(CNN) – After spending several years renovating a near-finished California home with her husband, the last thing graphic designer Mark Goff thought about was taking on another major project.
But curiosity got the best of him when a blog about the restoration of a ruined castle in France appeared on his computer screen, and he began to read it carefully.
Before he knew it, he began to find out how much the castle was worth, and figured out how quickly it could be sold and moved to Europe.
While it may take some time for some to consider the prospect of buying a huge derelict property and emigrating to another country, Goff’s husband, data engineer Philipp Engel, didn’t take much persuasion.
“He was on a conference call,” Goff tells CNN Travel. “I flipped the screen over and mouthed, “Would you like to buy a castle in the south of France, restore it and create a boutique hotel or entertainment venue?”
A few seconds after viewing the photographs on Goff’s screen, Engel gave him a thumbs up.
Mark Goff and Philippe Engel are the proud owners of Château Avensac, located in the French village of Avensac.
“He went back to his conference call and I started looking for plane tickets,” adds Goff.
Once they had made their decision, they had a small task to complete: finish their California home, put it up for sale, find a suitable lock, and begin the process of moving to another country.
Before taking the plunge, the couple made two study trips to France, where they toured French estates on the market to see what was available to them.
However, it took several years to get their affairs in order, and the Covid-19 pandemic further delayed their move.
Goff and Engel received their visas in late 2020, just over four years after the “life-changing snap” and moved to the south of France in December while the country was on lockdown.
When things reopened, they were able to view properties, focusing their search on Geres, a rural area in southwestern France.
Unfortunately, their initial choice didn’t pan out, but they soon found a historic castle in the tiny village of Avensack, with a population of less than 50, that fit the bill.
“We fell in love with him,” says Goff. “The castle itself is amazing. The location where it is located is amazing.”
“Lords of the Castle”
The castle has about 48 rooms, including a billiard room, a library and wine tea.
After proposing in March, they became “owners of the castle” in September 2021.
About 1,200 square meters Chateau Avensac with just under 3 hectares of land cost them about $1.2 million including taxes. The act they signed is about 700 years old.
According to Goff, the previous owners were three siblings who inherited the property from their father, a French count.
“They grew up in this house, so it was very difficult for them to part with it,” he explains.
Although the castle appears to have been built in the early 19th century, it was actually built on the site of an older castle dating from the 14th century. It has about 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 castles with 90 to 120 rooms.”
While they consider themselves “point zero”, Goff and Engel have big plans for the property, which requires a significant amount of work.
None of them have extensive experience in the hospitality industry, but they certainly do not lack ideas.
“We don’t want to just make a boutique hotel where people come and stay,” says Goff. “Our goal is to create events where you come to the castle, stay for a week and do something else.
Creating a fantasy
Goff and Engel plan to turn the building into a boutique hotel and entertainment space.
“Things like cooking, knitting, painting, biking, canal cruises and even creative writing,” he adds.
“Each week will be sort of focused on some kind of focus. It’s all about creating that fantasy and experience. Fantasy is the most important part.”
They believe that the hotel will be the perfect wedding venue and plan to host weddings in the future.
“Our target, of course, will be the Americans, because that’s what we know,” adds Goff, before adding that over time, they tend to move out of their comfort zone.
Although it will take a lot of hard work to transform the castle, the couple says they are determined to preserve the essence of the place.
“We are for restoration, not reconstruction,” explains Goff. “Therefore, we save every detail that is.
“That’s part of what attracted us to this property. They didn’t mess with her. The setup is just great. We don’t need to add anything. We’re just recreating what was already there.”
Although the castle is “definitely in the countryside”, it is relatively easy to get to as Toulouse-Blagnac International Airport is about 45 minutes away.
Because they arrived during the pandemic and rented a house outside the village during the buying process, Goff and Engel did not have the opportunity to meet the locals for quite some time.
Lengthy restoration work
The couple say they plan to do most of the “core work” themselves.
“Probably at some point it became known that the castle was sold, and these Americans are coming,” says Engel.
In an effort to make a good impression, they invited their new neighbors to celebrate the day the contracts were signed.
“We opened the doors and said, ‘Come in.’ And people are like, “Really?” We told them to wander around and have fun,” says Goff.
They were delighted when various locals showed up and started exploring the area.
“The previous owners were very, very private,” explains Engel. “So some of them [the villagers] We have lived all our lives in the village and have never been inside.
Goff and Engel have since thrown a Halloween party for the entire village and say they want the locals to feel part of their castle experiment.
“Of course, this is our home,” says Engel. “But in a way, it also belongs to the community.”
But it was not only parties and holidays for the couple, there were many things to do.
Although they plan to do most of the “main work” at the castle themselves, Goff and Engel enlist artisans to handle the infrastructure.
“We’re trying to find a way to present ourselves on YouTube a little differently and to entertain people,” explains Goff. “We don’t want to be talking heads.”
One challenge they’ve focused on is adding bathrooms to the bedrooms.
They are currently working through their plans with an interior designer and describe their style as “traditional with a bit of a twist”.
Mark and Philippe make the most of life in the French countryside and say they are accepted by the locals.
“The bathrooms are all designed in a very classical style because bathrooms never existed (when the castle was built),” says Goff.
Some of the lights they looked at are modeled after the first photos of the Waldorf Astoria New York.
Ultimately, Goff and Engel plan to install air conditioners in the bedrooms. However, the suggestion of this caused surprise in their village.
“It feels like you don’t need air conditioning here,” says Engel. “I mentioned this previous owner and she gave me a strange look. But we’re expecting a lot of Americans, and they’re expecting certain things.”
They currently keep the shutters only a few inches open during the day during the summer and open them in the evening, which seems to be the more typical approach to castle life in France.
Although they have a very specific design vision, Goff and Engel admit that their budget may not be as big as they expected.
“The work turned out to be a lot more expensive than we thought,” says Goff, explaining that he and Engel used the money left over from the sale of their California home to pay for repairs.
“If we were sensible, we could buy a castle, maybe a little cheaper,” adds Engel.
“And then we would have enough funds to really make proper repairs. But we are unintelligent, so we had to go the other way.”
This “other way” involved postponing various projects until they had the funds to complete them.
Goff and Engel hope to open several rooms in the castle next year.
Among the plans they’ve had to shelve is turning their wine café, an open-air wine storage facility, into a “massive entertainment dining space with a stage and stage lighting.”
“It will be a wonderful addition. Because then we can have big indoor parties without getting in the way of anyone,” notes Goffs.
They have had a hard time signing up for some construction work as contractors in the area have been besieged since the pandemic and are simply too busy to join them.
“This is a big project,” says Engel. “Some electrical items date back to the 1930s.”
Understandably, the language barrier has also proved to be a problem. Although both speak some French, full-fledged conversations with the French contractors proved to be quite difficult, which slowed things down somewhat.
But while the renovation process hasn’t been as easy as they’d like, the couple are confident they’ll be able to open a few rooms by next year.
“We hope to have something up and running by 2023 to start generating a small amount of revenue to keep moving forward,” explains Goff. “We want to do some trial events to get back on our feet.”
Currently, Goff and Engel are enjoying life at the castle and say that every day is an adventure for them.
“That’s the part we love,” Engel says. “It [the chateau] a bit glued up but livable and we made it through the winter with our limited heating system.”
While they look forward to finally hosting Chateau Avensac, they are enjoying the fact that the place is theirs and slowly but surely seeing the fruits of their labor.
“It’s exciting and fun,” says Goff. “We’re definitely in the honeymoon stage.”
Correction: In an earlier version of this story, both the story and the title state the number of bedrooms in the castle.