Chateau du Taillis

Nicolas Navarro's romance with his renaissance Chateau du Taillis in Normandy, France started when he was 16. Twenty three years passed and his passion is still strong!

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Nicolas Navarro, owner of Chateau du Taillis in Normandy
Artiom Ganin has talked with Nicolas Navarro, the passionate owner of magnificent Renaissance Chateau du Taillis in Normandy, France. Nicolas has told me what it was like to become the lord of the castle at the age of 16, to grow older, start his own family but still be mad about the castle. The man is sure that you should never adapt an old property to your needs – on the contrary, you need to adapt your needs to the old walls which can give you the feeling of precious authenticity. Chateau du Taillis has never been a royal castle, but it can boast some exceptional pieces like a centuries old theatre! We also talked about fundraising, which helps rescue the heritage - Nicolas believes the reality is the smaller the project the harder it is to get the money, although there's nothing one can do about it apart from taking it as is.

THE LOVE STORY

Castles and Palaces (CnP): Nicolas, how long have your family owned the chateau?
Nicolas Navarro (NN): We have owned the castle since July 1998. This adventure started when I was 16 years old.

CnP: Please tell me a few words about your family?
NN: We were a Parisian family, living in a modern house outside Paris, and we also had a beautiful thatched cottage on the coast. At the time, we were mainly four: my father, my mother, my young brother and myself. My mother still works as a lawyer in Paris. Now, we also have Marie, my beautiful and wonderful wife, and our two amazing children, Clément and Paul.
CnP: A big home for a big family! What was so remarkable about the castle that made your parents buy it back in 1998?
NN: When we saw the castle for the first time in February 1998, it was love at first sight for my mother and me. It was an incredible opportunity. How not to dream? Owning an historic monument was in my eyes an honour and a privilege and an immense responsibility. My father thought we were crazy and my brother was too young to appreciate or to have an opinion
CnP: What was the state of the chateau when your family bought it?
NN: The previous owner was an auctioneer, who intended to use the chateau for prestigious sales. But the castle was mostly out of water, there were many leaks everywhere, in all parts of the building, and everything had to be thoroughly cleaned – the walls, floors, ceilings, etc. The park hadn't been looked after for years; its state was terrible!
CnP: So, you embarked on large-scale restoration works, didn't you?
NN: We did have to conduct large-scale restoration works, it was a lot of work and then a storm occurred. Imagine it happened 18 months after we had bought the chateau. The consequences of the 1999 storm were disastrous. We actually had to start all over again – it was necessary to redo everything we had done before the storm. There were a lot of broken trees, some walls caved in, the castle's slate roof was damaged!
CnP: An act of God! But what was the greatest challenge?
NN: Indeed, the greatest challenge was to restore the castle and its park and to proceed with decorating and furnishing the reception rooms.

CnP: Any great discoveries during the works or just any findings on the estate?
NN: When cleaning the attics, we found wonderful things dating back to the 18th century like children toys, theatre decorations, old papers, carved stones. You know each day brings new discoveries!
CnP: Why do you share your parents' passion towards the castle?
NN: Let's be honest, the passion came from my mother and me from the very beginning. Now it is mostly myself, but my mother is still in love with the castle, of course, after her husband, her children and grandchildren! As for me I love literally everything about the chateau and its grounds. I adore the authentic parts dating back to the 17th and 18thcenturies. I love the attics, one can see marks on the walls in many places, different graffiti. I simply love it! It is a perpetual enchantment, even if it means to work non-stop
CnP: Does your family live in the chateau?
NN: My parents live in the castle most of the time. A typical day starts by opening all the doors, after stopping the alarms! Then, it depends on the weather, or on the plans for the day, if we have any receptions or appointments. In autumn and winter, I normally have few events and receptions and I can spend time on different restoration matters. I use this time to get ready for the next season. Spring and summer are high season - each week and on weekends we have numerous activities like weddings, team building events and what not! So, I basically have to split my time between hosting these events and looking after the castle and its gardens.
CnP: Maintaining any old property is quite a challenge – a chateau is a huge property and there are certain restrictions imposed by the state, like you can't do this or that to a historical building. How do you cope with the castle's maintenance?
NN: The castle is a historical monument, it means that all the important restoration works and interventions need to be approved and supervised by the "Architect of the buildings of France", but we have never encountered any difficulties, as we work hard to safeguard the heritage. As for the maintenance costs we pay them from the money we get for organizing wonderful events.
CnP: Was the COVID pandemic a serious blow to your business? Obviously, you partly fund the maintenance with the money you get from tourists.
NN: The pandemic all our events to a halt. We had to cancel them. We were very lucky to have personal funds and to receive helps from the French authorities to stay afloat. We managed to keep up with the maintenance of the castle, but the task wasn't easy.
CnP: What's your favorite part of the chateau and why?
NN: I mostly love the attics, which have preserved their authentic state from many centuries ago. I also love the beautiful Regency lounge, the theatre, the chapel and our vaulted cellar.
NN: Let me give a bit of history here - originally on the grounds of the castle, there stood a 15th century fortified manor house. It served as a defense for the Rouen - Le Havre road. Of this defensive construction, only the very beautiful 16th century vaulted cellar of the castle remains today. The vaulted cellar, on which the castle was built in the 16th century, can be visited and has been beautifully restored, but with no transformations, in order to keep the spirit of old ages. But, I really think I love every part of the castle and the estate.
CnP: What's the strongest emotion you have experienced in the castle?
NN: The greatest emotion we had, was when we discovered the chateau's theatre decorations in the stables under the hay!

CHATEAU DU TAILLIS THEATRE AND OTHER GEMS

CnP: What a great finding indeed! A castle with its own theatre sounds quite exciting!
NN: It's true! The theatre is one of the most incredible pieces of the chateau. Originally, this 17th century pavilion, was a chapel for the noble family. After the French Revolution, the new owner remodeled the chapel into a theatre. It was a crazy project - he removed all levels between the ground and the roof.
NN: The theater is open on 3 levels for spectators and parties under the roof, receive the machinery, to change the scenery and to make the sound during the shows. At the ground there was the scene with a piano in the background and decorations on the sides (cities, forest, gardens, ...) in front there was the place for the spectators and there was a balcony for the most important people. There were a lot of sets, on scrolls that were changed according to the subject of the show. There were more than 500 books (between 16th and 19th century) of plays that have disappeared. In the early 20th century, the descendants, found the room in bad condition, and probably useless.
NN: They destroyed the theater and closed the levels that were open. They set up the most beautiful room of the castle at the top of the old theatre, the Regency Room. Below they set up the small theatre in the Louis XIII style. When the theatre stopped, the sets, the actors' outfits and the rest were stored in the old stables. Unfortunately the estate was abandoned for almost 30 years and these buildings were very degraded. It's a good thing we got some of the scenery back.
CnP: Incredible! The castle used to have many rooms with different decorations. Could you tell me about the gems of the chateau's interiors!
NN: We have about 60 rooms; the most beautiful ones are located on the ground floor and on the first floor. On the ground floor, we have: the theatre, the Chinese lounge with its silk paintings, which was used for private receptions, the entrance hall, the dining hall with its Alsatian stove and a music room. The chapel, the Regency lounge and our beautiful 18th century bedrooms are located on the first floor.
CnP: You have outstanding gardens, don't you? They are a mix of the French and English styles.
NN: Yes, in the gardens, we have mixed the English and the French gardening traditions. I think the most wonderful plant - if you can call it a plant - the "coolest" one, is the wisteria tunnel, which blooms in April-May; the flowers in light purple come out before the leaves, and it looks like a huge magical cloud blooming behind the blue sky.
NN: We also have Giant Sequoia, Tulip tree, Atlas cedar, nice flower beds here and there you know. Mind you - all the trees in the park are about 200-300 years old.
CnP: Now you've launched a project to collect the money for the restoration of the Guillot Pelletier greenhouse – why is it so special?
NN: When we bought the castle, the greenhouse was in a terrible state, all its elements were rusty, it was falling apart. We were afraid it might break down, and disappear. Guillot Pelletier is an outstanding personality, he was a manufacturer of wrought iron elements and one may see his works across France, for instance in the greenhouses of the Jardin des Plantes de Nantes or the greenhouse of Bouthonvilliers castle in Dangeau. We launched a project to restore our greenhouse and we were very happy to received funds from the "Mission BERN – Patrimoine en peril". Now, the greenhouse is fully restored, and we use it as a venue for wonderful small events.
CnP: Back in 2019 you said in reference to a world-wide campaign to finance the restoration of the Notre Dame Cathedral "It's true that at our small level, we say to ourselves" damn ", we are looking for 15,000 euros and unfortunately we cannot find them. It is true that sometimes we give up a little even if we keep hope to make ends meet the budget to restore the greenhouse of the Castle " – is there really a problem?
NN: What I said, in reference to the Notre Dame campaign is true. We have lost hope many times, trying to make ends meet, and thus, postponing many projects. It seems so easy to raise funds through important worldwide campaigns, while small projects struggle endlessly. This is a fact as simple as that - with no consequences whatsoever.
CnP: But naturally Notre Dame is a way more important nation-wise if compared to privately-owned chateaux no matter their size and history. The Cathedral is an icon not only for France but also for the whole world – don't you agree?
NN: I fully agree with you; the importance and the cultural vibrancy or Notre Dame is insurmountable. I personally was truly devastated when I heard about the fire that destroyed parts of the Cathedral. I watched the spire collapse live on TV! It was terrible!
CnP: I know that the Dartagnans crowdfunding platform helped to raise money for the restoration of the Notre Dame Cathedral? But they do help private chateaux as well. Have you tried working with them too?
NN: We know about the platform and we are seriously thinking about submitting a project in the near future. We need to restore the orangery. It's an incredible Roman temple to keep the orange tree during winter.
CnP: In one of your interviews you said that you wanted to quit many times – but you are still here – why not sell the castle and forget about this huge headache?
NN: I love the castle. To be honest I thought of quitting a couple of times but I would never do such a thing. My family, my friends and the castle are my life; my passion about the castle fuels my inner fire.
CnP: You offer various kind of activities in the castle – why one should choose your chateau and not a different castle?
NN: The castle is family run and all our activities are meant to make our visitors feel like home. We organize private visits for small groups, who can enjoy personal contacts. This is our goal!
CnP: You have the 'August 44 Hell on Seine' museum – what's on display there?
NN: The Museum recalls the last terrible battles with the Nazis near the river Seine and in the region of Duclair. Our visitors can learn more, through the stories of soldiers, civilians and witnesses, and the display of military arms and uniforms, about the final days of August 1944.
CnP: Was the chateau damaged during the WWII battles?
NN: No, the castle wasn't damaged. It housed a German hospital during the last battle of Normandy in August 1944. The owner and his 10 children spend most days in the cellar of the castle as it protected them from the bombs. Eight bombs were dropped across of the castle estate.
CnP: You offer guided tours of various type - but why not allow people spend a night at the castle?
NN: We will soon be offering lodgings, we just need to complete huge restoration efforts, which we started last year. It's a new activity for me. In 2022 I want to open the house of the Chapelman in the left wing of the castle. It is a spectacular house dating to the 17th century.
CnP: I am sure you know a number of anecdotes about the chateau which you tell your visitors on a tour around the castle. Would you share one with me please?
NN: Of course, we talk about a lot. Listen, once I found a safe in the basement and it took us 5 hours to finally open it. But there are other stories which are not so funny. The father of one of the previous owners died in 1920 but his children kept his room unchanged till the 1980s. Scary.
CnP: Could you share a little-known fact from the castle's history!
NN: Well, believe it or not but we were told that Diane de Poitiers visited the castle and left her emblem - a moon crescent - on the door of the barn. We can still see it. She was a wealthy woman, a courtier, King Henry II's mistress and close adviser. She is also known as a great patron of French Renaissance architecture.
CnP: Interesting. What about your ghosts? Do you have any?
NN: I think all old castles have ghosts. Ours are friendly! Many times, we have heard someone walk and breath heavily in a room above us, but the room was empty.
CnP: Please tell me frankly – what would you tell a dreamer who would love to buy a castle – maybe a ruined one – to make it a residence or to remodel it into a hotel?
NN: Do it, but don't destroy the legacy of the past! If you ask me, I am against changes. I've got this castle with ancient elements and I must repair them, save them or reconstruct them. I have never made any changes in the domain for my projects. My projects adapt to the monument. It's very important to value the authenticity.
We very much hope that you liked the interview with Nicolas Navarro who owns Chateau du Taillis in Normandy.

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