Karl O’Hanlon and Anita Forte swapped city living in Dublin for the countryside of Languedoc where they now run a thriving property development business
Childhood holidays spent exploring the beaches, countryside and villages of Languedoc left a lasting impression on Irishman Karl O’Hanlon. So much so that when he and wife Anita decided they wanted a new challenge they chose to relocate to the sunny region in the south of France.
“I’ve had a connection with Languedoc since I was young. My father was a French teacher but also a wine journalist on the side so we spent a lot of time down here and I got to know the area well. Once I was a bit older I knew that this region had amazing potential but that it hadn’t really been tapped,” remembers Karl.
“It was probably the least developed part of the Mediterranean – from Rome all the way to the Algarve – and by that stage I was involved in the property and tourism business and felt that there was a great opportunity here so I came down looking for interesting things and found them,” he adds.
Karl left his career in Irish banking in 2002 and went to work as managing director for property development company in Languedoc, overseeing a number of projects including Le Couvent d’Hérépin, a 16th century convent that was converted into a luxury hotel. By 2006, and with a taste for life in France, Karl, Anita and their three children, Cara, Daisy and Antonio, now 12, nine and six respectively, moved from Dublin to Languedoc.
Two years after the family moved, Karl decided to go it alone and set up his own property development business, Domaine & Demeure, and he hasn’t looked back. Not one to shirk a challenge, Karl’s first solo project was the restoration of a vast run-down château and winery in Hérault which had effectively been abandoned for more than 20 years. “It was a huge job but that’s what makes it fun,” laughs Karl, who says he knew within 30 seconds of viewing the property that it was ripe for development. As is often the case with sizeable period properties, the previous owners were only living in one room of the château, which spans 5,000m², and the rest of the property had fallen into disrepair, last producing wine in 1988. But with Karl’s experience and enthusiasm for renovating and developing properties, not forgetting his connection to wine, he relished the opportunity to bring the château back to its glory days and transform it into a business venture.
Château les Carrasses, which dates from 1886, was built by a well-known Bordelais architect, Louis Garros, and sits on the foundations of a rest stop on the St-Jacques-de-Compostelle pilgrim route. When the O’Hanlons acquired the château it had two names – Les Carrasses and La Bastide Neuve – but with many properties in the area called La Bastide Neuve they decided to preserve Les Carrasses, its local name. Carrasses were the rafts that used to travel up and down the Canal du Midi and they were stored on the land that houses the castle. It’s a moniker that pays homage to the property’s past, something which Karl was keen to safeguard during the restoration process.
From the offset the Dubliner’s plan was to split the château into separate holiday apartments with the idea of selling off the units and offering a property management service. The concept came about through Karl’s experience of property development in Languedoc and being in tune with buyers’ needs.
“Having been in the property business for a long time I knew that people wanted lovely old properties that are full of character and in a great location, but that are easy to manage and don’t break their hearts all the time, which is what old properties tend to do,” says Karl. The development took three years to complete and aside from the 28 separate apartments the château encompasses an infinity pool, bar and restaurant, tennis courts and plenty of gardens and outside terraces, perfect for soaking up the Languedoc sunshine.
Karl’s vision was to create a tranquil environment at Les Carrasses which is echoed in the interior décor with its soft muted colour palette and classic French furniture, much of which has been sourced from brocantes and antique markets across France.
When it comes to staying at the properties, owners can visit their holiday homes as often as they like, typically 30-40 days a year, and then rent them out for the remaining weeks. It’s a system that works well and enables the owners to experience the benefits of château-living with the peace of mind that the upkeep is being managed by Karl and his team.
Karl prioritised working with locals when hiring builders and artisans during the renovation and then employing staff once Les Carrasses was complete, something which he says is incredibly important for forging positive relationships within the village.
“I think that one of the keys to the success of this place is having the local involvement. A big mistake that people make, whether through fear or shyness, is to exclude the locals as they love to be involved and know what’s going on in their community.
“We had the philosophy that it’s important that the business has a positive impact on the local environment by which I mean not only the natural environment but the social and economic one too,” says Karl. The O’Hanlons’ ethos of integrating within the community extends to their home life as well and they are happily settled in the village of Boujan-sur-Libron. They have lived in a beautiful maison de maître in the village, about 20 minutes from Les Carrasses, since moving to France in 2006 and Karl says that Boujan is the perfect size and an ideal place for their children to grow up.
Cara and Daisy are now at school in nearby Béziers and all of their children are bilingual and feel at home in France.
“We love the French way of life. It’s like going back in time, especially for the kids, as it’s a simple life. Dinner conversations are not about property prices and schools, it’s more about what’s happening with the wine, which is far more interesting,” says Karl.
Along with transforming the château Karl has turned around the fortunes of the winery and thanks to the help of experienced winemaker, Laurent Bonfils, Les Carrasses produced its first vintage in 2012.
“The winery is a fun thing to have and putting the wine back into production was a pretty satisfying moment. My dad likes the idea that the wine has continued through the generations although he spends more time drinking than writing about it these days”, laughs Karl.
While Languedoc is a region famed for its wine production it’s also a culinary playground, which Karl and Anita have been more than happy to discover.
“This area is particularly well placed for the gastronomy. If you go half an hour south you get to the orchard and market garden of France. An hour further north you’re into Auvergne which is where a lot of the best meat and cheese comes from and then you’ve got all the seafood in the Étang de Thau,” enthuses Karl who also loves living in an area famed for its rugby, although he does admit that his allegiances lie between Narbonne and Béziers.
After seven years in Languedoc and with a new project set to launch, Karl’s enthusiasm for the region is infectious and it’s clear that his decision to explore the opportunities that the south of France has to offer has paid off for the whole family. LF