There are houses that are born to breathe culture – those from which it should ooze at the seam. However with time, and under different ownerships, the musical notes, dancing feet and painting hands of the past, too often are left behind. So when culture is delivered back to these properties, generations on, it is truly a magical thing.
Such has been the case this year at Chateau Lou Casteou – the Grande Dame set in the Esterel Mountains of the Cote D’Azur. Bought as a ruin by Morag and Chris Baxter in 2006, the 108-year-old chateau was gutted and completely renovated to the luxury private residence it is today. And Lou Casteou once again is playing host to cultural pursuits, which no doubt would have been practised by its patrons, over a century ago.
Last month saw the first Luxury Cultural Retreat held in the impressive chateau – a six-day programme dedicated to escapism, enjoyment and honing, (or simply learning the basic) skills of singing, song-writing, painting, cooking, trekking and dancing. And I had the pleasure of taking part.
On arrival from Nice, I was met by my chauffeur Wilfred and swiftly arrived at Lou Casteou to a warm welcome. As other guests arrived during the day, we all chatted over champagne in the pool gardens. After freshening up and changing into something more relaxing, we later all dined together and prepared for the week ahead.
So, to the talent… Scouted to tutor our group was award-winning Italian chef Matteo Mangiarotti, Sommeliers Silvia Revello and Jean-Denis Mull, Russian Artist Tatiana Perreard, Outdoor trek expert and historian Laurence Lassalle and signed musicians, Lisa Marie Simmons and Marco Cremaschini, of hit group Hippie Tendencies. Our days were split, with parallel classes running in the mornings and afternoons – however, each class focused on a different aspect of the discipline – meaning guests could dip in and out, trying every pursuit on offer. Or even just relax by the pool if preferred.
First up was food – Italian, Michelin-star quality food, to be precise. Charming Matteo shared his passion for food and quality ingredients and walked us through Italian delights such as Focaccia con pomodori e oregano (Homemade focaccia bread with tomatoes and oregano), Ceviche di pesce fresco (Ceviche of fresh fish) and Fragole marinate al vino rosso (Marinated strawberries with red wine reduction). We learnt culinary skills such as kneading pasta and making ravioli, searing lamb racks, cleaning Octopus, making the perfect risotto and dicing beef tartar. Dishes we made were served for dinner – so chefs and guests could sample our skills. My personal favourite was the Tartare di manzo con foie gras (Beef Tartare with Foie Gras) – a crowd-pleaser at Matteo and Silvia’s Lake Garda restaurant QB (short for Quanto Basta – ‘just enough’). After three sessions – which involved tasting and laughing, as much as learning, I felt confident enough to master traditional Italian dishes. I’ve also resolved to upgrade my set of knives, and buy a mini blow torch, to crisp up crème brulees at home.
Cooking done, next up was art – water colour painting. Having dropped art at the earliest opportunity in favour of drama at school, and apart from visiting the occasional art fair – and enjoying art along Bayswater road every Sunday, I’d never given the idea of painting much thought. Least of all, as something I thought I might be good at. So with a slight pessimism, I picked up my paint brush. Order of the day was to grasp the concept of mixing a palate of colours from three primary liquid paints and progress to painting a vase of peonies in the beautiful surroundings of the cloisters. Step by step I mixed my palate, experimented with brush size and stroke, positioned my viewfinder and sketched my flowers in pencil.
After this, I dabbed here and there blotted and swirled, guided and encouraged by Tatiana who demonstrated water colour techniques beautifully, until I had something of with I was rather proud. After an expert swoosh of the brush from the endlessly patient and talented Tatiana, I actually had a painting of red and purple hues that is destined for my wall at home. And nicer still, I found the three-hour session so relaxing – drifting off with my spectrum of colours, until unbeknown to me, it was lunchtime. Other scenes the class painted that week were Lou Casteou’s historic architecture, Provencal scenery and wild garden flowers, and a Matisse-esque table, set with fruit and flowers. Feeling inspired, I made a promise to myself, to buy a set of watercolours in England!
Salsa and Latin dance classes was held early evening in the elegant reception room, complete with mirrored wall for self-admiration or amusement! Our fun-loving, teacher Nicolas walked and gyrated us through the different Latin disciplines, defining the rumba from the cha-cha-cha. Partnering us up initially, the grou then rotated, switching partners – all in the best spirit of fun and without any embarrassment. The classes allowed the group to practise our steps for the last night of celebration!
Trekking occurred every other day, and the group was led by Laurence – a local historian and nature lover. The sea views close to Lou Casteou were breath-taking and we were amazed by the rugged, natural beauty of the area – so much in contrast with the busy, body packed beaches of Nice and Cannes.
Accommodation was to the standard of a five-star hotel – with sea and mountain views from all windows, new en-suite bathrooms, and gorgeous, comfortable beds with crisp Egyptian cotton sheets.
Breakfast, lunch and dinner were prepared by the Italian chefs, with the freshest ingredients. Every day we enjoyed the traditional Aperol spritz or house champagne together with hors d’oeuvres by the pool as the sunset. And one evening Jean and Silvia hosted a tasting of 8 Italian fine wines, in the atmospheric cloisters – lit by candlelight.
Dinner was served either in the elegant dining room, cloisters or pool gardens and each was a celebration and a feast of flavour. And all dinners lead to discussion of the day’s activities with fellow guests – all 12 of us, in my international group. These included guests from Russia, Italy, Kenya and the UK. Ages ranged from 21-50, which indicated to me how the event appeals to culture-lovers of all ages. The group was a mix of singles, couples and two family pairs.
And now to my personal favourite, singing and song-writing classes – a class taught by two talented members of Italian–signed band Hippie Tendencies, singer Lisa, and pianist Marco. Lisa’s enthusiasm soon rubbed off as she taught us the basics of song-writing – explaining hooks, riffs, verses and choruses, along with the importance of melodies and lyrics. We were tasked to find five notes, which would form the hook of our song. The next session we paired our notes with a partner – and were helped (with a little music software!), to create a viable verse and chorus. Next came lyrics – which we pulled from our chosen topic of inspiration, in our case Growth. After we had practised, we were ready to record, and perform our pieces on the final celebration night!
And celebrate we did. Flushed with creativity, good company, fine wine, exquisite food and the splendour of Lou Casteou, the group sang and danced – with the night owls finishing off their evenings around the pool table. The last night proved the most spectacular of all, with Lisa and Marco playing outside as the sun set, around the chateau’s magnificent infinity pool’s edge. I even got to join Lisa and Marco for two numbers we had prior rehearsed – which was the icing on the cake.
And as the last morning came round, I packed my case and with a heavy heart departed for Nice, in the knowledge I was taking with me new friends and experiences. Lou Casteou’s original creator Lord Amherst of Hackney would have been proud.
The Luxury Retreat at Lou Casteou costs 5,500 Euros per couple or two sharing a twin room or 2,950 Euros per single room occupancy, with VAT included. Prices are fully inclusive of all classes, materials, visits, accommodation in en-suite rooms, meals and drinks including wines, evening entertainment, wine tasting sessions and airport transfers from Nice. The next courses are 13 – 18 October, 2013 and 4-9 May, 2014. For more information please visit www.loucasteou.com.
Words by Leila Stocker