How I Freelanced in a French Chateau Right Before COVID

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My freelance business has been remote since I founded it in 2017. I’ve run my business from multiple locations – my apartment, a cafe, and in multiple different places while on vacation over the years. But in March 2020 I found a really amazing opportunity: to run my business while staying in a French château – for free.

I fell into a whole world, courtesy of the popular UK shows Escape to the Chateau and Escape to the Chateau DIY. I learned about its famous figures like Dick & Angel Strawbridge from Château de la Motte Husson, Stephanie Jarvis from Château de Lalande, and Michael Petherick from Château de la Basmaignee.

My experience took me to Chateau Gonneville (aka Le Fleur), which was recently featured on this season of Escape to the Chateau DIY. Here’s how it happened – and what happened when lockdowns started halfway through my trip.

Escape to the Chateau and Workaway

As a kid, I was obsessed with castles. Turns out, that wasn’t just a childhood dream. I stumbled upon Escape to the Chateau and Escape to the Chateau DIY in 2019, and it completely reignited my love of historic architecture. I kept thinking to myself that I’d happily go work for free if I could just stay at these chateaux. 

The french chateau that launched a frenzy, Chateau de a Motte Husson

I decided to see if I could find Dick & Angel’s contact information to reach out. (perhaps ironically, it would be one of my first-ever cold reach outs, after building an inbound funnel for my business).

Much to my happy surprise, I found an interview where Angel said they hosted volunteers from all around the world using a platform called Workaway. The premise of Workaway is simple: it’s a cultural exchange site where you can experience local life around the world. You help out in various ways as a resident of any location would, and in exchange you get room and board. For French chateaux, the day to day life is cleaning up old attics, helping in the garden, or other restoration work that isn’t done by specially trained artisans. 

The hard choices in life: choosing a castle to work from

Once I learned about Workaway, I started thinking about what I wanted from a Workaway experience and came to:

  • Working in English, but with bilingual (French) speaking hosts.
  • A chateau mid-restoration. So not doing foundation / artisan work, but helping with clear-outs, heavy lifting, painting, scraping, etc. (I’m not a handyman but have some experience with a paint brush).
  • Near enough to Paris that I could fly in and take a train there relatively easily (that is to say, not entirely remote. I live in Toronto, so I needed easy public transit after flying in).

As a note, Workaway has a small cost – around $50 USD for a year of membership. This ensures some vetting on both sides, checking things like IDs of both “Workawayers” and hosts.

In late 2019, I decided March 2020 would be the perfect time for me to go to France: warm enough to do work outside but not so hot that it gets uncomfortable. Then after looking at literally hundreds of chateaux on Workaway and Instagram, I narrowed my search down to three chateaux: Château de Bourneau, Château de Lalande, and Château Gonneville.

Château de Bourneau: a dream in waiting

When I first saw Chateau de Bourneau on Escape to the Chateau DIY, I fell in love. The chateau is located in the town of Bourneau, in the Vendee region in Southwestern France. It’s built to mimic Château Azay le Rideau, an old royal chateau once used by the Kings and Queens of France.

A tour of Chateau de Bourneau

Upon reaching out to the chatelaine, Erin, I unfortunately discovered they don’t take on Workaways – preferring to keep all the work between Erin and her husband, JB.

Château de Lalande: a fairy tale castle

Chateau de Lalande is a 16th century chateau that was added on over the years to give it the U-shape it currently has. Originally a fortified chateau just outside the central French town of Limoges, it evolved to be a pleasure castle for a prominent French family whose claim to fame is having one ancestor escort Marie Antoinette to Paris when she arrived in France.

A tour of Chateau de Lalande

Stephanie had a YouTube channel talking about how she loved having volunteers, and so I reached out. We had a wonderful chat, but ultimately she was going to be travelling in March 2020 as well, so it wouldn’t work out.

Château Gonneville (aka Le Fleur): a magical manor

Chateau Gonneville is in Normandy in western France, right near the town of Honfleur. It has a manor house style architecture, but was built on the old grounds of a fortified chateau. The term “chateau” is a legal title in France, only afforded to buildings once owned by nobility. Even if nobility no longer lives in them, the title is based on the property (not even the house), so any home on that land will be called a chateau. 

When I first reached out to Anna and Phillip from Chateau Gonneville, they were so pleasant and friendly. It worked out perfectly for timing, what I wanted to do at the chateau, and what they needed. We made plans in December 2019 that I’d fly over in early March 2020. I couldn’t wait.

Freelancing at Chateau Gonneville

I flew from Toronto to Paris on March 5th. Rumblings were out there about the “novel coronavirus,” but it was still considered safe to travel. I arrived at Chateau Gonneville after a couple days in Paris, and we immediately got to work. 

Chateau Gonneville aka Le Fleur, the french chateau I stayed at

My bedroom was one of the original grand bedrooms of the house, facing the backyard deer park (yes, a deer park). The house is identical on both sides, so it can be tough to figure out which beautiful facade you were looking at. I just paid attention to where the deer were.

The deer I saw from my bedroom window

What did I help with, you may ask?

Clearing: The family was half-way through their restoration, so there was a lot of debris from one project as they moved to the other. Guess who helped clear things?

Painting: The chateau has 15 foot ceilings – that’s a lot of scaffolding and extended paint rollers.

Outside work: Helping to move old logs, brush, and brambles (berry bushes with VERY sharp prickly bits). 

Me moving very heavy stumps

Content: Once a writer, always a writer. Chateau Gonneville is a luxury B&B, so I helped a little bit on their website (they already had it professionally done, I just gave a couple tips!).

Now, Chateau Gonneville even has a YouTube channel to share more of their journey. 

Le Fleur, aka Chateau Gonneville, the French chateau I stayed at
The home page for Le Fleur (aka Chateau Gonneville)

Running my business

One thing I learned about Europe is that mobile data is VERY cheap. I was able to get a sim card with 100 gb of pay as you go data for… 10 euros. So that was really it. I served clients, took calls, wrote content, answered emails, the whole shebang. From the grand salon with its 15 foot ceilings and hand-carved wood moulding. It’s a rough life. 

As I wrote in a LinkedIn post in March, that’s the power of remote work.

Exploring Honfleur

For folks who know their French history, Honfleur is not a new name. Considered to be the birthplace of impressionism, it’s been an important town for centuries in France. It’s along the mouth of the Seine river, just as you head to the beaches of Normandy and out into the ocean. As a result, it’s been a port and fishing town for quite some time. To this day, you can still get fresh fish from local fishers. 

The Dutch-esque waterfront of Honfleur

If you look at this picture and think it looks like Amsterdam, you’d be right. With the city being a port town, a lot of merchant ships went by (and passed through) on their way to Paris. With the Dutch owning a lot of merchant trade by ship for hundreds of years, the town was built in the Dutch style by settler entrepreneurs. Though, if you go just around the corners of these big Dutch style town buildings, you can see the old medieval French village.

The French medieval town area of Honfleur

The town, being a wealthy merchant’s town on the ocean, also had a lot of local manor houses. In case my one chateau wasn’t enough eye candy, of course.

Manor houses in Honfleur

Oh hi there COVID

On March 14th, the pandemic started to get very, very bad. Cases were soaring. Governments were worried about lockdowns. It wasn’t a cute moment to be out of the country, let alone on a different continent. 

Anna and Philipp on the stairs they painstakingly restored
Anna and Philipp on the stairs they painstakingly restored

Then came March 15th. Not only did Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau say that all Canadians needed to “come home” immediately, he also warned that commercial travel could be suspended at any time. The next day, the transportation minister of France said they were likely to close down the airport by Thursday that week. I was scheduled to fly out Friday. 

Me (left) and Philipp, the owner of the French chateau
Me (left) and Philipp, the owner of the chateau

With the pandemic, my last few days at the chateau were rather muddled. A mix of trying to support clients, trying to get home safely, and wondering if I had any insurance coverage for the multi-thousand dollar emergency flight home was an interesting juxtaposition to the apple orchards and deer parks I was surrounded by. But I managed to still have some fun.

I did end up getting home safely, quarantining for 14 days, and later testing negative for COVID. It’s certainly a journey I won’t forget anytime soon. 

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