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Guest commentary: For new chateau owners, it’s au revoir, La Jolla, hello, France

Chateau Puy Vidal, a 13th-century former fortress, is the new home of the Leach family, formerly of La Jolla.
Chateau Puy Vidal, a 13th-century former fortress with 12 bedrooms, 11 bathrooms and eight living rooms, is the new home of the Leach family, formerly of La Jolla.
(Courtesy of Sherry Thevenot)

Once upon a time … .

The story of Chateau Puy Vidal could easily start like that.

In January, I was told that a family down the street from where I was staying in La Jolla had just bought a castle in France and was planning to move there. My antenna went straight up. How crazy is that? I live in France but dream of living here.

Unannounced, I knocked on the family’s door. Bonjour … The door opened onto a beautiful interior. Busy as she was, Maruca Leach, mother of the household, invited me to sit. An hour later, my head was caught up in a marvelous modern-day fairy tale.

It begins with the eldest daughter, Julia, who, like many young girls raised on Cinderella, dreamed of living like a princess in a castle. I, for one, can relate. Only her dream persisted and persisted until it came true.

At age 12, Julia was already looking into high-end real estate in Europe. Charming idea, everyone thought. Nourished on romantic films and novels, she and her sister Penelope had traveled with their parents to Europe numerous times. They all fell in love with the ancient walled cities, chateaus and churches. Who doesn’t?

Over the years, Julia studied every chateau for sale that she could glean from ads. Undoubtedly her dream was fanned, after graduating in anthropology, by her first real job in the film industry in New York City. On a set, she met Caroline, her partner, who was working in the camera department. Together they pursued the search for the right chateau, mostly online. To fly off to visit each one was hardly possible.

Then one day last December, Julia found what she wanted — Puy Vidal, a 13th-century fortress turned Renaissance chateau in the 16th century. Today it consists of 12 bedrooms, 11 bathrooms, eight living rooms, extensive elegant gardens with a manicured hedge maze, a swimming pool and much more.

Now what? Hey, Mom, check this out!

Julia’s family is not ordinary. Her parents — Maruca (an accomplished Mexican-born painter) and Bob (a San Diego State University researcher in astronomy and a significant contributor to the Webb space telescope) — sister Penelope (an economics graduate living in NYC) and partner Caroline (a camera assistant from New York) didn’t just approve of the idea, they rallied with all their support for the kind of crazy dream. This chateau was not just going to be a vacation place — it would be their new home.

They engaged in French lessons, French cuisine, gobbled up French history and prepared for an onslaught of very complicated paperwork.

They made an offer sight unseen. About six months later, they sold their beautiful home in La Jolla and moved to France three months after that. It sounds simple. Assuredly, it was not.

The Leach family in La Jolla, their home before moving to a chateau in France.
The Leach family (Julia, Bob, Penelope and Maruca, with Julia’s partner, Caroline, at left) are pictured in La Jolla, their home before moving to a chateau in France.
(Courtesy of Sherry Thevenot)

Whatever motivated such a transition is even more intriguing to me than the accomplishment. Was it written in the stars? A sheer romance with France? The perfect setting for a Netflix film series? A new lease on life?

Regardless of the reason, it was an amazing leap of faith, coupled with breathtakingly hard work. The four women (Bob will join them later) are now collecting themselves onsite, taking it all in, fitting in their furniture shipped from La Jolla with the beautiful antiques and furnishings left by the previous owners, checking every nook and cranny, testing every shower cap and mattress, noting every chip and crack, designing a more spacious kitchen, a pool house and a painting studio. Imagine a kilometer-long to-do list for each of them every morning.

La Jollan Tommy Carroll and I had the privilege of being their first paying B&B guests. We drove from the Dordogne area to Angouleme not far from Cognac, in the little-known region of Charente, in what was better known a long time ago as Aquitaine. Puy Vidal is an additional 20-minute drive northeast of Angouleme, in unpretentious farmland — what I call “real” France. For me, that is part of the attraction.

One kilometer from reaching our destination, our GPS went awry. There were no signs, no crenelated walls, no cone-topped towers. A neighbor pointed, saying “Par là" (“over there”) to a cluster of tall, concealing trees. Driving up, I recognized Maruca, who opened the great iron gate to the family’s new residence.

At first glance, we were seduced by the low-key charm of the turrets and ancient walls pierced with French doors and large mullioned windows embracing the courtyard on three sides. At second glance, through the entry out the French doors onto the terrace and gardens, our breath was taken away. No sooner had we put down our bags, were we given the “quick” full tour that lasted over an hour.

Up and down, in and out, room after room — as if intended to give a private space to every guest — this teasing labyrinth of living and sleeping quarters is rare, not to mention the numerous stone spiral and wood staircases; niches; reading, music and game rooms full of sunlight; lush curtains; artwork and antiques. One can easily get lost, but what a treasure imbued with centuries of history.

Puy Vidal's extensive elegant gardens include a manicured hedge maze.
(Courtesy of Sherry Thevenot)

We were treated royally. No, better — like family. And that is one of the delights about staying at Puy Vidal. Despite the grand setting, there is a genuine, welcoming spirit that, dare I say, is more American than French.

After centuries of changing hands, enduring general neglect and, of course, the French Revolution, the chateau was purchased in 1972 by a family from the region. Having made a fortune in the manufacture of the famous French Charentaises slippers, the family members invested heart and soul in restoring and furnishing the chateau and replanting the gardens. Years after the factory closed, their children had reestablished themselves in other parts of France. This is a common problem among chatelains (chateau owners) today.

So they decided to sell. They received bids from a French boutique hotel owner and foreigners including a Chinese family. But more than the most lucrative offer, they were looking for new owners who would cherish it as much as they did. Bingo!

Today, in the hands of the Leach family, Puy Vidal is getting prepped for all kinds of possibilities, not necessarily with any commercial scheme. Scratch Airbnb-style rentals and destination weddings. More in tune with their artistic and literary sensitivities would be a sort of cultural hub for workshops, seminars and classes. Come to France for a week of cooking, gardening, painting, French immersion, a writers workshop, a biking tour or simply a big family gathering. You name it.

I can hardly wait to do it all.

For more information on Puy Vidal, email admin@ladyofthechateau.com.

Sherry Thevenot is a national guide and lecturer in France, where she has lived for nearly 50 years. She travels to La Jolla several times a year to see friends and family.