Nestled at the foothills of the French pyrenees, Yobaba Lounge Wellness Retreat is set in a magnificent village chateau, in the quiet commune of Chalabre. The village itself is an unspoilt bastide of shaded paths and quiet alleyways. It feels like a completely different world. It’s so very French and I absolutely adore it.
The word retreat is ridiculously overused these days. It’s original definition as a quiet or secluded place in which one can rest and relax has morphed into a generalised expression for a group holiday. It seems to encompass anything and everything from beginners yoga to white water rafting and all things in between. Yobaba Lounge embodies the feeling of a true retreat.
I’m here to retreat, but also in part to work. As a plant-powered food blogger I’ve been invited to assist in meal preparation for retreat guests. Food shopping is an absolute pleasure. We wander around the brightly coloured markets buying locally grown fruit and veg, the stall holders smile and chatter away, keen to assure us everything they sell is ‘bio’ (organic).
Chalabre itself is wonderfully French. The tiny population of just over a thousand people are extremely well catered for. It has its own grocers, pharmacy, florist, cafe and bakery. As we arrive the enticing scent of freshly baked, fluffy, french croissants hangs in the warm summer air. The criss cross network of narrow streets, shaded by grandiose stone houses sporting shutters painted in pretty pastels, are barely wide enough to withstand single file traffic. Meet someone driving in the opposite direction and it’s considered a rush hour jam. Fortunately it doesn’t happen often. Chalabre is quiet, off the beaten track and far less touristy than neighbouring Rennes-le-chateau.
The local land is rich and green. Its rivers rarely run dry and the summer climate is much more amenable than the parched coastal resorts an hours drive away on the med. Flourishing with organically grown fruit and veg, local traders supply the numerous weekly food markets dotted around neighbouring villages in the Aude. The community has a relaxed and spiritual bohemian vibe with an emphasis on self kindness and wellbeing. The people here know how to look after themselves. Good food, fresh air and sunshine provide the perfect base combination for replenishing health.
To say Gertrud is merely a host does not do her justice. She is the retreat. The house, its furnishings, the food – her love and warmth, her passion and soul – they’re embodied in every aspect of this beautiful place.
Gertrud began to faithfully restore the house a decade ago. The oldest parts of the building date back to the 1500’s but significant renovations, which give the chateau it’s architectural character, were completed in the late 1800’s. The house had been torn apart by it’s previous occupants, a Dutch couple who bought it in the mid eighties when property in France was super cheap. They ripped out fireplaces and parquet floors to swiftly recoup their investment. Gertrud has given the house it’s heart back. She’s put her own heart and soul into lovingly restoring it’s character using traditional techniques and materials. The thought and care that have gone in to every aspect of the renovation literally breathes life back into the building.
The guest bedrooms are beautifully spacious, each features a magnificent stone fireplace and candlelit en suite bathroom. The floor to ceiling windows, dressed in translucent cream fabric, flood the space with an abundance of natural light. Flowing textured curtains billow gently in the delicate mountain breeze. The bedroom walls – as per the rest of the house – are decorated using a traditional, milk based, earth pigment paint. It creates a wonderful, intentionally uneven, soft matte finish.
The elegant open kitchen living space extends seamlessly through double french doors onto a walled garden where brightly coloured hammocks hang between thick tree trunks and a wispy grass labyrinth forms the centre piece to a lush green lawn. Giant rosemary, sage and lavender plants grow strong in the warm French climate whilst the red brick orangery beyond offers guests privacy and shelter from the midday sun. This indoor / outdoor living area provides the perfect space to socialise in or to sit quietly and contemplate. The home and gardens are so vast it’s impossible to ever feel crowded.
Gertrud’s creativity and passion extend well beyond interior design. Yobaba retreat promotes ‘gourmet raw food’ and that’s exactly what she creates. Each incredible dish is testament to her notion that vegan, gluten free, dairy free meals need never be dull. Gertrud puts as much care and fine detail into perfecting her culinary creations as she does in creating a magnificent living space and the exquisite taste of each dish matches her sublime presentation. From colourful red and yellow chia pudding breakfasts to raw pad thai and healthy chocolate ganache, this is true nourishment in every sense.
The food prep area we’re working in sits to the side of the house. Just a month ago the space was derelict, within one week Gertrud and Mangalo worked tirelessly to create one of the most beautiful kitchens I’ve ever had pleasure to spend time in. The central work bench sits across two old, rusty barrel drums, simple wooden shelves are lined with crates full of spices, grains, nuts and seeds. Glass bottles filled with home made kombucha line one wall and pots of bright, fresh garden herbs stand on a thick stone sill, weaving out of the window through fine chicken wire. Gertrud explains they merely made use of the materials they had to hand to throw something together, but it’s so much more than that. It’s stunning in its magnificent simplicity and I absolutely love it.
The Yobaba philosophy to nourish body, spirit and soul is further encompassed in Mangalo’s yoga practice. His calm, soothing voice reflects his teaching. Gentle, spiritual and considered. Aside from a few random classes at the gym over the years, I’ve never really bothered trying to embrace the benefits of yoga. I like triathlons, lifting weights and adrenaline sports. In truth, the concept of standing on one leg and stretching always seemed a bit boring. Five days in and I’m completely hooked. Mangalo has been been leading meditation, yoga courses and retreats for over ten years. His style of teaching is elegant and all encompassing. Beginners feel welcome, experienced yoginis feel suitably challenged. No one feels out of place.
The yoga shala on the top floor of the chateau faces the morning sun. Light streams across the beautifully waxed wooden floor through six large windows which look out onto Chalabre. Birds swoop across the rooftops and the gentle sound of the village waking up accompanies our morning practice. Our group is small, we are ten in total, and there’s plenty of room in the yoga shala for us all to enjoy space. The youngest amongst us is twenty two year old Kirsten who has travelled from Canada to be here, the oldest is Wilhelmina, British born she is ninety this year and now lives in the neighbouring town of Kiel. Wilhelmina has been practicing yoga for over sixty years. Her strength and flexibility alone are a true inspiration. We’re a mixed bunch, each brings a different energy to the group and whilst we’re all on an individual path, our shared desire for relaxation and rejuvenation is being well and truly fulfilled.
The house and grounds are such a beautiful space to be in I have very little desire to leave. Only the clear, turquoise tinted waters of nearby Lac du Montbel entices us to exit the confines of the chateau garden.
We travel quietly to the lake on the night of the full moon. Observing our evening ritual of noble silence which begins each night at 8:30pm and finishes at lunch the following day. Sunshine has warmed the water throughout the afternoon. We slip quietly into the lake as the sun dips and the full moon rises. And there we are, ten naked silhouettes creating ripples over the dark, still surface. As a triathlete I’m naturally drawn to open water swimming, but this is something else. Spiritual, enchanting, as much an individual experience as a collective moment. And one which, along with so many aspects of the retreat, I’ll remember forever.
B&b with raw or continental breakfast from £95 for a large double room or £150 for a suite
5 day retreat including all food from £975 per person (based on a couple sharing a large double room) or £1,250 single occupancy
Flights with Ryanair to and from Carcassonne to East Midlands, Liverpool and London Stansted from £24.99. Free airport transfers available.