Sit down and grab a cuppa. A couple of weeks ago I spent an amazing weekend on a French Pilates retreat at Domaine du Pignoulet, with the loveliest group of bloggers you’re ever likely to meet, being nurtured with delicious gluten free food and calm…. LOTS of CALM.
The last couple of years have been incredibly tough for me. Multiple and unexpected bereavements, a close shave with a terror attack in Barcelona, set against an emotionally punishing day job which has been in turmoil and a demanding full-on home life have all taken their toll on my resilience and ability to manage and stay strong. So when I was asked if I would like to join a group of bloggers to spend a long weekend in the beautiful region of Gascony, France, enjoying Pilates classes, good food and like-minded company, it seemed the timing could not have been better. And I was right… My time at Domaine du Pignoulet was the most calm and relaxed I have been in many many years. I feel blessed.
Photograph courtesy of Le Coin de Mel
My experience was in no way unique however and life has clearly been tough for most of us in our group of ten ‘retreaters’. With 25 young kids between us and a myriad of other life, loss, relationship, parenting and health issues being faced, we were not only stressed on arrival, but more than ready and open to sharing our vulnerability that the experience of complete relaxation and being looked after can trigger. The setting of Domaine du Pignoulet invites the opportunity to bond, share and regenerate and as we drove through the gates, we were welcomed with open arms…. and with complete acceptance by Susie and James.
Susie and James run Pignoulet… a couple of Brits who have taken the bold step of leaving behind the UK rat-race to pursue a more peaceful existence in the south of France. Having bought this wonderful character-filled ex-farmhouse in 2016 from James’ parents (who had undertaken a significant amount of renovation), they now share its zen and beauty with the rest of us by way of opening it to paying guests….. offering anything from holiday rental (sleeping up to 14), to Bed & Breakfast, part or fully catered holidays and Pilates and Yoga retreats.
I am quite envious of their decisiveness in making the break from UK life-stress, but they both have such great ideas and creativity and are such wonderful people with huge hearts and bags of care, that this is clearly a great move for them. Pignoulet offers a little haven of peace and tranquility that is perfect for regenerating the mind, body and soul.
The house itself is beautifully restored and comfortable, maintaining much of its rustic charm…. old wooden staircases, ornate ironwork, antique furniture, huge French shutters, colourful trinkets and farmyard memorabilia all add to the interest and atmosphere. The gardens which surround it are equally delightful…. with a large pool enveloped by rural quiet (apart from local bees buzzing round the fig trees)… ideal for chilling with friends and family. The whole place is a photographers paradise, especially if you like quirky angles, natural charm and nature.
If you have never considered Pilates, I would thoroughly recommend you give it some thought. Regardless of your age and level of fitness (I am heading upwards on the first and downwards on the second), it is a wonderful form of exercise that can be pitched for everyone. With a particular focus on improving your core strength, flexibility, balance and posture, you gently push your body to betterness with less risk of damage than other, more strenuous forms of exercise. But don’t be fooled… its ‘gentleness’ in no way limits its effectiveness and you quickly feel the benefits. The emphasis on being constantly aware of your breathing and how your body moves, has the additional benefit of taking you to an incredibly liberating level of mind-body connection (whether you are a beginner or more experienced), automatically removing your attention from the disturbance of the white noise around you, to allow complete calm and tranquility.
At Domaine du Pignoulet, the Pilates Studio is idyllic. Set in an open, converted barn, surrounded by fresh air and sounds of the countryside, this backdrop provided a perfect ambience and setting for starting my journey on this most healing of activities.
Photo courtesy of Peachicks Bakery
I had not done Pilates before I attended this retreat (and neither had several of my fellow travellers), but Susie (who is a fully trained Pilates instructor, personal trainer, sports massage therapist and nordic walking instructor) was a wonderful teacher. Keeping a constant eye on how we were exercising and gently and patiently ensuring we were not only getting the best out of each session, but not pushing ourselves beyond where we were comfortable, the gains were measurable, even over the course of a weekend. Although my body had clearly been encouraged to push itself in new directions, my back (with which I have had a lengthy history of issues) and my many age-ached joints, muscles and tendons were starting to appreciate the new strength they were being offered.
Two weeks in and with a determination to continue practising, I am walking more upright, using my abdominal muscles more effectively and definitely slouching less… Since returning to the UK, I have started classes locally and have tempted both Mr and Miss GF to join me…. Family Pilates not only seems to offer a shared exercise option, but to be giving us some family time together as well…
Despite having an incredibly diverse group when it came to eating, with a wide range of allergies, intolerances and dietary preferences to cater for, Susie and James took feeding us in their stride. They embraced all and each of our needs not only safely, but in a way that made us feel like we were no trouble at all. As someone who frequently encounters rolled eyes and tuts, this was so refreshing. I allowed myself to embrace that rare feeling of trust around meal times…. that I didn’t have to worry about accidental glutening. Susie and James had done their research well and yet were equally open to checking and learning about the micro-risks to be aware of when avoidance is a matter of health.
Safety approved, the food we ate was amazing. Fresh, local and seasonal produce whipped up into nutritious meals and energy-boosting snacks and served with genuine care and generosity that can only come when someone has put their heart into making it themselves.
With everything from freshly-grilled tomatoes and mushrooms, kitchen-blended museli, local honey, fresh juice and home-made energy balls at breakfast… to crisp, fresh and colourful salads, olives, cold meats, home-whizzed houmous and local cheeses for lunch… to perfectly planned and inclusive 3 course meals in the evening (including desserts of boozy figs from the garden and vegan aqua faba chocolate mousse), everything we ate was not only delicious, but healthy too. In the afternoons we were even treated to tea and gluten free cake… the piece de resistance, being a divine flourless orange cake.
Of course, no weekend of relaxation would be complete without a little tipple and we were pampered with delectable local wines and (my favourite) Kir Royale… a heavenly combination of champagne with an infusion of Creme de Cassis.
The local Area…
Although we stayed at Domaine du Pignoulet on a Pilates retreat, the house is also available to book as holiday accommodation, with or without catering. I last visited Gascony many many years ago, but this trip reminded me of its beauty and potential as a holiday destination in its own right. Sitting close to the Pyrenees, to centres such as Toulouse and Lourdes and to many pretty small towns and villages, it is an ideal location for hiking, cycling, swimming, running, horse riding, fishing or just sightseeing Gascony and its neighbouring regions and pottering in the local markets.
I am certainly considering it as an option for a future family break…
Although I was invited to attend Domaine du Pignoulet on a bloggers retreat, I honestly cannot shout loudly enough about the wonderfulness of the experience I had there. The attention to detail and comfort, homeliness and emotional acceptance, carefully facilitated pilates sessions, delicious home-cooked food and the opportunity to connect in such beautiful surroundings with a group of women that I can now firmly call friends, will be time that I will treasure forever. Our booking is already made for next year…
If you would like to experience a little piece of this Pilates paradise or spend some time in this most beautiful of French regions, visit the Domaine du Pignoulet website and contact Susie and James for more information. I seriously cannot recommend it enough.
Shared with :
I was invited to attend a bloggers retreat at Domaine du Pignoulet. All views and opinions on the trip are absolutely my own and I have shared a completely honest account of my experience. Although costs of my accommodation were covered by the retreat, I paid for all flights and transfers myself.
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