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France's castles under siege

Chateau owners hard pressed by rising upkeep

BOUCARD, France -- When this village's fairy-tale chateau is viewed from afar, with its seven slender spires and fortress-like bearing, it is easy to imagine the genteel, pampered existence of the aristocrats who call it home.

But closer inspection shows that some of the graceful, elongated windows are missing panes, a bridge across the moat has collapsed and tiles are falling off the roof. Inside, pigeon and rodent droppings carpet vast areas that have been surrendered to the elements.

``It is a very heavy load for people who inherit a castle," lamented Marie-Henriette de Montabert, 74, the diminutive, square-shouldered matriarch whose family has owned Chateau de Boucard since 1720. She lives alone on the ground floor of a tower retrofitted with a kitchen, bath and heat. ``All of the castle owners have the same problem -- how to save your castle."

For hundreds of years, the French built defensive castles and opulent chateaux, bequeathing the national patrimony an estimated 40,000 of them. Now, the French have a problem.

Time and weather, war and looting, dwindling family fortunes, split inheritances and rising maintenance costs have left the countryside with thousands of eye-popping but decrepit monuments that are beyond the budgets of all but the most fabulously wealthy to maintain.

About 90 percent of the country's chateaux, a term that loosely applies to everything from castles to large manor houses, are not maintained properly because their owners cannot afford it, Le Nail said.

Some sell their properties or turn them into small hotels, some open them to the public and charge entrance fees, and others simply go on living in edifices that are collapsing around them.

Chantal de Bonneval thought she had found the solution when she and her husband inherited his family's 45-room chateau in Thaumiers, about 175 miles south of Paris, in 1977.

Because of the custom of splitting an inheritance, the chateau did not come with the surrounding lands that over the years had provided an income to maintain the building. So the new owners added 13 bathrooms to the existing four, repaired 40 leaks in the roof, and turned the chateau into a bed-and-breakfast.

But de Bonneval, 62, discovered that owning a chateau was an all-consuming, lifelong avocation that condemned her to toil and sacrifice. And ``as soon as you open it to visitors, it's not your home anymore -- it's a business," she said.

``There are so many things we haven't done while we were here -- cultural things, travel, see the family," she said. Normal maintenance for the chateau, which has been in her husband's family for 300 years, runs about $65,000 a year -- barely covered by the 500 annual guests.

``Thirty years ago, my husband said, `If we get past the year 2000, we've made it.' We did, and things have not changed at all. We put everything into this place for 30 years. We've worked like mad, and it's not possible to go on. We have hit the wall."

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