For any Yankee who dreams of owning his own King Arthur's court, Italian businessmen Max Aldobrandi and Giovanni d'Andrea have a jewel for sale: a 12th-century Gothic castle overlooking the fragrant groves of Peruggia, Italy. The Templar Castle has everything a royal wannabe could desire--36 rooms, including a throne room and armor room; there's also a secret passageway. Even more impressive is the castle's lore. Local legend has it that St. Francis of Assisi was held prisoner in its tower.
But what makes the castle truly extraordinary is its painstaking restoration and modern amenities. (Aldobrandi and d'Andrea are only giving it up because they've bought another castle, much closer to home in Rome, for use as a weekend getaway.)
Despite our democratic heritage, many Americans harbor a secret longing for their own citadel. Since the late 19th century, many of America's richest families began buying castles and chateaux or marrying into noble European families who could no longer afford to keep the old places up. Today, the appetite for the prestige and status that a castle confers is no less real and, thanks to a strong dollar and punitive estate taxes in many European countries, there hasn't been a better time to buy a castle in years.
One of the best castle brokers is Alexander Kraft, European regional manager of Sotheby's International Realty. Kraft has a half-dozen castles for sale, one of which is a 13th-century stronghold called Schloss Sighartstein, which is just outside Salzburg.
What makes the Schloss stand out is its meticulous restoration. Its ancient walls house state-of-the-art amenities, including modern bathrooms in every room. "It's very rare that you find castles in that condition," Kraft insists. So rare the asking price is $20 million.
Not all castles on the market command such royal prices. Kraft says Italy and Austria are Sotheby's most active markets for castles. In France, which has 40,000 chateaux, you can pick up a grand fixer-upper in the Loire Valley for as little as half a million dollars. And in Eastern European countries like Poland and the Czech Republic, where many old castles and estates were often turned into agricultural buildings or communal housing, some grand structures can be had for under $100,000.
But, Kraft says, "The general problem with castles in Europe, especially by American standards, is that they're in really bad condition. Many are too big, or only part of the castle is habitable, or only a few rooms have central heating."
The good news is that more ready-to-live-in castles are coming on the market. Prohibitive estate tax reforms in the 1970s forced many European nobles to sell their domains, or turn them into museums, bed and breakfasts, or corporate retreats.
"During that time, a lot of big properties changed hands," Kraft observes. "Then the new buyers put a lot of work and money into those properties over the last 20 years." And then, of course, the market went sour again.
But now, with European economies rebounding along with real estate values, many recently refurbished castles are coming back on the market because sellers can finally recoup some of the money they've put into upkeep and maintenance.
But nouveaux nobles can also visit an enthusiasts' site like Castles-for-sale.com--where owners list properties as inexpensive as $250,000--and pick up a hollowed-out hull at a bargain price. Restoring it to an approximation of its former glory can be a rewarding, if exhaustive and expensive adventure. It can also be riddled with red tape, as virtually all European governments have rigorous preservation agencies charged with approving or rejecting changes to historic sites.
Edinburgh, Scotland-based restoration architects Simpson and Browne have transformed over 20 castles, some in half-ruined, uninhabitable states, into beautiful residences and hotels with 21st-century comforts like under-floor heating and data wiring. Jamie Simpson and partner John Sanders caution fixer-uppers not to be in too much of a hurry. "And people should always expect it to cost more than they think." Which, for a historically faithful, but technologically up-to-the-minute renovation, means a rock-bottom minimum of $1 million over the purchase price.
Simpson says an important step for prospective buyers is to hire an archaeologist or architectural consultant. This is crucial not only for the appraisal process, but especially necessary before proposing improvements to a public agency like Historic Scotland. There may be nothing more disastrous than investing in an uninhabitable castle, only to have officials reject any and all improvements. For that reason, Simpson suggests that buyers make purchase agreements subject to government restoration consent.
There may be so little left of the original castle that consultants often need to scrutinize family documents or excavate for clues to the castle's original design and materials. For one castle, recalls Sanders, "we found some glass down the old latrine chutes"--castle-speak for toilet. From the fragments and shapes of the glass, they deciphered the original design of the windows.
Finding historic materials--not to mention contractors qualified to work with them--is no easy feat. For a castle owned by the Earl of Rosslyn, Simpson had to find secondhand slate for the roof, Baltic pine for the floors and timber paneling, and lime, which was used before the days of cement.
The reward for such painstaking attention to detail: a home steeped in history, romance, and beauty. There are odd payoffs for owners, says Sanders, like the charm of roughing it, Middle Ages-style, "lugging their own coals or logs up the stairs." Others are captivated by another ironic relic: Any castle that was the head of a medieval barony may still carry a feudal title, "which theoretically entitles the new owner to be called Baron or Baroness so-and-so," says Simpson. "It's quite meaningless, but to an enthusiast, it can be a turn-on."