the “fairytale” French castles sheltering Ukrainian refugees
Nestled in the Bourgogne-Franche-Comté region of France is a medieval-style castle. It’s off-season for Guédelon, an experimental replica of a traditional 13th-century castle, and the usual busloads of tourists are nowhere to be found.
Surrounding the magnificent building is a forest filled with the chirping of birds. There’s little to disturb the tranquil scene other than the occasional barking of a dog in the rustic distance.
For Kristi Viniar, a refugee from kyiv, listening to the “magical” sounds of nature at the “fairytale” castle is a welcome respite from her daily cares.
“We watch the news, cry, watch the news, cry,” she told Insider. “But the ambiance of Guédelon relaxes our souls.”
This is the antithesis of what his friends in Ukraine hear.
“Children stay in underground shelters, small children hear the awful sounds of shelling,” she said.
Kristi and her husband, Max Viniar, ran a successful shipping agency in kyiv.
They were returning from vacation in Dubai with their daughters Emma, three, and Neya, one, on the morning of February 24 when their plane was suddenly diverted to Moldova. “We didn’t know what was going on,” Kristi said.
Hours later, they discovered that Russian President Vladimir Putin had ordered the invasion of Ukraine and bombs were falling on their beloved homeland.
With nothing but suitcases full of t-shirts, shorts and swimsuits, Kristi and Max realized they wouldn’t be able to go home anytime soon. Their life as they knew it was over.
“Before, ‘refugees’ was just a word for us, and now we are refugees,” Kristi said. “When you watch Afghanistan and Syria on TV, it’s another world, but you never expect that to happen to you.”
The Viniars moved between three countries in a week, relying on the generosity of foreigners in Moldova, Romania and France to house them.
During a short stay with an old friend in Paris, the family is put in touch with the staff of the Château de Guédelon who offers them to take refuge there.
It’s a real fairy tale, it’s historic, it’s a truly magical place.
“We didn’t know what Guédelon was. We just thought it was an empty house,” Kristi said. “But when we arrived, we were in awe.”
Kristi said they were amazed when they realized they would be living on the grounds of a castle. “It’s a real fairy tale. It’s historic. It’s a truly magical place,” she said. She joked that her daughter Emma felt like she was a Disney Princess.
But even more magical than their surroundings, Kristi explained, were the people who showed her familial kindness during their two-week stay.
Guédelon’s general manager, Maryline Martin, was part of the family’s welcoming committee at the chateau on March 6.
“When Max and Kristi arrived, they were completely lost,” she told Insider. “They had spent days going from airport to airport, and they were really in shock.”
The castle staff, who were preparing for the tourist season, took the time to shower their guests with children’s toys, household items and food.
Their time at Guédelon gave them a moment of pause, Martin said, but it was clear that could not be a long-term solution.
“It might be a fairy tale, but you’re stuck in the middle of a forest,” she said. “Life here is not so good. They need a car, a job, school, friends. It’s not possible.”
So, using her contacts with the local prefecture, she helped them find a house in Auxerre, a small town about 30 miles away. They still visit, but their farewells as inhabitants of Guédelon were filled with tears.
“It was a difficult and very emotional goodbye,” Martin said. “You felt the need to hold us back.”
But as one family left, several other Ukrainian refugees were welcomed at the nearby Château de Saint-Fargeau, a 15-minute drive from Guédelon.
The Renaissance castle stands on top of a hill in the peaceful town of Saint-Fargeau. A Ukrainian flag is tied to the front of the building above the portcullis, matching the pro-Ukrainian stickers and graffiti scattered around the provincial town.
The Château de Saint-Fargeau was built in 1453. Since then, it has housed bishops, wealthy merchants, the French aristocracy and royalty. Now it’s a home for refugees from Putin’s war.
The wealthy Guyot family, who also participated in the founding of Guédelon, bought it in 1977 and it has since been operated as a tourist attraction.
Émilie Guyot, the daughter of owner Michel Guyot, told Insider that it was a no-brainer to welcome refugees to stay at Château de Saint-Fargeau.
“Unlike other exoduses we’ve seen, whether from Syria or elsewhere, we never had the situation where people were actually at the gates asking for help,” she said. “There was no question of us turning them back.”
The first people to arrive were the Sidlauskas family. Andrius Sidlauskas, who lives in the UK, was accompanied by his mother-in-law, niece and nephew, who had fled Ukraine.
Soon after, they were joined by Yakiv Voloshchuk, his wife Oksana and their 15-year-old daughter Veronika.
The two families stayed at the castle while they waited for their family visas to be issued for the UK.
It really boosts your faith in humanity.
They received a warm welcome in Saint-Fargeau. Their hosts had made every effort to install them.
“When we got there, the fridge was full and my jaw dropped,” Sidlauskas told Insider. “There were pizzas, croissants, baguettes, bottles of wine available to us.”
The generosity, he said, was almost overwhelming. “It really challenges your faith in humanity,” he said.
Voloshchuk told Insider he was also filled with gratitude for the welcome reception. “The French have been so good to us,” he told Insider. “They hosted us, hosted us. Michel and Émilie Guyot are beautiful people.”
Over the next few days, refugee families were kept busy with activities; horseback riding, playing with farm animals and singing along.
New friendships were formed and families merged when Ukrainian children became inseparable from Guyot’s children.
The Voloshchuks and Sidlauskas moved on, eventually receiving their visas for the UK, and other Ukrainian families immediately took their places.
A total of 30 people have stayed at the two castles since the outbreak of war in Ukraine.
By all accounts, staying at the Château de Saint-Fargeau is therapeutic and idyllic, a far cry from the situation from which the Ukrainians had just escaped.
But the organizers of the program are keen to stress that this is only a temporary solution.
“It is good and important to welcome people in an emergency situation, but very quickly you need an alternative solution behind housing, schools, employment, medical coverage,” said Sarah Preston, an Englishwoman who works as a press officer in Saint-Fargeau. .
“The easiest thing is to say come in, but it’s to make sure everything is in place afterwards,” she continued.
Preston has spent weeks working tirelessly to ensure guests are happy and ready for their new futures.
She played a vital role in finding Ukrainians in need of temporary accommodation, contacting them through social media, talking to her connections and reading articles online. After finding them accommodation, she went to great lengths to prepare them for the next leg of the journey.
Preston traveled with the refugees to Paris, two hours away, to interpret at visa appointments, helped families move into nearby temporary accommodation and hosted a family in his own home. She is the reference for the daily problems of refugees, many calling her their “angel”.
Preston is humble and reluctant to take credit. When praised for her hard work, she is quick to praise others for their support and teamwork.
For the Viniar family, there’s only one way to show their thanks properly.
“In Ukraine there are also a lot of castles,” Kristi said. “We hope the situation will go well so that we can invite him to visit us.”