TRAVEL REVIEW: Yoga, sunshine and wine in the French countryside

The St Jean Retreat
The St Jean Retreat
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At the end of a long month in which it appeared that my boss was conducting an experiment in how to work a person to death, I stumbled upon the St Jean Retreat.

Buried deep in the French countryside, the retreat offers an away-from-it-all relaxing break.

The vibe is a deliberately informal, family atmosphere – albeit highly luxurious – aimed at groups who want to swim, meditate, do yoga, hike in the French countryside and generally forget about the rat race.

And if it’s relaxation you’re looking for, St Jean ticks all the boxes. The peace and quiet of a rural retreat pairs with the stunning countryside of South West France - although being just an hour away from Toulouse with its wide range of international flights, it’s also easy to access.

Sleeping a maximum of 12, it is small and at the moment, the family are marketing mainly towards groups, often with a focus on yoga or meditation, to give an individual experience.

It is well set up for yoga groups with both a large indoor studio an an outdoor platform, set on a gentle hill with a stunning view of the nearby Medieval bastide town of Cordes-sur-Ciel, perched upon its hilltop. There is also an outdoor meditation space and, within the quirky rambling main building, plenty of space for smaller group activities.

But those not well versed in yoga could simply use it as a relaxing getaway, with the outdoor pool and tennis courts there is plenty to do, and the countryside is superb for hiking or cycling.

After spending 20 years in the area, the family have impeccable local contacts and can arrange for a private chef to come in and cook or local masseuse Susi to pop by for a massage or meditation session.

After 24 hours in St Jean you’ll probably have largely forgotten that the outside world exists, but if you do fancy some day trips, the region is packed with interesting things to do and see.

The nearest town is Cordes-sur-Ceil, a honeypot for artists thanks to its ancient beauty and meteorological peculiarities (on mornings when the cloud hangs low in the valley, the town appears to float above the sky).

Built in 1222 by Raimon VII, Count of Toulouse, and subsequently enlarged in the 14th and 15th centuries with extra fortifications, it is one of the best preserved bastide towns in France and provides a real slice of history. Walking tours are available through the Tourist Office, where the knowledgeable and passionate Veronique and her team enjoy sharing their expertise on this fascinating little town.

Those who are not history buffs can also enjoy the town’s selections of art museums and galleries, or the highly engaging museum of chocolate, or simply sit in the square with a glass of wine and drink in the incomparable view.

Slightly further away from St Jean at about a 40 minute drive – but definitely worth the trip – is Albi. This lively little town is distinguished by two things - its strange, looming and enormous brick cathedral and the Toulouse-Lautrec museum.

Although most associated with Paris and the sleazy delights of Montmatre, the diminutive belle epoque painter was born in Albi and after his death his mother gathered up all his unsold paintings and created a museum back in his hometown. Thus this sleepy little town has the finest and largest collection of Toulouse-Lautrec paintings in the world.

The museum is a delight, housed in the cellars of the former bishop’s palace it moves from the conventional sketches of his childhood to his distinctive and unusual adult paintings and his work as a poster artist while – perhaps understandably given his mother’s involvement – skating over the wilder aspects of his booze ‘n’ brothels lifestyle in Paris.

The highly unusual cathedral is next on every tourist’s list. Build of brick, it looms like a castle over the town. Built at a period of great religious strife, it personifies the tension, fear and politics of both the region and the church at this period.

Both the museum and the cathedral are accessible and informative, but if you want to delve a little deeper into the fascinating – and frequently blood-soaked – history of the town, local guide Gregory Gallmann is highly recommended, both for his knowledge and enthusiasm about the region and his engaging delivery.

And if the delights of the rural begin to wane, there is always Toulouse - about an hour’s drive away and offering all the facilities of a major city.

But such is the spell of St Jean that visitors may very well complete their trip without setting foot out of the gates.

Theancient chapel within the grounds claims to contain a ley line that can heal people and, while magical healing eluded me, a few days in this charming and quirky place, where time really does slow down, were quite enough to wash away the stresses and strains of everyday life.

And few glasses from the local vineyard probably didn’t hurt either.

Factfile - St Jean Retreat, Cordes, Tarn, France.

Flybe has daily flights from Manchester to Toulouse