Guest Comment: For new chateau owners, it’s goodbye, La Jolla, hello, France

Once upon a time … .

The story of Château Puy Vidal could easily begin like this.

In January, I was told that a family down the street from where I was staying in La Jolla had just purchased a chateau in France and were planning to move there. My antenna is mounted straight. How crazy is that? I live in France but dream of living here.

Out of the blue, I knocked on the family’s door. Hello … The door opened to a beautiful interior. As busy as she was, Maruca Leach, a mother, invited me to sit down. An hour later, my head was caught in a wonderful modern-day fairy tale.

It begins with the eldest daughter, Julia, who, like many young girls raised on Cinderella, dreamed of living as a princess in a castle. For my part, I can understand. Only his dream persisted and persisted until it became reality.

At 12, Julia was already interested in high-end real estate in Europe. charming idea, everyone thought. Nourished by romantic films and novels, she and her sister Penelope had traveled with their parents many times in Europe. They all fell in love with the old fortified towns, castles and churches. Who doesn’t?

Over the years, Julia researched all the castles for sale she could glean from adverts. Undoubtedly, his dream was fueled, after graduating in anthropology, by his first real job in the film industry in New York. On a set, she meets Caroline, her partner, who worked in the camera department. Together they continued the search for the right castle, mostly online. Flying out to visit each one was hardly possible.

Then, one day last December, Julia found what she wanted: Puy Vidal, a 13th century fortress transformed into a Renaissance castle in the 16th century. Today it consists of 12 bedrooms, 11 bathrooms, eight living rooms, extensive elegant gardens with a well maintained hedge maze, swimming pool and much more.

Now what? Hey, mom, look at this!

Julia’s family is not ordinary. His parents – Maruca (an accomplished painter of Mexican descent) and Bob (a researcher in astronomy at San Diego State University and a major contributor to the Webb Space Telescope) – his sister Penelope (an economics graduate living in New York) and his partner Caroline (an assistant camera from New York) not only approved of the idea, they rallied their support for the crazy dream genre. This castle wasn’t just going to be a vacation spot – it would be their new home.

They engaged in French lessons, French cooking, gobbled up the history of France, and braced themselves for an onslaught of very complicated paperwork.

They made a demand offer. About six months later, they sold their beautiful home in La Jolla and moved to France three months later. It sounds simple. Surely that was not the case.

The Leach family (Julia, Bob, Penelope and Maruca, with Julia’s partner Caroline, left) are pictured in La Jolla, their home before moving to a chateau in France.

(Courtesy of Sherry Thevenot)

What prompted such a transition intrigues me even more than the accomplishment. Was it written in the stars? A pure romance with France? The perfect setting for a Netflix movie series? A new life ?

Whatever the reason, it was an incredible leap of faith, coupled with breathtaking hard work. The four women (Bob will join them later) now gather on site, assimilate everything, install their furniture shipped from La Jolla with the beautiful antiques and furniture left by the previous owners, check every nook and cranny, test every shower cap and mattress , noting every chip and crack, designing a more spacious kitchen, pool house and paint shop. Imagine a one-mile to-do list for each of them every morning.

La Jollan Tommy Carroll and I had the privilege of being their first paying B&B guests. We drove from the Dordogne region to Angouleme not far from Cognac, in the little known region of Charente, in what was long ago called Aquitaine. Puy Vidal is a further 20 minutes’ drive northeast of Angouleme, in unassuming farmland – what I call the “real” France. To me, that’s part of the appeal.

One kilometer from reaching our destination, our GPS failed. There were no signs, no crenellated walls, no conical-topped towers. A neighbor pointed the finger saying “Over there” (“over there”) to a group of large hidden trees. Going up, I recognized Maruca, who opened the great iron gate of the family’s new residence.

At first glance, we were seduced by the discreet charm of the turrets and old walls pierced with French windows and large mullioned windows embracing the courtyard on three sides. At second glance, through the entrance through the patio doors to the terrace and gardens, our breath was taken away. No sooner had we put down our suitcases than we were entitled to the complete “quick” visit which lasted more than an hour.

From top to bottom, inside and out, room after room – as if meant to give each guest a private space – this teasing maze of living and sleeping areas is rare, without talk about the many stone and wooden spiral staircases; niches; sun-drenched reading, music and games rooms; lush curtains; works of art and antiques. You can easily get lost, but what a treasure steeped in centuries of history.

Puy Vidal's large, elegant gardens include a manicured hedge maze.

Puy Vidal’s large, elegant gardens include a manicured hedge maze.

(Courtesy of Sherry Thevenot)

We were treated royally. No, better — like family. And this is one of the pleasures of staying in Puy Vidal. Despite the grandiose setting, there is an authentic and welcoming spirit, dare I say, more American than French.

After centuries of changing hands, general abandonment and of course the French Revolution, the castle was bought in 1972 by a family from the region. Having made a fortune in the manufacture of the famous slippers slippers, the members of the family invested themselves body and soul in restoring and furnishing the castle and replanting the gardens. Years after the factory closed, their children resettled in other parts of France. This is a common problem with castellans (owners of the castle) today.

So they decided to sell. They received offers from a French boutique hotel owner and from foreigners, including a Chinese family. But more than the most lucrative offer, they were looking for new owners who would cherish it as much as they did. Bingo!

Today, in the hands of the Leach family, Puy Vidal is preparing for all kinds of possibilities, not necessarily with a commercial scheme. Scratch Airbnb-style rentals and destination weddings. More in tune with their artistic and literary sensibilities would be a kind of cultural crossroads of workshops, seminars and courses. Come to France for a week of cooking, gardening, painting, French immersion, a writing workshop, a bike ride or just a big family reunion. You name it.

I can’t wait to do it all.

For more information on Puy Vidal, email [email protected].

Sherry Thevenot is a national guide and lecturer in France, where she has lived for nearly 50 years. She travels to La Jolla several times a year to see her friends and family.

About Michael B. Billingsley

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