Wildly creative: Life at La Muse Writer’s and Artist’s Retreat in Southern France


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July 16th 2010
Published: July 17th 2010
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View from the La Muse terraceView from the La Muse terraceView from the La Muse terrace

photo by Brylliantimages
When I set out travelling almost three years ago, my friend Rob, a globetrotter himself, warned me ‘You might find it difficult to settle again after being on the move for so long’. He was right. My life has changed drastically since I gave up everything to follow my dream of travelling the world. Initially, it was only supposed to be an overland journey from England to Pakistan, after which I expected to come back and pick up where I left off. But that never happened, and so far, I haven’t settled again.

But, after spending five months in India, my travelling style has changed. I travel much slower now - two days on a train seem nothing other than normal now - and tend to stay between two and six months in one place. I found that this suits me better than the manic, superficial travel of spending a few days or a couple of weeks in a different country. That way, I get to know the land, the people and culture better.

Slow travel has become a way of life for me, for the time being at least: living here and there, like a nomad, ready to leave when I feel that my time in one place is up. I’ve always admired the travelling artisans and troubadours of old, and it seems that I found a way to make it work for me in this age. I’m right now preparing for my next big adventure, which will take me to the USA on a cargo ship in September. Watch this space for updates on this journey!

Of course, I realize that I’m in a privileged position, as my work is portable. I am a freelance writer and priestess, and offer my services as I go along. Last winter, for example, I spent six months at Shekinashram in Glastonbury, where I landed my dream job: leading fire ceremonies every Sunday and on special occasions, as well as kirtan chanting, cooking and doing the ashram shopping. Oh, and collecting fresh cow dung from the fields and forming them into neat little patties for the fire ceremonies! It left me with enough free time to pursue my writing, of which I’ve done a lot since I came back from Asia.
My main project over the last year, both in Glastonbury and at the house of a friend in Leamington
Offering the 'Aum' cakeOffering the 'Aum' cakeOffering the 'Aum' cake

Australian artist Kate offering puja to La Muse's Ganesh. You can take the girl out of the ashram....
Spa, has been to write a book about my experiences in the Indian Himalayas. I’m on the fourth draft of the book now, and all being well, it should be published next summer.

As I write this, I am in the South of France, in a wonderful region called Languedoc. For the past seven weeks, I lived at La Muse Writer’s & Artist’s Retreat in the small mountain village of Labastide-Esparbairenque. I discovered the retreat on a Google search last autumn, frustrated with being stuck writing in a house in England, and instantly fell in love with the magical photographs of the old building and wooded valley around it. But it wasn’t until May of this year that I actually booked myself in.

Run by a charming Irish-American couple called John Fanning and Kerry Eielson (alongside their three young children Seamus, Fionn and Gloria, and dog Homer), La Muse is an eleven-bedroom house that dates back to the 12th Century. The couple set up the retreat in their twenties with loans from credit cards and haven’t looked back since. La Muse's vision is to offer creative individuals a peaceful, inspiring mountain setting in which to pursue the work they love. They aim to encourage artistic exploration, nurture creative thought, and forge bonds between diverse thinkers.

And it is magnificent, in every sense of the word. La Muse overlooks a wooded valley in an old, sleepy village in which time has stood still. The silence is absolute. From my room, all I can hear is birdsong and the rushing of the river in the valley below. I am overwhelmed by this: I don’t think I have ever been in a place that still, that peaceful, that inspirational. There are no car sounds, no telephones, nothing that reminds us that we’re in the 21st Century. Just pure, still, unadulterated nature - complete bliss for a pagan yogini like me. I often go on long hikes, admire the vastness, the wildflowers, abundant herbs, and the many different animals that cross my path: wild boars, deer, birds of prey, snakes, foxes, and all manner of weird and wonderful insects.

The house is equally inspirational. Over ten years, John and Kerry have renovated the house, adding old-style chic in line with the building. High ceilings, wooden floors, large French windows overlooking the valley, antique furniture and artwork that is as poetic as the names of the rooms: Erato, Euterpe, Thalia, to name but a few. They’re all gorgeous, although Erato, the Honeymoon Suite, is my favourite. It has an en-suite bathroom with a south-facing window, giving the room extra-gorgeous light.

The house has two arts studios, a sunny terrace, a garden and a rustic bread oven shed, which John and Kerry kindly allowed me to use for my weekly fire ceremonies that were well-attended by participants of both retreats. And I was ecstatic to discover a statue of the lovely Ganesh, Hindu God of writers, in an alcove of the house’s outside walls. Coming straight from Shekinashram, I missed my puja, and promptly adopted Ganesh during my time here. Every day, I brought him candles, incense and flowers and asked him to help the writing flow of all the attendees.

The kitchen and dining room are spacious and shared by all retreat participants. A word of warning if you are a vegetarian or vegan, though: Like many retreats, La Muse is a carnivorous place, and you will find yourself cooking right next to sausage pans and the odd rabbit stew (freshly snuffed from the neighbour’s back yard). As I had just come from a vegan ashram, it was quite a shock to my system. I got used to it after a while, but if have are a strict vegetarian/vegan and are sensitive about using non-meat kitchen tools, then it might be better for you to rent one of La Muse’s cottages next door (see below).

I had a productive time at the retreat, and often sat by the river with my notebook or laptop to write the afternoon away. I also found being in the presence of other writers and reading books from the fantastic, well-stocked library very inspirational.

The retreats can get very social however, perhaps unsurprisingly, due to the beauty of the area and people being away from home. I found this distracting at times, as I had come specifically to get away from the social life at the ashram and focus on my work. I suggest therefore, if you come to La Muse and really want to get your head down, to stay in one of the neighbouring cottages they rent out, such as the Annex. These are right next door to the main building, but ensure a little more privacy. Having said all that, my room was on the top floor of the building so it was pretty easy to shut myself away and work all the hours I wanted to.

There are no shops in the village, other than a couple of trucks that come once a week, and some very lovely old people who sell eggs and honey from their homes. La Muse is about forty-five minutes car ride from Carcassonne, but you can sign up for a ride package that brings you to the shops once a week. This is much cheaper than renting a car, and I found it to be sufficient. It worked well - especially because Carcassonne now has an organic supermarket, called Odobio, at which John kindly dropped me off every week. It’s a health freak’s paradise: full of fresh organic fruit and vegetables, grains, juices, nuts, seeds, tofu, teas, cosmetics, and anything you could possibly imagine. When I set foot into it for the first time, I was in bliss: they even played Hindu mantras in the shop! They’re more expensive than your average supermarket, but I found that the pleasant shopping experience and the quality of the produce more than make up for
The La Muse familyThe La Muse familyThe La Muse family

photo by Brylliantimages
it.

Nearby is the village of Lastours, famous for its Cathar castle, at which my new-found Alaskan friend Victoria and I spent the Summer Solstice and held a small fire ceremony. Labastide’s main event of the year is the ‘Onion Walk’ in May, which I was fortunate enough to attend. It consists of a 12km hike through the woods- an old tradition in which the people of Mazamet pilgrimage to Labastide to obtain onion saplings, which would grow only in Labastide, as the climate is warmer there. On this walk, we got to see an Occitan bagpipe concert and miles of gorgeous nature!

To stay at La Muse costs from 700 Euro per three week retreat, but they also have a barter scheme which allows artists to come for free in exchange for three days of work per week. See their website for more information on how to apply.

I left La Muse deeply inspired and relaxed. I completed a fair amount of work in the seven weeks I was there, though not as much as I had hoped. However, because the place is so magical and the retreat such a special place, I wouldn’t have missed coming for the world. I was in awe most of the time I was there, and will treasure memories of the big pregnant Full Moon illuminating the mountains forever! I also met some fascinating people, most of which were American. Among others I had the pleasure of meeting Nandi, a highly energetic arts therapist and Five Rhythms dancer from California; Victoria, who, though originally from America's 'Bible Belt', has been living in a small Alaskan village teaching English to the indigenous people there; Jennifer, an ex-high flying Wall Street lawyer who gave up her job to write fiction; the lovely Trevor, a science fiction writer from Vancouver, Canada; a Malaysian poet, a handful of painters, and an American poet who is a self-proclaimed 'hater of nature'. A wonderful mix for sure!

After La Muse, I stayed in Languedoc for three more weeks. I spent one week in nearby Sallales Cabardes on a vineyard (yes, very apt for a tea-total like me), where I rented a little sadhu cottage in stunning nature, overlooking fields and mountains, in which I wrote my days away. I also toured the mighty Pyrenees for a week with my friend Tara (see next blog) and then returned to the La Muse area to stay in Pradelles-Cabardes for a week at ‘La Source et La Sorciere’ (The Witch and the Sorcerer). La Source is a wonderful guest house, run by a delightful Belgian couple called Jan and Suzy. Suzy is an herbalist with an abundant herb garden, and they rent out beautiful little cottages that surround their 12th Century home. The farm is in nature near a fantastic lake where I went many times to swim.

Jan introduced me to Yves, a local healer and medium. I had a session with him and was very impressed with what he picked up. I’d never met him before, and yet he pinpointed the areas I need to work on most urgently in my life with precision. He knew about my childhood, right down to specific problems with my parents, accidents and illnesses, and diagnosed a couple of mineral deficiencies, too. After an accident that had him declared clinically dead, Yves discovered his healing gift and has been working with people and animals ever since. I can attest to his skill and really benefited from my session with him. He works by donation, and can be contacted via gabriel.magnetiseur@yahoo.fr

And on my last night in Carcassonne, I had the pleasure of seeing the mighty Goran Bregovic & band in La Cite's open air theater. It's been a dream of mine to see them live for about ten years, and they were phenomenal. What a way to leave the South of France!

To find out more about La Muse, please visit

For La Source et La Sorciere, please visit






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My little sadhu cottageMy little sadhu cottage
My little sadhu cottage

I stayed here for a week and wrote
Black Metal beetleBlack Metal beetle
Black Metal beetle

I met this little fellow on the street in Sallales Cabardes
Yoni CaveYoni Cave
Yoni Cave

A cave in Minerve, an old Cathar town


18th July 2010

Hello!
Wonderful to hear of your latest exploits, I am very inspired by your blogging.
18th July 2010

Yay! The Travelling Priestess is back in blog form!
What a delight to see in my inbox an update from 'the Travelling Priestess' blog - love it! Thanks for your fabulous update on your adventures - looking forward to seeing more (the cargo ship to the US? Can't wait!) xx

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