Comtesse Maeve Hoffman, an Irish woman who moved to France to create the ultimate dream renovation, tells us her story.
My parents were huge Francophiles and spent nearly all their holidays in France once we had gone off to college. So while I never initially got to go on holidays with them they were both real Irish story tellers. They would regale us over the winter months about their various adventures in France during the summer and instilled in me a real interest and love of France. And of course, there was always the wine they brought back to help oil the stories and give a flavour of their experiences!
In 1998 I went to see for myself. A friend had bought a house in Brittiany and was spending her first summer there, so I got an extended holiday and spent 5 weeks with her and fell head over heels in love with France. I had studied French in school and was very poor at it, but it was still there deeply embedded in my brain and after a few glasses of wine, when I stopped worrying about my accent, it started to flow.
My first foray into French property was a little house in Brittany, literally 2 up 2 down. It became too small for friends and family to stay at, and by 2005 I was looking for something bigger. My husband got it into his head that a Chateau or Manor house would be a dream come true and spent 6 months on the internet looking at various properties and we narrowed it down to 10. We came over in January and drove around Brittany looking at one house after another all of which were all wrong. One was next to a pig sty, one to a motorway, and one had a preservation order on the wallpaper which was peeling off the walls. It seemed that for our budget the Chateau dream was not going to happen. So there was one left, further south in the Vendee, so we packed a bag and assumed it would be a bust too. How wrong we were, it was literally the lightning strike the French call a Coupe de Foudre, and in an instant a love affair began. Château De Puybelliard became ours.
The Chateau was built in 1856 by the Querqui family who had been in the area for centuries. Many of the Querqui men stood as the local mayor time and again until the family died out in the 1930s. The Chateau was occupied by the Nazis during the war and came back into the hands of its owner the Barrier family after the war. They lived here until 1983 when Madame Barrier died, having lived for years alone and in only one room of the house. An ownership dispute left the house totally unoccupied for many years and successive owners in the 90s did remedial work to save the Chateau from total ruin. But it was in a sad state of neglect when we arrived.
Since 2006 it has been a labour of love to make the Chateau live again. As a student of History in TCD, I researched the paint colours and furnishings that were typical of the era and have tried to restore it sympathetically. In some cases that has meant repairing but not restoring. Some of the artisan skills of the era just don’t exist anymore and I did not want to create a pastiche. Just furnishing the Chateau and putting back all the Chandeliers stolen back in the 90s took over 2 years of scouring antique shops, auctions, house clearances and the ubiquitous French Vide Grenier (car boot sale, literally: attic clearance.)
I opened the business in 2012 and have run a successful Chambre d’Hote and Restaurant, winning praise and strong reviews for the “Irish” touches I use in traditional French cuisine. However the law changed here in France making it obligatory to make the Chateau wheelchair accessible. If I wished to stay open to the public I had to comply. After a long investigation with an architect on the impact on the building and its heritage plus the cost, I decided unfortunately I would need to close to the public. Thereafter I have offered the Chateau to rent out on an exclusive basis for small weddings, family or groups of friends or for corporate events. It still means so much to be able to share the real experience of living in a Chateau with our guests.
Now however it is time for a change, the Chateau has two beautiful outbuildings which are ripe for renovation, and due to a change in financial circumstances it cannot be me who takes the Chateau on its next evolution in history, so sadly, for me, it is up for sale.
What an incredible family home or business it makes, 10 bedrooms, 4 reception rooms, a professional kitchen, a coach house and Orangery, gardens and woodlands all in a very small pretty historic village but close to shops, bars and restaurants. This is all located in the second-sunniest department in France.
But I am not leaving France, it has become my home away from home. The people are so friendly, the pace of life is balanced and the weather… well it’s the 27th of January it is 12 degrees and the sun is shining high and bright, just looking out the window makes me happy!
So I have a new plan and a new renovation, an old bar in the medieval town of Mervent just 30 minutes further south, which I plan renovate to create a very untypical French space. For inspiration, think the Trocedero restaurant in Dublin. It is warm and cosy inside with the most incredible view over the river and surrounding forest. Here we are going to offer speciality wine and cocktails and food with an Irish twist, Irish brown bread, homemade butter and salmon cured with Jameson’s. It will be my little corner of Ireland in La Belle France.