Mindfulness. I have never managed to accomplish it. This longed-for state of ‘living in the moment’, draining your mind of thoughts and just appreciating the present; the sound, the smell, the feeling of simply…being. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve tried it! I’ve tried meditating in African mangroves and yoga on desolate beaches, I’ve tried the courses, the lessons, the apps, but to no avail. Yet last week, as I sat on the banks of the Dordogne, listening to a dawn chorus and engulfed in a frosty morning haze, I felt it. Really felt it.
As I sat there, softly gazing at the rippling waters and listening the gentle rustle of autumnal copper-tinged leaves, it began to rain. It was light at first, just the rhythmic pitter patter of raindrops on my jeans. Then it grew stronger. I could feel the water trickling down my scalp and owning my skin. But I didn’t want to move. I wasn’t ready, after all, I hadn’t seen the river in the rain yet. I had seen it sparkle on sunny days and dance downstream with the eerie morning mist clinging to its flow, I had seen it rupture as fish pirouetted in to the fresh air and split as swans demanded centre stage. But I hadn’t seen it in the rain. That morning, for the first time, I didn’t see the river, I felt it.
I strolled back to Petite Shambhala’s buttery stone walls with my squelching slippers caked in mud and my hair dripping wet. I smiled. Who would have thought that all of my searching would bring me here, to this tiny, easily-missed village dozing on the banks of the Dordogne. I am not the only one that has found solace in this tiny hairpin of the river. In the nineteenth century, the great French art historian Elie Fauer lived here, in St Seurin des Prats, and iconic artists like Soutine and Diego Rivera also visited. Charlie Chaplin was also a frequent guest of this upmarket village and a graffiti-style portrait of the man himself lurks in just around the corner… I can safely say that he is the only ‘tramp’ that you are likely to encounter in this neck of the woods.
Today, a new wave of artists awaits. Vivacious gallerist Kit Bentley and her partner Eric Bourse, a local artist, live next door to Elie’s former abode. They run two rental properties, in a peaceful spot overlooking the river. Eric’s studio is also on-site and is open to guest’s wishing to book in for art classes with the successful artist who is currently exhibiting in China… or wine tasting, naturally. As I wandered around the houses I couldn’t help but be struck by an overwhelming sense of deja vu. First there is the grand Villa Shambala; a boutique property which sleeps eight. From the outside what looks like your standard French house, with neat shutters and a climbing ivy reaching for its next creamy stone slab, reveals a wonderful warren of rooms bursting with bold décor, one-off artworks and quirky artefacts clearly combined by a masterful eye. The house boasts an elegant statement courtyard– perched peacefully overlooking the river it reminded me of brunching in the Santa Barbara hills’ Spanish colonial terraces.
Petite Shambhala is the newest addition to the maturing ‘Shambhala Estate’. The little sister property sleeps four and in addition to its sweet courtyard it also has access to a private pool hidden away in a walled courtyard. The discreet bathing area instantly conjured up memories of summer on the Moroccan coast with its rugged white walls succumbing to that familiar Yves Saint Laurent blue of the sunbeds and towels. Strangely, the river itself reminded me of the Gambian mangroves; teeming with birds all competing to be heard at sunrise against a backdrop of… well, nothing.
The charismatic pair have certainly put their mark on the properties, lavishing them with Eric’s thought-provoking paintings, bringing the space to life. As you walk in you are greeted by a dramatic depiction of a couple embracing, fading in to one another, in the hallway tall silver birch trees glisten with decadent gold leaf and above my bed four paintings of the river gave me an insight in to what Eric’s treasured curve of the Dordogne must look like in spring, summer and winter. In fact, even the house champagne had his painting on the label. No, there is nothing ‘beige’ here.
Excited by our new home we didn’t need much coaxing and quickly settled in to Petite Shambhala’s easy-going way of life. Each morning I shot-putted my daughter to her doting granny so I could dash down to the riverbanks and beat the sunrise eager to watch the morning mist roll across the river before heading off to explore the local markets.
Amid the ‘land of a thousand and one castles’ rolling vineyards and fairytale flower meadows are a bevy of medieval towns and villages waiting to be discovered. Wine enthusiasts should hot foot it straight to the UNESCO World Heritage site of famous Saint-Émilion. The town owes its being to a monk of the same name, who retreated to the area to live in a cave as a hermit… if only he could see it now! Today the steep cobbled streets are a tourist magnet, laced with the scent expensive perfume and lined with endless wine shops. Each turn reveals a warren of hidden courtyards, Michelin-starred restaurants and breathtaking views of the surrounding vineyards. It is lucky that the well-healed visitors waft their fine fragrances around this medieval town’s streets, because anyone wrestling a pram through them needs all of the sweat neutralizing help they can get, honestly it is like mum tum assault course on steroids with 70 degree cobbled alleys laughing at you from above– note to self, never attempt this town with a buggy again, ever.
On the plus side, I had ticked off one of my bucket-list towns and burnt enough calories to indulge like a local, hello foie gras and a glass of the good stuff. Those not restricted by a four-wheeled baby bus may wish to delve under the surface in to the town’s famous eighth century catacombs… I know one monk that would definitely recommend it. In fact, the region is famed for its underground network of caves, some of which boast crystals and others ancient cave paintings. Lascaux’s complex cluster of caves display Paleolithic paintings dating back 17,300 years and have earned it the nickname, the prehistoric Sistine Chapel!
That evening we dined in Villa Shambhala’s riverside garden. Tucked behind a modest picket gate the small lawn area has a dining area and various chairs which allow you to take in the undisturbed panoramic views from various angles. Rosie and I opted for the swinging chair and quietly rocked back and forth watching lone fishermen float silently downstream beneath us.
The following day was a Monday…always a tricky day for a tourist in France, with little open. “Oh yes”, one guest explained to my family. “They get a little lazy on a Monday… and a Sunday… and any day ending in ‘day’ really”. So, it was off to Bergerac in search of life and having no expectations of the town I have to say, it certainly impressed. Well, let’s be honest, it is easy to dismiss airport towns – when was the last time you recommended one of your guests to mooch around Luton or ham it up in Horley? Bergerac however was a delight. The cobbled old town was a pleasing labyrinth of half-timbred houses, an ornate Romanesque church and the odd statue to boot, providing the perfect place to enjoy a café au lait with the locals before strolling along the river’s edge. For those feeling adventurous, boat trips on a traditional flat-bottomed gabare boat can be taken from here too.
In just five days we had discovered a wonderful retreat, explore world-famous medieval towns, dined like local kings and drunk… well, too much frankly. This tiny little chink in the great Dordogne had won us over and somehow it already felt like home. My daughter Rosie loved splashing around in the pool with her squeals of delight echoing around the walls. My uncle was in his element perfecting his mahogany tan in the courtyard and firing up the barbeque as the sun set. My mother loved Eric’s artwork and spent much of her time reading his latest book, and I think you know what I loved. On my last morning I sat once again on its tranquil banks, waiting for the river to reveal something new; a colour, a pattern, a sound… Today I could feel autumn in the air as crispy auburn leaves wafted down in to its folds and a fisherman, cloaked in a heavy jacket began to glide towards me. I wondered what it feels like in winter. I haven’t felt the river in winter… yet.
Petite Shambhala is part of the Oliver’s Travels portfolio and sleeps up to four adults. Cots are available upon request. Prices start from £941.38 per week. The owner’s experiential art company ‘Live in Art’ also offers a range of residential art courses at Shambhala, taught by acclaimed French contemporary artist Eric Bourse.
Stays at Petite Shambhala and Villa Shambhala are bookable at www.oliverstravels.com or call +44 (0)800 133 7999.