Cynthia Nicholson, 51, divides her time between home in New Jersey and the Loire Valley of France, where she and her husband own Chateau Challain, a château they rent to travelers via www.homeaway.com.
Q: How does one acquire a French castle?
A: Pure insanity. Our oldest son graduated from culinary school in 2001 and wanted to go to France. My grandmother had taken me to France years before and I fell in love with it. We had stayed at a château B&B, so I was looking for one online.
My background is in design and at the time I was designing a French-influenced house, so I was curious. I made some appointments because I wanted to peek around and figured we’d move around the countryside that way.
The day we arrived in Paris, we met with a couple different real estate people. The château I’d seen online was in northern France; I said, “Thanks, but no. We’re going south.” They said, “We have one that’s not for sale — but could be. Want to see some photos?”
My husband came up from the car, saw the photos, and said, “I have to have this.” Everybody thinks getting this place was my idea. But I’m not that crazy.
Q: How old is it?
A: They started construction in 1847 and completed it in 1854; It took 700-plus men, plus shops in Paris doing the woodwork. For 78,000 square feet, that was very fast. There had been a château there before, but not on the same spot, owned by Count Rochefoucauld. He had it taken down. What he then had built wasn’t in the same style; he wanted to build an impressive legacy.
Q: Did it cost an arm and a leg?
A: Because it was dilapidated, the issue wasn’t the initial cost. It’s the renovation and upkeep. We hired a contractor in Europe, but we have a construction company in New Jersey, so we — including our children and their friends — could do a lot of that ourselves. In nine months, we had it up and running as a B&B, with three suites finished plus some private quarters for ourselves.
Q: How many suites are there now?
A: In France, when you rent a place as a B&B, you’re only allowed to lease five. So we have five for that. Or, we rent the whole château: We have a total of nine suites. There’s not a bath in every bedroom; that’s sometimes hard for people to understand. It’s a home, not a hotel.
It’s kind of first-come, first-served. We book eight to 10 weddings maybe a year before. Most of the other guests just take whatever is available. We do midweek and weekends. B&B people are going to see what’s available maybe a month or two out; they don’t book far in advance.
By high-speed train, it’s an hour and a half from Paris to Angers; we’re about a 40-minute drive from the Angers station by taxi or rental car.
Q: What does the interior look like?
A: It’s mid-19th century with a neo-Gothic base design, which can be extremely masculine. So certain rooms have been made a little more feminine through colors.
Most renovated châteaux I’ve visited were remade modern. Overall in ours, there’s authentic furniture mixed with reproductions. It originally had one bathroom — they thought differently then; I did research — and during our renovation dressing rooms became bathrooms. I shipped in all the travertine or terra cotta bathroom tiles and other pieces to make the look as authentic as possible.
There’s only one TV is entire château — in a common area that’s a lounge or family room.
I have a bedroom in the château. There’s no wing that’s just mine.
Q: And the grounds?
A: We have 75 acres with forests and fields, also proper French gardens. So we have lots of paths. We have a horse-and-carriage that people can rent. No pool, but we have a lake. Every once in a while a guest brings fishing poles.
Q: What’s the price range?
A: From about $320 a night, breakfast included, up to about 400-and-some dollars.