The Princess of Paris – from a castle to a tent
Leila Benzo shares her humbling tale, of leaving the trappings of decadence behind during a holiday that brought together the riches and realities of life, as she escaped Paris for the countryside first to a castle and then on to a tent!
Lavender wafted through the gardens, infused the toiletries and wrapped around me like a warm blanket. I stood inside epic doorways, peered at the top of window frames, and focused on tiny objects, on the other side of the room, because they seemed so very far away.
In a world where we live in increasingly smaller spaces, I felt myself shrink down to miniature size inside what seemed like a giant’s house. As I flapped around trying to shut the super-tall curtains I pondered on how they decided on the colour schemes and décor, or where they found the furniture, and I couldn’t help but feel a certain sense of dissatisfaction with my regular life in Paris and my current (drastically lower) living standards.
The scale of the chateaux is theatrical. With so many seating arrangements and extra spaces, one seems to slip into a rich decadent’s world. In my normal life I spend most of my time serving my kids, but in the chateau I didn’t have to do anything because I was constantly served. At first it felt strange, but I tried to relax and enjoy it, and then It felt fabulous.
The only downside was that ‘being served’ seriously affected my intelligence. A couple of days into the holiday, stupidity engulfed me.
I started losing possessions, and asking everyone where things were… “Have you seen my son’s shoes?” Try finding a pair of toddler shoes in a castle…! It is near impossible. I also forgot what to do in normal situations. I sat outside at night with no repellent and expected to not be bitten. With the problem-solving part of my brain turned off, I resorted to asking the staff for everything… “Do you have an adaptor plug, mosquito repellent, a pen, cotton wool, a blanket, how do you use this, and oh… Have you seen my son’s shoes!?”
I relaxed around the garden, ate delicious food, soaked up the sleepy countryside atmosphere, took photos, drank coffee and floated on my back in the swimming pool. The evenings were spent feasting on exquisite local produce, sipping my favourite wines, talking nonsense with my extended family and star gazing; that epic sky.
This summer, apart from relaxing and eating, I tried something new: pilates! Luckily for us, Anna, a thoroughly qualified and experienced physiotherapist working at the Chateau, offered us classes. As I lay on my back, looked up at the trees shading me, and listening to the sprinklers and birds singing, I focused intensely on my movements and breathing. My previously annoying tight shoulders and back were gradually soothed, my entire body had been stretched out and released from all the negative effects of ‘mama stress’. My kids played happily on the swings and slides and, for once, I felt calm. Anna took the time to explain every detail of how my body felt and reacted to certain movements. I was excited to learn about tension, manipulation, relaxation and I now feel an enhanced connection with my body and a new self-awareness.
Anna organises relaxation retreats in the chateaux for pilates and massage, alongside her partner – a very talented chef.
After my extended family holiday, we (hubby, kids and I) drove to our next destination: Ecovallee, a yurt camp I found last minute on Airbnb.
In total contrast to the luxury of the Chateau, Ecovallee had no chef, no swimming pool, no bricks and no electricity. In fact, Ecovallee was exactly what the name sounded like: an eco-friendly valley. I wondered how we would feel going from super luxury to a tent and I was worried about what we might find. Like a jaded ex-princess who had just lost her castle, I couldn’t help but feel slightly annoyed with the cards that the universe had handed me. ‘Why was the castle not my permanent home? Why do I live in a box flat in Paris, and why oh why am I not a real princess?’ I tried to put all the non-reality questions out of my head and focussed on the present moment.
On entering the yurt campsite, we were greeted by the charismatic owner, Alex. With his contagious grin and no-stress aura, he guided us down a long woodland path. On our descent into the forest, we entered a hidden world, an exclusive garden. I realised something: Isolation is luxury, whether you stay in a yurt or 6-star castle, the feeling of being deep inside the countryside, very far from other properties, and people, is a form of relaxation in itself.
I scanned the eco-friendly open air kitchen and saw a sink with running water and all the cooking utensils you would expect in a regular kitchen. The ground underneath me was covered in wood chippings, which reminded me of hamster cages.
Alternative realities are intriguing and opposite to our ordinary suburban lifestyle, and at a time in my life where I’d seemingly done it all Ecovallee had surprised me.
Where else could we have stayed in a yurt camp with only one other yurt, so far away from us that it was out of sight and sound? Where else would we have found a host who would speak to us about the environment, philosophy and meditation? And where else would I have used a dry toilet? For anyone who doesn’t know: a dry toilet is a huge hole in the ground you defecate into and then throw something dry (wood chippings) over instead of flushing. The wood chippings totally absorb the odour, and the excrement all turns into compost.
Because the yurt is made of canvas it is not airtight, which creates a strong connection with the natural surroundings. I’m not usually a big fan of insects but our mosquito net totally protected me from all insects. Sleeping in a yurt, surrounded by forest, is meditative and humbling.
The purity of the air is cleansing, and the sounds of silence and nature relaxing.
A moment of total peace and oneness with the forest was energising. In the morning, the sun shone through the canvas softly, and life buzzed musically. During daylight hours the yurt was lit up perfectly, and the canvas walls shone in warm cream tones. We decided to stop sightseeing and spend as much time enjoying the campsite before we had to leave, as the real pleasure of Ecovallee was to be found in slowing down to a halt and appreciating just being. I stretched out and lay silently on the field, as still as possible.
Early evening, the mosquitos descended on me. We had come prepared, intelligently. It reminded me of a time I once spent in Thailand where the mozzies descended on us every day at 5pm. It occurred to me that mosquitos worldwide are quite similar, just like people, we all tend to have similar human habits. I felt more connected with other people and animals, and the earth. The meeting place is the place we eat, the dining table, in the chateaux and Ecovallee. Alex took things one step further and announced during one mealtime together “People are the same as trees.” Now, I have always considered myself a free-thinker but sometimes I am made to question how free I really am. I tried to visualise myself as a tree but I just couldn’t.
Throughout the glamping trip I had become so deep in thought that I lost my previous social problems. I had totally forgotten about losing my castle and my fantasy princess status. I had moved onto a higher level of consciousness, connected with the forest.
I felt fascinated by everything around me, excited yet relaxed. My mind had been opened by the people I had met, the conversations and the pure experience of being deep inside the wild woodland. As the camping holiday progressed our hair became as tangled as the plants surrounding us, our skin glistened with natural oils and we were freed from superficial expectations.
Alex is running meditation retreats at Ecovallee in the summer of 2017, which fits perfectly with the ambience of the site.
From the end of my two diverse back-to-back holidays, I felt a change in myself as a person and mother. All the agitation I had previously been feeling from the kids had dissolved. I felt a connection to my body, and a new awareness. I had thanked the forests for letting me stay a little while and I felt grateful for the kindness of others, inspired by brave projects and brilliant, yet humble, people I had met along the way.
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Leila Benzo is a British expat mum living in a western suburb of Paris. She has two young kids and works part time as an English teacher.
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Rigaurd, 33350 Mouliets-et-Villemartin. http://www.chateaurigaud.co.uk/
Ecovallee, 24150 Couze-et-Saint-Front. http://ecovallee.com/