After spending several years renovating a nearly finished California home with his husband, the last thing graphic designer Mark Goff was thinking about was taking on another big project.
But curiosity got the better of him when a blog about renovating a ruined chateau in France popped up on his computer screen, and he began reading it intently.
Before he knew it, he was looking up how much a chateau costs and working out how quickly they could sell up and move to Europe.
While some might need a little time to mull over the prospect of buying a huge neglected property and emigrating to a foreign country, Goff’s husband, data engineer Phillip Engel, didn’t take much convincing.
“He was on a conference call,” Goff tells CNN Travel. “I turned my screen around, and just mouthed the words, ‘Would you like to buy a chateau in the south of France, restore it and create a boutique hotel or an entertainment venue?’”
A few seconds after clicking through the photos on Goff’s screen, Engel gave him the thumbs up.
“He went back to his conference call, and I started looking at plane tickets,” adds Goff.
Once they’d made the decision, there was the small task of finishing the work on their California house, putting it on the market, selling it, finding a suitable chateau and going about the process of relocating to a foreign country.
Before taking the plunge, the couple made two “discovery” trips to France, where they viewed French manor houses on the market to see what was available to them.
However, it would take a few years to get their affairs in order, and the Covid-19 pandemic delayed their move even further.
Goff and Engel were granted a visa towards the end of 2020, just over four years after “the click that changed the path of their lives” and moved to the south of France in December, while the country was in lockdown.
When things opened up again, they were able to view properties, focusing their search around Gers, a rural region in southwestern France.
Unfortunately their original choice fell through, but they soon found a listed historic chateau in the tiny village of Avensac, which has a population of less than 50, that ticked all the right boxes.
“We fell in love with it,” says Goff. “The chateau itself is amazing. The situation where it sits is amazing.”
‘Lords of the chateau’
After putting in an offer in March, they became “the lords of the chateau” in September 2021.
Chateau Avensac, which measures roughly 1,200 square meters, with just under 3 hectares of land, set them back around $1.2 million, including taxes. The deed they signed goes back around 700 years.
According to Goff, the previous owners were three siblings who’d inherited the property from their father, a French count.
“They had grown up in that house, so letting it go was very difficult for them,” he explains.
Although the chateau was apparently built in the early 19th century, it was actually constructed on the site of an older chateau dating back to the 14th century. It has around 48 rooms, including a billiard room and a library.
“It’s a manageable size,” says Goff. “I mean, it’s huge. But it’s a manageable size. I have seen chateaus that are 90 to 120 rooms.”
While they consider themselves to be at “ground zero,” Goff and Engel have big plans for the property, which is in need of a considerable amount of work.
Neither have any major hospitality experience, but they’re certainly not lacking in ideas.
“We don’t want to just do a boutique hotel where people come and spend the night,” says Goff. “Our goal is to create events where you come to the chateau, stay for a week, and do stuff.
Creating a fantasy
“So things like cooking, knitting painting, cycling, canal cruising, even creative writing,” he adds.
“Each week will be sort of centered around some sort of focus. It’s all about creating that fantasy and an experience. The fantasy is the most important part.”
They believe the property would be an ideal wedding venue, and are keen to host weddings further down the line.
“Our target of course will be Americans, because that’s what we know,” adds Goff, before adding that they’re keen to step outside their comfort zone in due course.
While it’s going to take a lot of hard work to makeover the chateau, the pair say they’re determined to keep the essence of the place.
“We are pro restoration, not renovation,” explains Goff. “So every detail that is there, we are keeping.
“That’s part of what attracted us to the property. It hasn’t been messed around with. The setup is just so great. We don’t have to add anything. We’re just recreating what was already there.”
Although the chateau is “definitely in the countryside,” it’s relatively easy to reach, with international Toulouse-Blagnac Airport around a 45-minute drive away.
As they arrived during the pandemic and rented a home outside the village during the buying process, Goff and Engel didn’t get a chance to meet the locals for quite a while.
Lengthy restoration work
“At one point, I guess word got out that the chateau was sold, and these Americans were coming,” says Engel.
Keen to make a good impression, they invited their new neighbors around to celebrate on the day they signed the contracts.
“We threw the doors open and said ‘Go on in.’ And people were like ‘really?’ We told them to wander around and have fun,” says Goff.
They were thrilled when various locals showed up and began exploring the grounds.
“The previous owners were very, very private,” explains Engel. “So some of them [the villagers] had lived in the village their whole lives and never been inside.”
Goff and Engel have since hosted a Halloween party for the entire village, and say they want locals to feel included in their chateau experiment.
“Of course, it’s our house,” says Engel. “But in a way it belongs to the community as well.”
But it hasn’t all been parties and fete’s for the couple, there’s been plenty to get on with.
While they plan to do most of the “core work” on the chateau themselves, Goff and Engel are bringing in artisans to deal with the infrastructure side of things.
They’ve been recounting their renovation adventures on their blog, At the Chateau, and have also launched a YouTube channel, where they plan to host live streams from Chateau Avensac.
“We’re trying to find a way to present ourselves on YouTube a little differently, and keep people more entertained,” explains Goff. “We don’t want to be talking heads.”
One of the tasks they’ve been focusing on is adding en suite bathrooms to the bedrooms.
They’re currently working through their plans with an interior designer, and describe their style as “traditional with a little edge of surprise.”
“The bathrooms are all being designed to be very classic, because a bathroom never existed (when the chateau was built],” says Goff.
Some of the fixtures they’ve been looking at are modeled on the first pictures from the Waldorf Astoria New York.
Goff and Engel eventually plan to install air-conditioning in the bedrooms. However, the suggestion of this has raised eyebrows in their village.
“There is a feeling here that you don’t need air-conditioning,” says Engel. “I mentioned it to the previous owner and she just sort of looked at me oddly. But we’re expecting a lot of Americans, and they expect certain things.”
For the time being, they are getting by keeping the shutters open just a few inches during the day in summertime and opening them up in the evening, which is apparently a more typical approach to chateau life in France.
Although they have a very specific design vision, Goff and Engel admit that their budget may not stretch as far as they’d anticipated
“The work has turned out to be a lot more expensive than we thought it would be,” says Goff, explaining that he and Engel have been using the money left over from the sale of their Californian home to pay for the renovation.
“If we were sensible, we could have bought a chateau for maybe a little bit cheaper,” adds Engel.
“And then we would have had enough funds to really do the proper renovation. But we’re not sensible, so we’ve had to go the other route.”
That “other route” has involved pushing back various projects until they have the funds to complete them.
Among the plans they’ve had to put on hold is transforming their wine chai, an outdoor wine storage area, into “a massive entertainment dining space with a stage and stage lighting.”
“It will be an amazing addition. Because, then we can have big indoor, late night things without disturbing anyone,” notes Goffs.
They’ve found it hard to book in some of the building work, as contractors in the area have been besieged since the pandemic and are simply too busy to come on board.
“It’s a big project,” says Engel. “Some of the electrics date back to the 1930s.”
Understandably, the language barrier has also proved to be challenging. While both speak some French, having full on conversations with French contractors has proved to be rather difficult, which has slowed things down somewhat.
But although the renovation process hasn’t been as easy as they would have liked, the couple are confident that they’ll be in the position to open up a few rooms by next year.
“We hope to get something up and running for 2023 to start bringing a little income in to keep supporting moving forward,” explains Goff. “We want to do some trial events to get our feet on the ground.”
For the time being, Goff and Engel are making the most of life in the chateau and say that every day is an adventure for them.
“This is the part we love,” says Engel. “It [the chateau] is a little pasted together, but it is livable, and we got through the winter with our limited heating system.”
While they’re looking forward to finally being able to welcome guests into Chateau Avensac, they are enjoying having the place to themselves, as well as seeing the fruits of their labor, slowly but surely.
“It’s exciting and fun,” says Goff. “We’re certainly in the honeymoon stage.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated in the story and headline the chateau's number of bedrooms.