Chateau des Grotteaux

The 24-month long restoration was almost complete when "once-in-500-year deluge" flooded the chateau causing some 800,000-euro damage. It was the time of despair.

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@Castles_and_Palaces' Artiom Ganin is in the heart of France, in the Loire Valley - the land of classical French chateaux. I have the pleasure of talking to Gaёl du Halgouёt, the owner of Chateau des Grotteaux, which has been called the "smallest of the greatest" Loire Valley castles for more than a hundred years. The family have owned this unique 17th century castle near the city of Blois since 2014. They spent some 1.5mn euros in total to complete the large scale restoration works to turn the abandoned and flooded castle into a beautiful hotel.

Cecile and Gaёl du Halgouёt with their dog
The chateau where the past meets the present can also boast a precious park, which was started thanks to the French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte. It was him who brought exotic plants and trees from his campaigns to the former owner of the chateau.

HOW A MASSIVE FLOOD ALMOST KILLED THE PROJECT

Castles and Palaces (CnP): Gaёl, could you please tell me a bit about your family?
Gaël du Halgouёt (GH): Well, we are a family that became ennobled in the 15th century, many many years ago. Me and Cecile have 4 children - Alix, Geoffroy, Tristan and Ivan - and we did not lead this life from the very beginning! Actually, we did not think of it some 20 years ago! We were not looking for a chateau, we were very happy to live in a small house in the city of Blois where we moved in the early 2000s after we bought a small business there. And it was not us – but our youngest son Ivan – who discovered this chateau when he went fishing to the Cosson river with his friends. Also we used to go for a walk with our friends in this area, too. So 2 years after having discovered this chateau, we were told that it was up for sale. We sold our company, purchased the chateau and started the restoration works. It happened in 2014.
CnP: Your youngest son's name is Ivan – do you have any links with Russia?
GH: Actually, no, we don't. We just love this first name and we love Russia but we come from Brittany, it is the West of France.
CnP: So you bought it in 2014, who was the previous owner of the castle?
GH: I cannot disclose the identities of the previous owners – the only thing which I can tell you is that they were Swiss and they had owned this chateau for some 35 years.
CnP: Not for long to be honest. What was its state when you bought it? I saw in the pictures that you changed the roofing, some windows, the sewage system, right?
GH: The chateau was in a very very bad condition. Imagine it had this tag "For Sale" for 10 years and no one looked after it in a proper way! We wanted a quick, profound and overwhelming restoration, in order to be able to open a hotel as soon as possible. Some 60 full time specialists spent 2 years working here. We covered it all - the roofing and stone cutting, doors and windows, new bathrooms, new heating and electricity systems, painting, old paintings restoration, decoration and furnishing and what not!
CnP: I know that every time a historical monument is being restored the state assigns a special architect who oversees the project and makes sure the restoration goes in line with what has been agreed. How did you get along with your architect?
GH: Well, the castle is listed. The park is listed too. It almost never happens to chateaux of this size! So, we had a state architect who specializes in historical monuments who controlled every step of the restoration. And it was not easy, his proposals were very useful and nice but they were very expensive at the same time. But we managed to find the balance after all.
CnP: Let me ask you this - the chateau is dubbed "the smaller of the greatest" - why is that?
GH: Look, first of all it is not big, maybe the size of a manor but it has all the features of a proper chateau. Its area was some 800 hectares in the 17th century, it had three separate courtyards, which are the Lord's court, the domestic's court, the farmer's court. It had a chapel, a river which was mandatory because the owners had to have an option of eating fish, it also had an orangery. You know back in the 19th century every important French chateau had an orangery.

The building may seem small but once inside you would see that those few rooms are very large and have high ceiling. And of course the murals by Jean Mosnier - not a single manor could have had such level of interior decorations!

CnP: I see, you should have spent a fortune to pay for the restoration works!
GH: The total restoration cost is about 1,5 million euros. We used original techniques, for instance, no zinc was used for the roof ridges, the surrounds of the skylights, the ornamentation or the guttering. Instead six tons of lead was employed by specialist artisans.
CnP: Quite an amount! And then a massive flood almost killed the project as it caused the 800,000-euro damage?
GH: Unfortunately you are quite right. The works were almost complete. And then all of a sudden this deluge! It was June and the river Cosson became mad. It never happened before. At least it did not happen in the last 500 years! The Chambord castle which is not far away along the Cosson river was completely flooded. So, we had to postpone our opening for 12 months. And the financial consequences were absolutely shocking.

CnP: I can imagine what you felt back then. At that moment you didn't want to leave it all behind, did you? Just to tell yourself – to hell with it, I had enough?
GH: It was very hard. Both me and my wife were totally depressed. I would never wish anybody to experience the same.
CnP: Did the state come to rescue? Did the authorities help you with the restoration works?
GH: Bear in mind that this is a listed chateau. And some 20 or 30 years ago, the state's contribution into restoring a listed chateau was at least 50%. But everybody is low on the budget these days – France is no exception unfortunately. So now if you get 10% consider yourself lucky! We were very lucky – this chateau was very important and we got 12%!!! We also enjoyed some help from our neighbours especially during the catastrophic flooding.


CnP: The chateau dates back to the 17th century – namely the year 1620 – which traces of the medieval past have you found?
GH: We found the vaulted ceilings in the dungeons, the foundation of the old walls outside which let us think that the medieval chateau was quite important.

THE DISCOVERY OF UNIQUE 17TH CENTURY MURALS

CnP: Do you know any dark secrets or legends about the castle?
GH: To be honest no. But we have a very old standing stone along the river which proves the human presence here for 4000 or 6000 years. Normally such stones date from the European middle Bronze Age.

CnP: What a discovery! You also made another great discovery - murals by Jean Mosnier of the 17th century, which were hidden under a thick layer of plaster! How did it happen?
GH: This was a surprise! We noticed that the plaster was cracking in a bedroom and we decided to take it off. And this is how we discovered the murals. We immediately called the French historical monument minister which is mandatory because it is a listed chateau. They sent us experts who decided to make several holes in the plaster all over the place. And they discovered the areas where the paintings had been made. It was an exceptional discovery because such kind of murals have never been found in France before. And then they decided to give us an exceptional 50% subvention for their restoration.
CnP: Two times lucky! And now you live in the chateau and have the privilege to enjoy the murals all year round, don't you?
GH: Exactly! We live here all year round. But we reside in the small 18th century part of the castle. When we are closed – normally it is in January and February – we enjoy the old part of the chateau. So this is when we can look at the gods of Olympus by Mosnier who used to work at Cheverny, Valencay and even at the Palais de Luxembourg!


CnP: What's your favorite place in the castle and why?
GH: Oh, we particularly like the park of the chateau and the fact that it is completely closed off with a 2-kilometer wall.

CHATEAU'S PARK AND NAPOLEON'S CAMPAIGNS

CnP: Speaking about the park – we should all thank Napoleon Bonaparte for it, right? Could you tell me about how the emperor is involved?
GH: This is true. The owner of the chateau back then was Charles Joseph Bagieu. He was a very close friend of the emperor. The man was loyal to the emperor and the latter gave him exotic plants as presents which he brought to France during his campaigns. Most of the nicest and rarest trees were given by the emperor, they acclimatized to form this fantastic collection! This is the reason why the park is listed. Napoleon Bonaparte gave him the bald cypresses, too, which stem from Louisiana. They were brought to France with the last expedition of 1802. Now the park's area is 33 hectares. And thanks to the wall it is own little world.
CnP: What a story – who could have thought! But Napoleon was not the only high-profile person to be connected with the chateau!
GH: Correct! Cardinal Richelieu stayed here while on his way from the siege of La Rochelle, Marie de Medici who was the Queen of France as the second wife of King Henry IV visited the chateau to see… Jean Mosnier's works!

The chateau was also home to a great French mind Guillaume Ribier, who is said to have possessed one of the greatest libraries in Europe. This man had an incredible life… he died aged 85 … nearly a worldwide longevity record by the then standards! He didn't have any children. He gave the chateau to his nephew who transformed it and sold the library. Half of the library was bought by Cardinal de Mazarin and the other half by the Russian tsar!
CnP: Who is helping you to run the castle? Who is doing what?
GH: First our 4 children! Our 3 boys help me to maintain the gardens. My daughter helps Cecile inside. We have only one employee to clean the guest rooms.


My wife Cecile created and supervised all the interior decoration. She has great respect to the ancient elements and she made sure they mixed well with the modern ones. It is thanks to her that the atmosphere of the chateau became more modern.


CnP: Do you find it difficult to run the chateau?
GH: It is a 7-day a week job, a 14-hour a day job, but we love it!
CnP: France is the land of chateaux – so many of them in various architectural styles to anyone's liking – what is so special about Grotteaux?
GH: The chateau is small - its original 17th century part. There are manors of the same size but very few chateaus of this size in France. So it is unique in this sense.


CnP: Does this help you to keep afloat as the COVID pandemic is sweeping across the EU?
GH: Well, this year it has been particularly difficult – we lost some 50% of our turnover! To be able to continue we came up with a plan – we created a website where we sell different products, in order to replace the turnover which has been lost. And this is where we gained a new momentum as our new brand associated with the chateau has appeared – it is called "My little chateau". We are very optimistic about its future!
CnP: In the times of a crisis it is crucial to be able to adapt and restructure. But if we speak about usual times, which we all hope will return one day, what do you normally offer to your guests?
GH: From the very beginning our plan was to welcome people from all over the world and to offer an exceptional service. But we didn't want to offer a classic hotel experience, we wanted to share our passion for our heritage. It was important for us to be able to offer an immersive stay and to greet each client as if they were a personal guest. We want our visitors to feel that they are at home which is why we have handed over the main portion of the chateau to them. Our vision is not, however, a nostalgic one. The house is not a museum. It reflects the modernity of our way of life.
CnP: How many rooms do you have?
GH: We can accommodate no more than 12 guests at any one time, it guarantees very warm social interaction. We have 4 double bedrooms and one suite. It is also possible to book a cottage with a sitting room, kitchen and two bedrooms, built in 19th century. It's right at the entrance to the estate.


CnP: What activities can you guests enjoy?
GH: You can enjoy the chateau reception room, which is unique. We have a large 20-meter swimming pool and a tennis court, you can jog in the woods or through the vineyards, or just take a stroll through the park. The beauty of the site is one of its great strengths. Each walk promises new discoveries. Like a renaissance mill or a bridge built by Eiffel.
Fishing, hunting, boating, riding a bicycle or a horse, take a free guided tour of the chateau or get an aerial glimpse of the castle from a hot air balloon.


If you have more time, go for a tour around the Loire Valley castles alone or with a private guide, visit old typical villages and markets, wineries and get involved in wine tasting. We can organize all this!
CnP: Do you make wine by the way, it looks like every French castle does it!
GH: Not at the moment, but we have plans to make wine in the future.


CnP: Who was your most unusual guest and why?
GH: We had a chance to welcome a lot of famous people. For example, it was a pleasure to meet Harry Benson, one of the most famous photographers who took pictures of The Beatles, Queen Elizabeth, Regan, Greta Garbo! What an incredible person! We also welcomed famous lawyer Andrea Zimmermann who fell in love with a Sherpa and created a travel agency to climb the highest mountains – she changed her life completely!
CnP: Just like you - you changed your life too! Based on you experience, rises and falls, your romantic approach towards Chateau des Grotteaux, what would you say to those who would like to follow suit? Was it worth it?
GH: Yes, it was. But it was not as easy for my wife. She loves the chateau but finds working here 7 days a week very hard! But she does it for me. I love this life, I love meeting people from all over the world, often with amazing personal stories. There's also one more benefit - all of our children like to come back here for weekends or holidays, at such moments I really think it is worth it!
We very much hope that you loved the story told by Gaёl du Halgouёt, the owner of Chateau des Grotteaux in the Loire Valley!

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Pictures credits: Chateau des Grotteaux

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