In the Occitanie region of southwestern France, sits is an 18th-century neoclassical château in the commune of Château-Verdun that is not unlike a magical castle from a Charles Perrault fairy tale. Cinderella could have definitely escaped to Chateau de Gudanes with her beloved prince to live happily ever after.
Chateau de Gudanes is built on the site of a 13th-century fortress, and a castle that was destroyed in 1580. A chateau was built by Parisian architect Ange-Jacques Gabriel between 1741-1750 for the Marquis Louis-Gaspard de Sales, during the reign of King Louis XV. He would hold lavish parties and invited all the notables of the day.
Ange-Jacques himself designed the L’Opéra at the Château de Versailles, main theatre and opera house of the Palace of Versailles, and the École Militaire (military school). He had the support of Madame de Pompadour, official chief mistress of Louis XV. He also designed the royal residence of The Château de Compiègne for Louis XV as well as extended and transformed the Château de Choisy, also doing other major projects for the king.
In the late 1990’s, after an English consortium failed to restore and convert Gudanes into a luxury hotel containing 17 apartments, it fell to ruin. Being classified as a “monument historique,” the developers were denied the required building permissions.
It wasn’t until 2013 that two brave Western Australian souls, Craig Waters, a surgeon, & Karina his wife, a former corporate and tax accountant, managed to acquire the chateau after two years of bureaucratic negotiations. Documenting nearly 5 years of renovations on social media, Craig and Karina first discovered the chateau on a French property blog and immediately fell in love. They purchased the 43,000 square feet property for £280,000 after viewing the Chateau only once.“Despite all the damage we could already see that there was so much beauty there,” says Karina.
They started the arduous journey of renovating in the November of 2013, which they say will likely be a “lifelong commitment”. Unlike the previous buyers, Craig and Karina only wish to restore Gudanes to its former glory: “As the restoration journey progresses it becomes clearer to us each day that we need to learn to slowly adapt ourselves to the château, rather than forcibly demand her to adapt to us.”
When they first started, the roof had caved in several places and the walls were crumbling, blocking access areas in most of the chateau. All the other areas were inaccessible because of water damage. “All we could do was peek around the corners to see what was almost all rubble.” They removed more than 500 tonnes of rubble from the interior. Luckily, a good deal of the original interior remained.
Karina says, “Our aim is to tread lightly and gently, to preserve the atmosphere and authenticity of the Chateau and region as much as possible. The Chateau will be renovated but her rawness, wear and history will not be erased…
In keeping with this, we also plan to use energy efficient principles and sustainable refurbishment. This means up cycling and recycling as much as possible, including building materials, design features and decor.”“Decorating here is all about homespun touches. Finding an 18th-century Louis bed or chair at the local brocante or bric-a-brac is always exciting.”
So many wonderful treasures were uncovered and reused. They found stunning gilt framed decorative mirrors, doors, mantles, ornamental plaster, fresco paintings, and beautifully carved wood. “We have discovered some very interesting “finds” at the Château along the journey. The Château has revealed her history to us slowly.”
“Each time I am here I feel happier. The area is quite simply stunning, walking along ancient paths joining villages across the mountains… picking apples, pears and blackberries, gathering walnuts, searching for the plumpest figs, taking home a bag of mushrooms, breathing in cool fresh air, forgetting I own a mobile and learning more about the history of my home in France …” Karina said.
“I remember seeing small trees growing on the roof, most likely birds had dropped seeds that had become lodged in the 300-year-old slate! The French Government ended up replacing the roof to save it from complete devastation,” Karina told The Good Life France.
“It wasn’t habitable, there was no power, plumbing, water.”“Embracing the warm softness of candlelight to light the way as darkness approaches has now become something I can’t live without.”
“As we set up bedrooms and bathrooms, we began to fill the Château with what is meaningful to the heart of each room.”
“We don’t try to be anything we’re not, but I think the actual beauty of the chateau captures everyone’s imagination.”
“It won’t be about overcrowding the walls with paintings or overflowing the floors with furnishings, but will be relatively minimalistic – a place to simply rest, breathe and enjoy the calm.”“The château is a keeper of memories, and whatever we endeavour to do in the future will be about passing on and sharing these memories, and the past itself.”
“There’s no point in really even doing up a budget. Everything just gets blown out of the budget.”
Craig and Karina have started holding paid restoration workshops. This year will be the second year that they’re also opening up the chateau to share summer days and starry nights together. The brick-a-brac away costs €1,750 per person for 3 days and is filled with shopping, exploration and adventure.
To participate in restoring the castle costs €3,950 per person and is a week filled to the brim with activity.
“It’s just like taking yourself and putting yourself into another world, living in a building that was purposefully built in another century. We have electricity in about three rooms, but we don’t have it in our bedrooms, we have to take a candle.”
“But we’ve just had to toughen up and accept what our decision has been in doing this,” says Karina. “You don’t take on a historical monument and turn into a flaky person. It’s a moral responsibility.”
“It’s almost like we’re living in someone else’s dream,” she says. “We don’t delude ourselves that it’s something we’ve created.”
“The philosophy of the Château begins with our end intention to have created something that is both respectful and sympathetic to not only the Château herself, but also the region of France that she finds herself in. At the moment we are trying to tread lightly in the restoration until we have a greater understanding of what is sustainable and what will truly do justice to her past, present, and future”.
Craig and Karina are planning to put together a coffee table book about the restoration.
They have discovered what they think was once an escape tunnel leading to the local village that was used during World War II.
“The physical work has actually been the most personally satisfying part for us, enabling us to truly connect to Château de Gudanes and her history.”
The view of the Pyrenees.
“It wasn’t so much about escaping life over here – it was a journey about going to live life,” says Ms. Waters. “You get to a certain point in your life where you think ‘you’re a long time dead’.”Follow Karina and Craig on their journey. http://www.chateaugudanes.com/