Chateau du Theil

Francis and Benoit purchased a ramshackle chateau to remodel it into a 4-star hotel with a (possibly MICHELIN) restaurant!
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Francis and Benoit are no strangers to working on site.
I'm talking to Francis Malaquis who, with his long-time friend Benoit, saved up and bought a dilapidated chateau in their home town of Ussel in the Correze department of central France. The owners had a lot of problems to solve - the structure was quite unstable and they had to demolish one wing of their castle to save the rest. The plan is to open a hotel and a fancy restaurant in the chateau, and to make this happen the building had to meet a lot of very strict requirements - this is why some might say that the castle no longer looks authentic. Their dream project turned out to be very expensive - 4 million euros in total. To raise the money, Francis and Benoit have launched a fundraising campaign, which has been quite successful - they have almost half the money they need. Still they need around €2 million more. The owners have also set up a YouTube channel so that any castle enthusiast can follow their adventures. If you think this is something you would like to see, do not forget to subscribe to get regular updates!


Castles and Palaces (CnP): Tell me who was the first to realize you needed a chateau badly?
Francis Malaquis (FM): Benoit is the first who came up with the idea after an unexpected visit.

CnP: How did you come across this chateau?
FM: We were born in this town. We have known that it existed since our childhood. But we never had the courage to jump the old fence of the abandoned place.
CnP: Judging by the 2018 pictures it was no short of a ruin. Why did you buy it? Weren't there other castles in France, which were in a better shape?

FM: As I said it was really sad to see the chateau in our hometown falling apart because nobody was doing anything about it – let alone its owners, who couldn't afford the cost anymore.
CnP: And you can, can't you? Tell me a few words about yourselves – after all owning and restoring a chateau is something, which requires a lot of money. What do you do?

FM: Well, Benoit did a business school, and I did a chemical school, we parted our ways way after school and met again in Lyon in the east of France. This is where our girlfriends and our work brought us. In 2019 Benoit came up with this idea of saving the castle in our hometown. After months of discussions his father Bruno joined in.
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FM: This is how our adventure materialized – basically from just an idea all the way down to the project of a lifetime. Back then we only had enough money to buy the place - around 160,000 euros. We decided to buy it and see if we could find a brilliant idea to finance everything. I believe we sort of succeeded. A lot of marketing, a bit of saving and video-making let us gather around 2 million euros. This money is certainly a lot but we are still looking for investments to finance the rest of our dream project.
CnP: Tell me who was the previous owner?
FM: They stem from the Chevalier family. It is an old family from the town who bought the chateau in 1942.

CnP: How come the chateau has almost turned into a ruin?
FM: Indeed. Their grandchildren didn't want to do anything with the chateau, so it had stood abandoned for decades before we came.
CnP: Tell me about your team – how do you share responsibilities?

FM: Our team is not that big to be honest but we are very eager to make our dream come true. So, Benoit, who is 33 years old has always wanted to start a big project. He founded the company, which owns the chateau. He is the key business manager and he also works on-site every day. I am Francis and I'm also 33 years old. I have a chemistry background and I am the first associate. I also take care of the community online and I'm in charge of producing content. Naturally, I work on-site every day too.
FM: Bruno, Benoit's father, is 56 years old. He is the project's financial manager and advisor. He changed a lot of jobs in his life and he knows a lot about construction works. We also have Sandra, who has been a hotel manager for many years. She has recently joined our team. And Alexandre, our future Chef. He spent years working in the kitchen of many prestigious restaurants.
CnP: Now I know which restaurant will get a Michelin star!
FM: Exactly! This is what Alexander is here for!

CnP: How much help do you get from volunteers?
FM: Volunteers don't come very often. Generally friends and family members come every second month. The biggest groups we have are young people. They visit us twice a year, 6 volunteers per group.
FM: Sometimes we have people who come here for a day or two – usually it happens after they find us on YouTube. And we also have a group of scouts every summer. To be honest, what we do on-site is quite hard and not so many people are willing to endure what we do every day.
CnP: You plan to have a hotel and a restaurant at the chateau – please share your concept!

: The concept is very big and versatile. The plan is to have a 4-star hotel in the actual castle with 14 bedrooms including one big suit in the tower. There'll be a bar to enjoy a drink during the day after visiting the park, a room for workshops on the ground floor, more like a multifunction room for private events by groups of 30 people.
FM: We'll have a restaurant for which – as I've said - our chef Alexandre aims to bring a Michelin star. We'll grow vegetables in the park and you'll be able to eat them at our restaurant. We want to build a big greenhouse with the aquaponic system to produce fruit and vegetables for the restaurant, anyone will be able to visit this greenhouse, to check on what you'll later have on your plate.


CnP: This sounds impressive. What will you do with the surrounding park? The 'before' pictures show that the area was quite green with a lot of trees, which you had to chop down so that heavy machinery could make its way to the building. Any plans to plant the woods or have a garden or a maze?

: Sure! The castle will be surrounded by a beautiful park. We have some 6.5 hectares which we are going to arrange beautifully with flowers, fruit trees, fountains. The park will have different areas, with flowers, and fruit trees with a pathway running through them. This park will be open to public and will have an open stage to host bigger events outside during summer. There'll be a small forest for cool walks during summer, animals like dwarf goats.
FM: Finally we plan to build 7 double bedrooms hidden in the park, 2 of which will be tiny hobbit houses. The whole concept is driven by our green philosophy... We are going to raise trouts and use the water full of nutrients to grow vegetables on floating boards. This system is not new but unique with a restaurant beside, it uses no chemicals and 80% less water than conventional cultures. And we want the trout to be the signature dish of the restaurant. We'll have solar panels, reusable rainwater for the park, ecofriendly building materials to minimize as much as possible the impact of this project.
CnP: This is where the past meets the future but it comes with a hefty price tag. The expenses are really huge. You have 2 million euros. Where will the other 2 million come from?

FM: The project costs 4 million indeed. The first half comes from private investors and we are still looking for a loan to get the other half.
CnP: You offer to become a co-chatelaine of the castle. Why one would agree to donate that way and what kind of perks one would get?

FM: We did that at the beginning (not anymore) to gather shareholders that wanted to invest and own a part of the business with us. Most of them where French and got important tax reductions based on their investment. Some foreigners were simply interested in owning a piece of the place and embark on this adventure with us. Later everybody will be able to sale their shares or keep them and enjoy dividends if it is the case.
CnP: I looked at the pictures and it seems that you pulled down the whole wing of the chateau adjacent to the tower along with a barn or whatever it was. Why?

FM: This wing was about to collapse anyway. And it just had to be removed to preserve the integrity of the rest of the building. But the very place it once stood will host our future restaurant - you could see it from our architect's concept images on the website. It will be a simple ground floor building in the woods with a flat roof and big windows.
CnP: Look - you pulled down one part of the chateau, completely changed the nature of the building between the tower and the palace using concrete and foam blocks instead of original stones and bricks, you've replaced the original windows with modern plastic double-glazed ones.

FM: Let me interrupt you for a second! The painted wood and aluminum triple glazed windows are meant to save energy during heating or cooling the chateau.
CnP: Okay, okay. Still, I'd like to continue! So, you've covered the walls of the upper floor with drywall sheets. It is only the outer walls which are old but they don't look centuries old though. The old tile roofing has also been replaced. Some would argue that the chateau has lost its authenticity and charm. It looks like a modern-day building mimicking an old chateau. Why didn't you choose a longer and more difficult path of restoring the property to preserve its soul and authenticity?

FM: It was a difficult choice. Please, do not forget that our goal is and was to build a hotel within these old walls. This is when you have to make compromises and big sacrifices to comply with the strict regulations of the French hotel industry, particularly in terms of fire safety. We had to comply with the very strict limitations covering materials we are allowed to use - for example the drywalls that you've mentioned.
FM: We are not building a house for ourselves. We know that most people can't understand it but this is reality. You won't see a lot about it on the Internet. Such kind of remodeling is quite rare. And of course money matters, so this is what you have to consider when making your final choice. We wanted a comfortable and unique hotel for decades to come with the modern-day inside and the centuries old outside.
CnP: Such large-scale reconstruction works didn't come unnoticed by the local community – what do people think about your project?

FM: Most of the people in town and around send us messages almost every month waiting for the place to open. They are very happy to see this place saved and hope it will give a new momentum to the region. No matter what critics say – just think of it! We started this project to save the castle from complete destruction. This is something nobody had the courage to do before us. But we understand that you may not agree with our ways.
FM: By the way, the castle probably looked that way at some point in history except the windows, which were of a different color. Most of the weird modifications that some people find so charming were in fact made by the previous owners in the 1990s.
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CnP: What kind of old artifacts have you found during the works if any? Anything really old and precious?

FM: It was mostly junk accumulated for years which took us months to get rid of. The only interesting thing we found was the stone we placed above the door – watch our episode 40 on YouTube to learn about it. Perhaps you could solve its mystery as we know nothing about it. We also found a destroyed underground tunnel that may have been used during the Second World War to hide some materials or people.
FM: A lot of old artifacts from the inside of castle were destroyed or modified in the past. It's a place that saw tremendous changes throughout its history to serve different purposes and in the end maybe, just maybe, it is exactly why the chateau has managed to survive till nowadays.
CnP: Some old parts of the interiors are still there, aren't they?

FM: The 2 bedrooms in the main tower will look almost like they did 200 years ago but with a modern touch. The rest of the place will be a comfortable hotel and not the old dirty place it was during the last 50 years.
FM: TSome people would certainly think it is so romantic to own a 12th century castle but you know what - we were afraid to stay there after we bought it. Not because of some imaginary ghosts – we have none – but because during the first 2 years after the purchase the place was really unsafe. For now you can't stay there. There is no water and all the doors are yet to be installed.
CnP: Will you have a space for yourselves inside the chateau – a room where you'll be able to stay when you want?

FM: The castle will not have a place for us, it is only a business place for us, but we live nearby.
CnP: I believe you spent some time in the archives digging for as many facts about your chateau as you could possible get. Tell me a fact from the castle's long history one would hardly find online!

FM: You could never find online the story that someone told us about the day the Germans came to intimidate the owners of the place during the Second World War. From what we've been told a German SS officer fired his gun in the kitchen during the interrogation. No one was hurt and the bullet is supposedly still stuck inside the wall. We are still looking for it.
CnP: You spent several years transforming the chateau. People can agree or disagree with the way you're doing it but the efforts/money/time you have invested are enormous. You don't regret embarking on this project, do you?

FM: Never! We would do it again but differently as we now know how to do things in a more efficient way.
CnP: Give a piece of advice to an individual who would love to do exactly the same as you did!

: Don't do it by yourself, find people who could help you. If you have questions contact us or someone who did the same thing because it will help you avoid a lot of mistakes.
We much hope that you liked the interview with Francis Malaquis, one of the owners of Chateau du Theil in France.

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Photo credits: Chateau du Theil, @chateaudutheil

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