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Living the dream: the commoners who bought a French castle

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By Reuters
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By Elizabeth Pineau

LESTROIS-MOUTIERS, France (Reuters) – For most of the year, Willy Nanlohij, a 62-year-old retired bank worker, lives with his wife Hilda in a comfortable yet unremarkable home in the Dutch city of Enschede.

But on Saturday night, the couple were trying out their new status as owners of a fairytale French chateau that dates back to the thirteenth century, and comes with turrets, a clock-tower and a moat.

“It was a childhood dream,” Nanlohij said. Surveying his property, his wife at his side, he added: “I feel something in my belly, excitement.”

Their dream comes with a few caveats: they share ownership with 25,000 people who joined an innovative crowd-funding campaign (minimum contribution 50 euros), and the chateau is an uninhabitable ruin.

But none of that diluted the romance for Nanlohij when he joined 350 of those co-owners for a pre-Christmas party in the grounds, to get a taste of what it feels like to join the ranks of French chateau owners.

“As a little boy, I was fascinated by chateaux so today, to become a co-owner, is extraordinary,” he said as guests gathered around a Christmas tree in the shadow of the ruined building, shared gifts, and drank mulled wine.

The Mothe Chandeniers chateau, 300 km (185 miles) south-west of Paris, is steeped in a history of wealth and privilege.

Built in the 13th century, Mothe Chandeniers was captured by English invaders in the Middle Ages.

In 1654, Marquis Francois II transformed it into a lavish home with gardens and parks. Paris entrepreneur Francois Hennecart took it over in 1809 and restored it, and Baron Edgard Lejeune and his wife Marie Ardoin later transformed it into a neo-gothic structure.

But in 1932, fire destroyed the interior and the roof. Since then, the chateau has stood abandoned with trees growing inside it.

The crowd-funding initiative, launched in 2017 by a French company that aims to use new funding models to preserve historical monuments, raised 1.6 million euros, from 25,000 people in 115 countries, including Cuba and Burkina Faso.

Reuters correspondent Elizabeth Pineau is one of the co-owners.

The cash allowed work to start on shoring up the building. Scaffolding is in place. The objective is not to restore it to its previous state, but to keep it from falling down.

British couple Robert and Suzanne Powell who run a nearby bed and breakfast, are also co-owners.

“It’s really good to have an investment and that interest in the property, to be able to go along and see how progress is being made in bringing it back to life,” Robert Powell said.

One part of the chateau will be made habitable: a room in the clocktower, for co-owners to spend the night in their castle.

(Additional reporting by Udi Kivity; Editing by Giles Elgood)