Liz Veats reviews a Restore and Revitalise week at Puyssentut, a remarkable haven for people with, or recovering from, cancer in the glorious rural Gascony countryside of South West France. She goes with her mother as a companion, and finds passionate and compassionate hosts, a gorgeous space for deep rest, nourishing meals and a truly welcome break from the ‘machine’ that is cancer treatment.
I went on this specialist retreat with my mother, Anne, in the early Summer. I had been diagnosed with breast cancer the previous October, and after two lots of surgery and six cycles of chemotherapy, I was completely exhausted, and desperately needed to come up for some air.
But when I saw from the Puyssentut website that it catered solely for people with, or recovering from cancer, I was somewhat apprehensive. The idea of being away with a bunch of people with cancer sounded potentially depressing or emotionally demanding. I was also planning on taking my mother along, which was likely to present its own demands! But I gave myself permission not to look after my mother, and reminded myself that I really only had to concentrate on my own needs.
The journey to Toulouse went smoothly, and we were picked up at the airport by Angela, our beaming host, who insisted on doing everything for us. I started to believe that Puyssentut really could be everything it promised in the brochure. We were shown around the beautiful house and all the wonderfully tasteful rooms, and as I settled in, my breathing started to deepen.
Angela and Dirk made it clear that our comfort was their priority. It was a real treat not having to worry about anything: a whole week without a hospital appointment or having to make a decision about my treatment. My room was luxurious, with an uplifting view over daisies and the vegetable plot to the sunny fields beyond – quite a contrast to the more spartan retreats I had been used to – but my feelings of guilt evaporated pretty quickly! The pace of life and the programme devised for us quickly slowed me down. I started to relax, and to allow the place to work its magic.
I loved the gentle pace of each day. We started with some yoga in the morning, when Amy Charnay, yoga teacher and herbalist, encouraged us to try out some of the poses ‘aerial style’. Much to my surprise, the experience of downward dog hanging in a silk loop suspended from the beams in the wonderful barn studio was both liberating and therapeutic. Morning meditation sessions were challenging at the beginning of the week, before the retreat had worked its magic, but by the end of the week they become a very calming way to start the day, establishing the tempo for the rest of the day.
‘By the end of the week I had almost forgotten that I was there because of my cancer diagnosis – a testament to how rested I felt both mentally and physically’
The afternoons were free for relaxation, and a healing treatment if desired. The grounds made an idyllic environment for total rest, whether hanging out by the pool, lounging on the grass or swinging in the hammock. On more adventurous days, Angela organised a stroll to the nearby sleepy village, along quiet country lanes bordered with fields of giant yellow sunflowers. Amy had lots of useful tips about the medicinal properties of the plants to be found in the garden, or even alongside the road, and gave each of us a small pot of oil she had prepared from the plants she collected on her first day.
I lapped up the luxury of the ‘space’ that the week afforded, and the opportunity to reflect that the treatments gave me. By the end of the week, I had almost forgotten that I was there because of my cancer diagnosis! – a testament to how relaxed and rested I felt both mentally and physically.
I needn’t have worried about my mother either, as she too was cared for beautifully. She relished the community feel of the place, and enjoyed helping out in the kitchen, where chefs created the most wonderfully nutritious food. She started to relax too. She had lost her husband some months ago, so this was also a very special opportunity for her to do her own healing alongside my own. We both found that beside our treatments, and being fed delicious food every day, simply hanging in the hammock watching the butterflies on the lavender and verbena was incredibly relaxing and restorative.
If there was one element I might have liked more of, it would be silence. This was quite a social retreat compared with those I have experienced before, where silence proved a useful tool for trying to reconnect with myself. But I did find the time and space to be quiet and retreat into myself – and you can do as much of that as you want to if you so choose.
Quite aside from being a welcome break from the ‘machine’ that is cancer treatment, I gained inspiration from the wonderful passion and compassion that both Angela and Dirk have invested in the creation of Puyssentut. In the end, I found the company of my fellow retreatants extremely supportive, and we formed a strong bond borne out of our shared experience that offered us the opportunity to share feelings and important information and advice too.
All in all, this was a blissful experience. Puyssentut is a tremendous resource, and a source of inspiration for anyone who has cancer or is recovering from treatment. Angela and Dirk have created a very special place that deserves to thrive. It has heart and soul, and comes highly recommended.
This piece was co-written with Queen of Retreats reviewer, journalist Christabelle Dilks. Elizabeth Veats is a barrister and judge in her 50s, happily married and living in North London. Having worked for 26 years in child protection and mental health, Liz is now also a part time acupuncturist. She loves being in nature and playing tennis, swimming and cycling. She relaxes with meditation, yoga and singing Indian classical music.