Turn passion to profit, learn how to enjoy a French chateau

by | May 12, 2000 | Archives

Here is a business idea that can reap rich rewards and enhance your life.

Ever meet someone who seems to be on a parallel path in life? Two of Merri's and my friends, Bill and Elizabeth Bonner are that way. We both started international newsletters about the same time (20 years ago) and then we started seminar businesses about the same time. We all had enough success that we could do just about whatever we wished and all decicde to live in the country. But we are all business people, so we couldn't just head for the hills to sit in our rocking chairs. When you are an entrepreneur everytihng you do is involved with business, sometimes even your home. Thas because doing what you love is business and business is what you love.

So Merri and I have our farm here in North Carolina (where you'll be able to attend courses shortly) and our plantation in Ecuador (where you can stay now when you want to drop out click on http://www.littlehorsecreek.com to know more). Bill and Elizabeth reconstructed a French Chateau. Here is what Elizabeth Bonner recently said about this incredible place.

“The chateau d'Ouzilly is a Renaissance-style chateau set in the midst of a 350-acre farm in Poitou, about 2½ hours south of Paris by train. The fief of Ouzilly was first mentioned in written records in the 15th-century, when it was a small fortified residence of the seigneur. The land was probably cultivated by the Romans, who expanded into Poitou after the conquest of the Gallic tribes and stayed until Barbarian invasions drove them south in the second century AD. The ruins of a Roman villa just down the road from the present-day Ouzilly are visible in aerial photographs.

Over the succeeding centuries, the original square tower was enlarged into a 25-room chateau…three-stories of cream-colored stone surmounted by a steeply-pitched grey slate roof and tall brick chimneys. The house is surrounded by lawns, flower gardens, a landscape park with magnificent specimen trees, a “potager,” or walled vegetable garden, a walled orchard, and woods and fields as far as the eye can see.

Like most chateaux, Ouzilly was the center of an busy community oriented around agriculture…there are farmhouses, a gatehouse, the gamekeeper's apartment, lodging for the grooms, as well as a laundry, creamery, metal-working shop, wood-working shop, wine cellar, handsome poultry yards, pigsties, stables, and cattle sheds. Today, when much of the farm and housework is mechanized, Ouzilly no longer needs its little village of 50 souls, but the old connections to the families that worked at Ouzilly for generations still exist. François, who came to Ouzilly as a little boy, and his wife, who looked after the children of the chateau when she arrived at Ouzilly at the age of 14, still live in a farmhouse across the way. François is now an experienced cattle breeder and works with the former owner of Ouzilly to raise the purebred Limousine cattle that graze in our pastures. When an aged relative living with us became ill, she was nursed by Andrée, who entered the Ouzilly household as a cook's assistant at the age of 12. The small dairy nearby, where we buy our milk, is run by a man born at Ouzilly, and our first housekeeper here is the granddaughter of the baker who once keep the huge bread oven at Ouzilly hot and baking bread for the entire village. Our plasterer and mason worked at Ouzilly as a young man, inheriting his post from his grandfather and uncle who were both employed building and making repairs on the numerous walls and structures.

These strong connections to the past, the sense of tradition, and the respect for time-honored customs and manners, were not what initially drew us to Ouzilly. We discovered these qualities after living here, and have grown to appreciate them as much as the beautiful countryside and the tranquil pace of life.

Poitou is often referred to as “le trou perdu,” a part of France so remote from modernity that it seems to have missed much of the 20th century. The first tractor did not appear at Ouzilly, then a vast family-run enterprise of over 1,000 acres, until 1956. We still have several complete sets of harness in the stable, and when I suggested throwing some of it away, François was shocked. “This is good harness,” he said reprovingly, as if we might need it soon. In his early life, oxen; horses, and human muscle did most of the work of managing livestock and of plowing, sowing, mowing, and harvesting. Even today, life in Poitou seems to be rhythmed to the steady pace of the seasons, to the waning or waxing of days. Jacques, the gardener, would no more prune a fruit tree during the new moon than he would transplant parsley (said to bring about a death in the family), or put out tomato plants before the passages of the saints glaces (the “ice saints” that bring sudden frost in May). Poitou still retains the ambiance of a time when life was bounded by the distance a horse could travel in a day, when the modern media had not usurped the role of tradition and custom in determining manners, dress, and morals, when life, in imagination at least, was simpler and more pleasant.

Of course, the 20th century has made its mark on Poitou. The economic challenges of maintaining a large agricultural estate and a chateau in the days of high taxation, expensive labor, and upheavals in distribution and farming methods, as well as personal misfortunes, took a severe toll on the family that had owned Ouzilly since the French Revolution. When we bought the chateau, we took on a restoration and renovation project that exceeded our most pessimistic estimates. The condition of the chateau, in fact, proved so daunting for our family of four young children, ailing governess, and born-again carpenter that we decamped to the farmhouse. The chateau's vast roof was a sieve, the kitchen reminded us of the prison scenes in Dickens' Little Dorrit, the chimneys smoked, and the heating system was so antiquated that we got warmer loading it with wood than huddling near the radiators. There was one toilet and the hot-water tank seemed to be screaming for mercy whenever we filled a tub.

We've been at Ouzilly for four years now, and are glad to be able to say that we love it now more than when we first saw it on a lovely spring afternoon in May. In the summer, we sit under the linden tree for tea, and play croquet and badminton on the lawn. We enjoy our verandah on warm afternoons, and build cozy fires in the billiard room in cold days. We've explored the surrounding countryside on horseback and bicycle, and visited every antique dealer for miles around in an entertaining and instructive search for period furnishings. We have discovered medieval villages, 11th-century churches, restored and ruined chateaux, and the remains of a Roman temple, all less than an hour from Ouzilly. Farther afield, we have explored the Limousin region to the south, the Creuse region to the east, and the Atlantic coast to the west.

Touring around Ouzilly

Ouzilly is situated at the southern limit of Poitou, just minutes from the frontier, as it was in ancient times, with Limousin. Limousin is a rolling, green country of tree-bordered pastures, hedgerows, and sunflower fields (in full glory in August). Minutes away is lovely little Le Dorat, with its 11th-century Collegiale, an impressive Romanesque church that was a frequent stop on the medieval pilgrimage to Saint-Jacques de Compostelle in Spain. Le Dorat is also locally famous for its chocolatier, porcelain factory (great prices on white Limoges patterns) and has several good restaurants. During the summer, the town holds horse shows. Further south, are the Monts de Blonds, where megaliths still stand amid the hills.

Also nearby is the chateau de Pruniers, a restored 14th-century fortified farm that hosts tours and intimate classical and jazz concerts in its Great Hall. The chateau of Bourg-Archamboult, an impressive Renaissance chateau complete with a moat, is known for its tiled and frescoed medieval chapel. Montmorillon, our local town, is famous for its Octagone, an ancient funerary chapel, and related medieval buildings, and also has its own famed local chocolatier and macaroon-maker, as well as a five-star restaurant. During the summer, the town hosts workshops on the theme of “the book”: bookbinding, calligraphy, illumination of manuscripts, and so on. There is excellent tennis and a new swimming pool (although we often swim in the Gartempe River or the waterfalls of the Brame, near the chateau). Lathus, five minutes away, has an excellent riding center, run by a member of the Equipe de France, Christophe Guillemet. The local kayak/canoe center runs expeditions or rents boats, and there is a lake (built by monks in the 12th century) where sailboats are rented.

These are just a taste of the tourist possibilities…there are, of course, the cities of Limoges and Poitiers, an hour away, the chateaux of the Loire Valley, two hours away, and many fascinating chateaux, churches, megalithic monuments, and museums nearby.”

But what does this have to do with business, you might ask? The point is that Merri and I are living and doing what we love, yet we have figured out how to generate revenue from this activity. So have Elizabeth and bill. They allow readers of their newsletters to stay at the chateau. They have extended this courtesy to my readers as well.

Here are details about the farmhouse, maison de gardien, and other accommodations at Ouzilly whee you can stay.

The farmhouse, where our family lived for four months while we were renovating the electricity and plumbing at the chateau, is a long one-story stone house with a living room, a full kitchen/living room with fireplace (with showers), and three bedrooms. The living room can sleep two or more, and there is a large open room under the eaves, with windows looking out to barns, fields, and woods, which can be arranged as a sleeping space. The price for a week in June, July, and August is 7,000 francs for up to four people in three bedrooms, and an additional 1,000 francs per week for each additional person. Out of season, the farmhouse is available for 5,000 francs for up to four with a 500-franc supplement for each additional person.

The maison de gardien stands at the gates of the chateau. It is a charming 19th-century two-story stone cottage, with a slate roof, brick chimney, and gabled windows. Flowers bloom on either side of the granite steps. This tiny little house, the perfect size for two, was the childhood home of François and his two brothers. Times have changed! There is now a full bathroom, with tub, on the second floor, and a kitchen/dining room/living room on the ground floor. There is a pantry, with a full-sized window, which can convert into a small bedroom with bunk beds for children or a cot for an adult. The maison de gardien is available for 5,000 francs for two, with a charge of 1,000 francs for the additional bedroom. The out-of-season rate is 4,000 francs for two, 500-franc per person supplement.

The gamekeeper's apartment is a rustic two-room apartment near the stables, where the garde de chasse lived. There are still boar and deer hunts at Ouzilly, but the hunt employs its own gameskeeper to scout out the game and encourage it to linger. (I once spotted a small herd of boar in the early morning mist, and rushed back home, in some alarm, with the news. Within hours M. Tournesol was on the scene with a load of corn to tempt the animals to stay in the vicinity. To my relief and his disappointment, they moved on.) The apartment is part of the basse-cour complex, and is attached to the splendid early 19th-century barns and stables. There is a kitchen/dining/living room with fireplace, full bathroom with tub, and a bedroom under the eaves that sleeps two. June, July, and August rates are 3,500 francs for two, out of season rates are 2,000 francs per month.

Here is the final and main point I wish to share with you. Living deep in the Blue Ridge mountains, far back in an Andeans higlands or in a remote French chateau are about as unusual as you can get. Yet each has been turned into a thriving successful business. This proves you can (and should) turn your passion into profit! Good life, investing and business.