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Tough times for lords of the manor

Oberdiessbach is known as the "Versailles of canton Bern" (Schloss-Oberdiessbach.ch)

Maintaining a stately pile costs an arm and a leg, which is clearly too high a price for a number of lords of the manor in Switzerland.

According to the magazine Business Immobilien, a dozen Swiss castles are now looking for new owners – preferably with very deep pockets.

There are around 1,500 castles in Switzerland, half of them in private hands. But whether privately or publicly owned, they all come with astronomical running costs.

"When you are born in a castle and you inherit it, you have a duty to preserve a historic building. You do it because you like it and out of love for the old stones."

Sigmund von Wattenwyl is the 11th member of his family to reside in Oberdiessbach Castle, which is known as the "Versailles of canton Bern". It is a privilege for which he pays dearly, in terms of upkeep and restoration work.

Listed buildings in Switzerland, as in many other countries, benefit from subsidies that are more or less generous depending on the canton. Fortunately for the 45-year-old von Wattenwyl, he lives in one of the richer cantons.

"We receive financial support to restore the building but it is not enough to enable us to survive," he told swissinfo.

The father of four earns his living from farming. To make a little extra, he opens his castle to the public, as many other owners of historic buildings do, and the whole family takes part in the upkeep of the buildings and gardens.

Castle Tarasp

But sometimes you just have to sell up and ship out. According to Business Immobilien, of the dozen castles currently up for grabs the most expensive – at SFr30 million ($24 million) – is Tarasp in canton Graubünden.

This imposing fortress perched atop a rocky outcrop belongs to a German prince, Donatus von Hessen. His family, who own other castles in Germany, inherited Tarasp a century ago and put it on the market a few months back.

Part of Tarasp Castle is open to the public but there are fears that a new owner might put a stop to this. Locals have set up a foundation to try to buy the castle but are a long way short of the asking price.

The owners of the chateau d'Hauteville above Vevey in western Switzerland – one of the most beautiful in canton Vaud – are also feeling the pinch.

"Not including the restoration work, the upkeep of such a building can cost hundreds of thousands of francs a year," says André Locher of the Association for the Conservation of Chateau d'Oron.

Deep pockets

Fortunately, there are a few fabulously rich people kicking around who are desperate to get their hands on a castle. Gümligen and Bremgarten castles in canton Bern have recently been snapped up by wealthy industrialists.

But you need to have more than a few francs knocking around. "A castle in Switzerland costs three times as much as in France," notes Michael Dreher of the Zurich-based agency Dreher & Partners, specialists in upmarket property.

Otherwise, there's always the state. But it already owns almost half the castles in the country, many of them transformed into prisons, museums, cultural foundations or even offices.

"The conversion costs are exorbitant and the work doesn't always respect the building," says Thomas Bitterli, director of the Association of Swiss Castles.

And while more than 80 of their number have been given a new lease of life as museums, turning castles into hotels and restaurants represents a trickier proposition.

"The protection of listed buildings is such that in certain cantons it is almost impossible to install all mod cons," says Bitterli.

The end result is that few Swiss castles are turned into luxury hotels or hotels de charme, which is the case in France and Germany.

Breaking new ground

And yet a foundation set up in 1999 to restore and run Leuk Castle as a cultural centre did manage to break new ground.

Called in by the local community which had been wrestling for 30 years with what to do with the crumbling castle, the foundation had an immediate stroke of luck.

"By chance [the architect] Mario Botta came to Leuk and fell in love with the castle," recalls Peter Jossen, lawyer, former politician and member of the foundation's board, which includes several big names from the world of Swiss politics.

"As it was his first renovation, he asked for a bit of room for manoeuvre."

Jossen found himself in a delicate situation, acting as an intermediary for Botta, the local architect and those responsible for building conservation. The castle also had to be made strong enough to survive earthquakes.

Thanks to a combination of diplomacy, patience and imagination, the first stage was completed. The castle's tower, which had been in danger of falling down, was made safe and topped with a stunning metal cupola.

The whole project certainly ruffled a few feathers but "if you invite along an international star such as Botta, you have to let him leave his mark," says Jossen.

In addition, Botta's cupola was a perfect riposte to the criteria laid down by experts: to avoid "plagiarism" and the "mock-old".

Sigmund von Wattenwyl has a similar take on the matter: "If you put in a lift or a bathroom, you need something contemporary, which doesn't alter the structure but which you could remove at any point to return the castle to its original state."

swissinfo, Isabelle Eichenberger

Key facts

There are around 800 castles in Switzerland, including ruins, and around the same number of manor houses.
Three-quarters of the castles and half the manor houses are publicly owned.
A dozen are currently for sale.
The most expensive is Tarasp Castle in canton Graubünden, with a price tag of SFr30 million.

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