrooms, a study and a bathroom. The rest of the rooms are either empty or used as a storage. It will probably remain that way until we start the chateau's renovation in a few years.
CnP: Which space or chamber do you find the coziest?

E.B.: Right now - I love our guest room. There are some of my books, a telescope and I'm still trying to figure out and lovely light. But I dream of my future favorite rooms: the study which runs the entire depth of the house with windows on both sides and a beautiful wall of built-in cabinets. And the room at the very top of the tower - it would make for the perfect hiding place to quietly escape to with a book, while the work continues below.
CnP: What did you feel when the deal was sealed and you found yourselves in front of your castle?

E.B.: Relieved. It took us 4 month of paperwork, stress and French bureaucracy to finalize the deal. I don't want to talk about it anymore!
CnP: You have four gites. You'll offer them as places to spend vacations. On the whole, what the grand masterplan for the castle estate?

E.B.: We are getting ready to plant 450 chestnut trees in November. In about 8 years, they'll be a very nice source of additional income. Once we are a bit further down the road with our gites - we also intend to rent out the domain for themed retreats. And we'll have a large vegetable garden, it will provide us with more food and eventually we'll be able to do more cooking for our guests as well.
CnP: Tell me legend about the chateau which one can't google.

E.B.: The last member of the family who built the chateau to live here, lost his head under the guillotine during the revolution. The chateau next door to us, which also belonged to this family, was burned to the ground. The family left behind their four chateaus and thousands of acres of land, and settled far away from here. The family had been knights to the king of France since 800 AD and I am sure there are some stories hidden in the past. I've recently met a local history enthusiast and together we're planning a trip to the Haute Vienne archive to find out more about the house, and hopefully, about the family who lived here for centuries.
CnP: Who is your chateau's spirit and what's the spirit's favorite place in the chateau?

E.B.: I'm not sure about spirits - maybe ours are a little bit shy. But we certainly have some unwanted friends in the house. Marten (a kind of a big weasel) in the attic, who sometimes come down to keep us up all night while hunting for mice. The odd fluting toad that hides behind the wood paneling in the living room and makes it impossible to focus on even the most riveting new TV shows. And the regular little armies of spiders, flies and lovebugs who mount seasonal attacks on the house. Oh, and sometimes a bat will fly into the bedroom!
CnP: They are alive but behave just like ghosts! You don't want to abandon your project and return to The Netherlands, do you?

E.B.: God no - in for a penny, in for a pound. Although I do miss Rotterdam from time to time. That city is my third love - after John and Ben. In a few years' time, maybe Chateau de Freyssinet will make it to no. 3 instead!
CnP: How often do you get together with other castle owners in the area?

E.B.: With castle owners maybe a few times a year - and there's only a few we know. With other people who have emigrated to France and started their own business from scratch - almost every week. It's been so inspiring to meet people who have launched something successful and who are so open and willing to share their experience.
E.B.: Among them there are organic farmers, dressmakers, holiday home owners, gallerists and restaurant owners. Tthey may just be my favorite part of living here. It's so enriching to get to know all of these gutsy and inspiring people.
CnP: And what about the locals – how do you get along with them?

E.B.: We're slowly making some French friends too. Although maybe "acquaintances" is a better word. For real friendship, you need to really master and speak French, and even though I am really progressing and I definitely do get around with my French, I am not at the point where I can comfortably chat away. It's great that we have Ben, because the schoolyard is really a great way to meet other parents, who are all lovely by the way, and so helpful! Just in general, people in the Limousin are warm and friendly, and very patient.
CnP: What would you tell a person who would love to buy a ruined chateau and restore it?

E.B.: Ask someone you trust and who has the technical know-how, to make a technical report of the house and any outbuildings for you. Certain problems just can't be overcome if you're not a millionaire. A new roof on a modest chateau is likely to cost you around 100K, rotten beams mean you'll have to take apart the entire building. You get the point, don't you?
E.B.: So, know what you're buying and then make a realistic budget with a little extra build in. If it's still a good fit - take a deep breath and jump! But don't forget: for the rest of your life, until you sell up, you'll be working harder than you've ever worked before. A big house, a big garden, being an entrepreneur - it means there is always something that needs doing. It's the best kind of work though. The work of love.
We much hope that you liked the interview with Eloise Bruinink, who owns Chateau de Freyssinet in Haute-Vienne, France.

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Photo credits: @Chateau de Freyssinet

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