Natural High: Two Creative Retreats in the French Mountains
There is something about being in the mountains that seems to unleash the creative spirit hidden in us all. Whether it is the mountain air, the spectacular views, or the constantly changing vistas, there is no doubt that being in a mountain setting is somehow both freeing and inspiring. Which perhaps explains why so many creative people are drawn to the wide open valleys and soaring peaks of the Pyrénées.
In the last few years, the Ariège Pyrénées in particular has started to gain a reputation as the place for anyone looking for an artistic retreat or a location for an art-based holiday in order to work on their creative skills. With its majestic peaks soaring to the Spanish border and the gentler beauty of its lower wooded valleys and slopes, the Ariège Pyrénées remains one of France’s best-kept secrets, an unspoiled gem tucked away from the stresses of modern-day life – and a delight for any artist.
It is here that Rodney and Eleri Munday have restored a crumbling barn in a tiny hamlet overlooking the beautiful Garbet Valley and transformed it into the perfect base for their highly respected painting holidays. A far cry from their original backgrounds (Rodney read English at Oxford and Eleri Geography at Cambridge), neither imagined that they would one day be running painting courses in this little-known part of southern France. Rodney is an established and respected artist, well known for his sculpture and has undertaken numerous public commissions in the UK. More recently however, he has returned to his love of painting, inspired by the extraordinary beauty of the scenery in Pyrénées and the exceptional quality of the light. It then seemed a natural progression that he and Eleri should share this exceptional environment with other artists (and budding artists) by offering painting holidays. The soaring peaks, swirling skies, crystal-clear lakes, waterfalls and ever-changing vistas make the perfect backdrop for experienced and novice painters alike and these course have proved hugely popular over the last few years.
Their aim is to offer holidays which are tailored to each guest’s individual requirements, providing an inspirational, creative and yet relaxing holiday while also giving a taste of the rich cultural, historic and gastronomic heritage of this particularly beautiful region of France. Full-board painting courses normally run from mid April to late June and from September to early November although other times are available by special arrangement. The choice of subject matter and medium as well as length of stay is up to each guest – indeed, Rodney and Eleri believe that (coupled with stunning scenery, sympathetic tuition, a warm welcome and good food) flexibility and small group size are what make their holidays special.
The main subjects covered are mountain landscape and its elements, peaks, lakes, waterfalls, skies, studies of moss, rocks, tree trunks and roots, logs, stone, light and shade, colourful local markets, historic towns and architecture. Many guests also choose to paint the view from the garden which, being west-facing, also benefits from impressive sunsets, or the lovely stone walls of the house, “Le Pichet” and neighbouring buildings. When not in use for painting holidays, “Le Pichet” is also available for gîte rental.
If pottery is more your thing, then Foix, in the east of the region, is the perfect base. Foix is the prefecture of the Ariège and sits in a dramatic setting dominated by mountains and guarded over by it’s castle, the foundations of which date from the 10th Century. Just south of Foix, in one of the many valleys that stretch deep into the Pyrénées, is the pottery studio of Kim Grayson who offers courses in pottery and ceramics to both locals and holidaymakers.
Kim moved here with her husband in search of a more peaceful and fulfilling way of life and the fit was perfect. Having studied art and then fashion, design and ceramics at college, she later took a City and Guilds qualifications in pottery and teaching, and has since taught many pupils the art of throwing, glazing, and all manner of pottery. In her peaceful studio overlooking the river and the mountains, Kim runs relaxed and fun classes that really inspire her pupils of all abilities to discover hidden talents and hitherto unknown artistic abilities. Her studio is well equipped with everything from tools, wheels, slab roller, and kiln, to glazes and clays. Aspiring potters can choose the length of course and timings to fit in with their holidays or their daily lives. Classes are relaxed and everything is included in the price including the clay, the paints, glazes all the equipment, and tea or coffee afternoon discussions on the sun terrace.
Kim’s courses are for anyone interested in learning or improving any aspect of ceramics and one-to-one tailor-made courses are also available. They are non-residential but Kim says that she can help students find accommodation nearby and, having run a high quality bed & breakfast in Foix for many years, is well equipped to advise on the best places to stay and on activities and places to visit in the area.
The urge to draw, paint and create is a primitive one (as beautifully illustrated by the prehistoric cave paintings in the Niaux caves to the south of Foix) so it seems fitting somehow, in a region where people have lived, painted and produced artworks from the basic elements since prehistoric times, that the area still draws visitors who appreciate the natural beauty and resources that the Pyrénées region offers.
Despite its unspoiled nature and hidden location the Ariège Pyrénées is nevertheless very accessible, just over an hour from Toulouse airport, home to all the major airlines as well as some of the low costs (including Ryanair from November). Lourdes/Tarbes airport is under two hours and Carcassonne airport is also two hours away. The main towns of the region, St Girons and Foix are within easy reach of the major road networks and and the drive from Calais to the Ariège is approximately 10 hours. There are excellent train services from Paris to Toulouse.
More info on painting holidays
More info on pottery courses
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By Nadia Jordan
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