27 June 2012 by Jessica Boston with Karin Twijnstra
Meet the Owner: Chateau le Val, Normandy
Karin Twijnstra was just 25 when she found and fell in love with Chateau le Val in Normandy. Originally from Holland, Karin was looking for a property that would allow her to live in unspoilt rural countryside with space for her horses and the potential to create holiday lets to provide an income.
The more urban landscape and prohibitive prices made her look outside her native Holland for the right property and she settled on Normandy as she already knew it well from holidays
Cotentin peninsula – charming, old fashioned & unspoilt
“My first impressions were that this was a place I wanted to live. I knew Normandy – Manche from holidays, it is a lovely peninsula with beautiful beaches and an unknown area for tourists, who often use this part of France just to travel through towards the south.
There are hardly any roads, the countryside is beautiful and the people live an old fashioned life – the whole area is charming”.
The chateau was the first property the estate agent showed her but he warned her buying the property would not be easy.
“He told me the chateau had been on the market for five years because there were ten owners who had inherited it from their father and they could never manage to all agree on a sale.”
In the end it took six months for Karin’s offer to be accepted and whilst she did carry on viewing other properties, nothing else compared.
“This property had so much charm, it is very pretty, the gardens are exceptional, I even found a young owl in the wood! I just fell in love with it and the position was perfect, in the middle of the Cotentin peninsula, just 15 minutes drive from the ferry at Cherbourg and 25 minutes to all beaches, north, east and west”.
In the end the storms in 1986 forced the owners to make a decision when it became clear a new roof was now urgently needed and the deal was done.
“There was so much to do to get the holiday lets sorted out, there were already five kitchens so the basic structure was there but we needed to replace the windows and roof and restore all the lovely original features – the amazing 16th century chimney breast in the main hall had been covered in white tiles and plaster, and exposing the pretty stone walls made such a difference.”
Incredibly Karin’s first guests were welcomed in April, just five months after she bought the property.
“I had to do it, we needed the income to carry on the renovations so we got two apartments up to standard and our kind friends and family booked holidays and came, and we even had my old driving instructor came for a holiday! Our first guests even brought their furniture with them as we had nothing, it was crazy times but so much fun.”
Restoration and conversion
Since then Karin has been able to complete the restoration of Chateau le Val and it now boasts five holiday apartments and three bed and breakfast rooms that can be booked separately or as a whole for parties, gatherings or weddings.
“The group bookings are amazing, it feels like what the place was made for – the medieval dining hall, outside terraces and grounds all busy with people enjoying themselves.
Christmas and New Year is especially wonderful with the log fires burning for a festive atmosphere, years ago we were able to use it ourselves and invite everyone here for Christmas, but now we are always booked with guests, which is great too of course!”
Prime location for Normandy’s attractions
The chateau is positioned within easy reach of the beaches and historical landmarks of Normandy, and Karin has even had American parachute jumpers come to stay to take part in the D-day celebrations.
There are local markets, bakeries and restaurants within easy reach, everything you could want from a holiday cottage with the added pleasure of the romantic, traditional beauty of the property and its surroundings.
A family holiday destination
In spite of its luxuriously decorated rooms and grand appearance,Karin is keen that the chateau is seen as a family destination.
“We are not precious about things here, it’s very informal. We love having children to visit and they love it too – in fact they usually don’t want to leave!”
It’s easy top see why – the chateau has five hectares of grounds including children’s adventure playground equipment, a lake with carp fishing, stables and paddocks for Karin’s three horses and two donkeys and plenty of countryside to play in and discover the local wildlife. Karin also has two dogs that are almost part of the sales team.
“A man came to view the chateau to see whether it was suitable to book for his 50th Wedding Anniversary celebrations and he loved the dogs, one of them ended up sleeping on his knee and I think it sealed the deal as he booked up straight away!”
Local inhabitants and traditions
It hasn’t always been easy though and some of the things that attracted Karin to the area, the rural traditions and quiet way of life, actually made it harder to fit in to the community. “When I first moved here I’d wave to people when I saw them on the road or wherever and they would ignore me. A friend explained that they wouldn’t greet strangers like that and I needed to get to know them first.”
It was a long process but local people were interested in seeing the chateau restored to its former glory and gradually warmed to Karin and she was able to make firm friends spending many a happy evening eating and drinking together ‘til the small hours.
“It’s a very insular area, a lot of the people here are very poor and live in a way we’d find impossible with no central heating or hot water – just living off the land with small farms. They are proud and kind people, we have some neighbours who always give me home grown carrots for the horses, and although they would think it very rude for me to offer them money I can repay the favour by giving them a bottle or two of wine and everyone is happy.
I also make sure I bring back Dutch cheese for another neighbour who has an organic farm if I visit Holland as he loves it and you can’t buy it here. It’s a simple life – and very French! I think most of the locals have forgotten I’m a foreigner in their midst now though”.
After fifteen years the chateau has lost none of its romance for Karin, she feels the same ‘wow’ that visitors get when they first come up the gravel drive every day.
Even having achieved so much there is always room for more improvements and Karin’s latest project is to convert the 16th century Pigeonnier into an antique-brocante shop for visitors to browse through. She is also considering creating ‘working’ holidays where people could come and help with projects in the gardens or chopping wood to stock up for the winter.
“It’s a fairytale castle! It’s hard work sometimes but I always feel very lucky to live here. It’s great being able to welcome new guests and see how much they enjoy it here being King or Queen of the castle for a week or two!”