Yobaba Lounge *new* review | holistic hideaway, France
Meditation, self-reflection & gourmet raw food in a bohemian Chateau in the French Pyrenees
In a nutshell: The eccentric and quirky Yobaba Lounge chateau is located in the foothills of the Pyrenees in the sleepy village of Chalabre. Its owner, fabulous Gertrud Keazor, is your hostess for the 5 day, 4 night retreats which run from May until November and which focus on the power of the breath and embodied meditation to rejuvenate body and mind. Sleep in airy spacious rooms with hippy chic decor, eat sensational, beautifully prepared, raw food and switch off entirely, allowing yourself to feel truly at peace during daily periods of ‘noble silence’.
Who it’s best for: Yobaba Lounge offers an oasis of calm for anyone wanting to wholly escape from the stresses of daily life, to find stillness and slow body and mind through meditation and being looked after in the truest sense. It can also help with finding the tools to deal with and face a trauma or bereavement. The imaginative vegan food should win round even the most resolute of carnivores. It is suited as much to those travelling alone as to couples and friends – though perhaps slightly harder for them to observe the periods of silence.
Who it’s not for: A dedicated yogi wanting to improve their practice or those after opulent accommodation, spa-like facilities and beauty treatments.
What you can do: After being gently woken by a bell at 7.30, guests (observing the ‘noble silence’ which begins at 8.30pm each evening and continues until noon the following day) help themselves to chai tea and coffee in the kitchen.
Morning practice in the sunlit shala is led by Gertrud, who, though not officially trained in yoga, has a thorough understanding of mindfulness, meditation and Eastern wisdom traditions having studied them in depth. She draws primarily on her year of daily practice under Mangalo (Nick Upton), a Hatha Yoga and Stillness teacher from Hertfordshire who was formerly the resident instructor at Yobaba. She is also a qualified masseuse and reiki practitioner, and her holistic approach makes for a deeply therapeutic, meditative routine. Moving slowly through the basic yoga postures, you are encouraged to mentally and physically explore your inner self by focusing first and foremost on the power of the breath – a deep diaphragmatic ancient yogic breath known as ujjayi or ocean breath, which you imagine flowing in and out in waves.
Appetites fired, the sumptuous raw breakfast at 10am feels well deserved. Guests take their bowls to various spots of the garden to munch in peaceful silence – the sense of calm encourages a slower savouring of each delicious mouthful.
Down time is spent reading, lounging in hammocks or walking into the town, where you can dip in the cool streams. Each morning local masseuse Nicole comes to the chateau and offers a variety of massages including lymph drainage, ayurvedic, swedish and energetic. She is a gentle lovely lady and, one gets the sense, a powerful healer.
After lunch (at 1.30) there is usually a trip for a swim in the beautiful Lake Montbel, a 5 minute drive away. Afternoon practice at 5pm is similar in format to the morning and is followed by supper at 7.30. At 8.45 there is half an hour of guided meditation in the now moonlit yoga shala, which usually involves spiritual music of some form. Feeling deeply relaxed, guests tend to fall into bed early.
While routine is an important part of the retreat, there is a welcome flexibility. One day on our stay we drove an hour through the spectacular landscape of vineyards and limestone cliffs to the Gorges de Galamus where we spent a blissful afternoon leaping in and out of the crystal clear rock pools and waterfalls.
Where you stay: The Chateau is unique in its unpretentious eccentricity, and would provide the perfect setting for a film or classic novel – think Ab Fab meets Charlotte Bronte. It has a rich history – Marcel Proust stayed here and Gustav Eiffel designed some of the ironwork. There’s an earthy, shabby chic feel with homemade paint, drawings by local children on the walls and branches on which to hang clothes. Furniture is an eclectic bohemian mix: animal print bed covers, marble mantelpieces, terracotta tiles and crafted African bedside tables. Burning frankincense and candles everywhere provide soft light. The whole place effuses a sense of laid back calm.
While rooms are very different, all are airy, large and readied with wild flowers, colourful glass water bottles, little bowls of energy bites and a splash of essential oil on the pillow. We slept in one named ‘Gertrud’s Suite’, which was large with an en suite shower, sunlight streaming in from three French windows and a balcony looking out over the hills and onto the garden.
The Yoga shala, nestled into the roof with its view onto the hills, is the most magical of spaces. Wooden beams and floorboards smell of linseed oil and Ethiopian resin incenses, crystals hanging in the windows throw beams of colour from the moon or sunlight across the room, and the softest of yoga mats – doubled up for each person – are laid out with fur lined rugs and huge pillows.
The garden is similarly relaxed and unfussy with hammocks, a swing seat and small deck chairs providing places to chill. Almost everything at Yobaba is natural, including many of the cleaning products. There is organic soap in the bathrooms, but you are encouraged not to use other toiletries. The simplicity of it all – including abandoning ones daily hair washing ritual – feels liberating.
How it was it for us: This was my second visit to Yobaba and on both occasions I found it deeply therapeutic. As someone who really struggles with digestive issues I felt better here than I had in years thanks to the magic tonic of wonderfully digestible food, deep healing breath and meditation.
For me the true spirit of Yobaba Lounge is Gertrud. Though deeply serious about yoga, noble silence and meditation, she is a great character full of fun and humour. Like Mother Nature herself, she appeared in the garden one day brandishing a tray of little pots and saying: ‘Help yourself to my homemade facemask and magic oils sweeties!” She also provides heartfelt help to guests dealing with grief or other issues with a listening ear and compassionate advice.
Despite the importance placed on routine, Gertrud is also open to spontaneity and adventure. Arriving in the Shala for meditation on our last evening we were told there was a change of plan. Feeling a childish sense of excitement everyone followed her out to the Yobaba bus. Soon we found ourselves winding up into the hills where we parked up and sat in silent meditation wrapped in rugs looking out over miles of rolling fields as the translucent orange sun sunk down into them. The experience was enchanting, and the sheer overwhelming beauty of it all brought up quite a lot of emotion amongst the group. On the silent journey home, the spell was not broken as the bright white light from the full moon (Gertrud purposefully times the retreats to coincide with this) lit up the sky.
What we took home: I left feeling rejuvenated, rested and decidedly calmer, able to just ‘be’ without the flutterings that usually take over my mind. The slow routine of the yoga makes it easy to incorporate into daily life. I found myself leading sessions in the garden with family and friends and evangelising about the breath.
Would we go back? Yes please, in a heartbeat. The Yobaba team felt like a surrogate family.
Food watch: Food here is exquisite. Meticulously prepared to the last tiny detail, most meals are also visual masterpieces – according to Gertrud, she’s a failed artist who likes to ‘paint with food. Everything is vegan, sugar, dairy and grain free and mostly raw (vegetables in the evening are cooked), but the creations are destined to delight even the most discerning of palates.
For breakfast freshly made juices accompany large bowls of the signature Yobaba dish – chia seeds blended with fresh fruits, a sprinkling of homemade granola and a creamy sauce made from soaked nuts and dates. Some of the guests were not convinced by the chia but we adored it.
Lunch is prepared by Gertrud (retreat staff help with other meals as she is teaching the yoga), each plate looking like it has taken hours to create and always an explosion of exotic flavours. We had raw lasagna made with sundried tomatoes and avocado, spicy raw pad thai and an array of dreamy puddings: apple crumble with cashew cream, mango cheesecake and chocolate ganache. All taste and look every bit as decadent as you’d expect from a Michelin starred restaurant. Supper is more relaxed – usually warm roasted vegtables, salad and hummus with chickpea pancakes.
Chai tea and coffee with homemade nut milks are laid out in the kitchen as well as 3 large glass urns of water and yogi wine (water flavoured with hibiscus or rose and cinnamon). Bowls of energy bites are continually replenished.
What’s queenly: ‘Let Us Hold You’, it says on the front page of the retreat website, and that is precisely what happens here. For 5 days you switch off entirely (phones too if you can) and trust your schedule, meals, excursions and daily routine to a team who you feel assured have a genuine care for your wellbeing.
What’s lowly: Only two of the five rooms are upstairs with their own ensuite and view (though one downstairs backs onto the garden), so if having an ensuite and an upstairs view are important to you, be sure to book in early and specify your choice. Also it can get very hot and there is no pool, but the lake is not far and there are cool streams nearby to dip in.
Insider tip: Keep your windows closed at night if you want to avoid the possibility of bats flying in, though apparently it is lucky if they do! The rooms stay quite cool so you won’t get too hot and there are fans about if you would like to borrow one.
Price: There are quite a variety of options: it’s £675 for a single bed in a mixed sex dormitory with shared bathroom, £1,250 for one person (£1,600 for a couple) in a large double room with shared bathrooms and £1,950 alone (£2,250 for a couple) with exclusive use of the bathroom.
Value for Money: Once you have paid up you barely need to get your wallet out during your stay – everything (excluding an hours massage at a cost of £60) is included in the price three generous meals, two yoga sessions, daily meditation, excursions and Gertrude’s lotions and potions. It is advisable to fly to Carcassone, which is closer than Toulouse and therefore a cheaper transfer, especially if you coincide your flight with other guests and share the lift.
Reviewed by Hannah MacInnes
© Queen of Retreats