BEST FOR: WARM-HEARTED BOHEMIAN SEEKERS
NOT FOR: UPTIGHT DIVAS AND COMPETITIVE YOGINIS
There are places that embody the word ‘soul’; places out of time; half-seen, half–imagined worlds. Think Tom’s Midnight Garden, The Little Princess, The Chronicles of Narnia, places where the veil between the material and the ineffable is gossamer-thin: one snag in the fabric and you’re in another realm. Yobaba Lounge in the small village of Chalabre, in the south of France, is such a place.
From the road, it’s simply another austere French building, a blank-eyed lugubrious wall. Any tourist stumbling down this dusty side street would walk straight past, never knowing. But you, lucky stranger, will be invited to enter from the garden and, most likely, will gasp a little as you see, first, the gracious old orangery and a hammock slung between two trees; then the grass labyrinth, and then, ahead of you, this village chateau, a stern temple that anyone with a smidgeon of arcane knowledge will recognise as the Tree of Life embodied in stone.
Gertrud Keazor, former fencing athlete, is the high priestess here. She has woken the house from its dusty dreams and is lovingly, painstakingly, mindfully massaging it back into consciousness. Nothing is raced, nothing is hurried or harried; it just unfolds organically. It’s a work in progress and some corners and corridors are still dozing – so, if you like everything crisp and pristine, turn aside and take another path.
The rooms have strong personalities – a fresh, brisk breeze from the African savanna in one, the intimate warm breath of the medina from another. Gertrud’s home-stirred alchemical unguents wait in the bathrooms; hand-rolled truffles sit by the bedside, alongside a bottle of water with a fresh pomegranate for a stopper. The imagination and attention to detail is beyond beguiling.
Retreats generally run to coincide with the new or full moon but Yobaba takes its sustenance from the earth as well as the heavens, and there is a pleasing groundedness in everything that happens here. Days have a serene simplicity that soothes the straggled mind. A bell rings and you walk softly up the stairs to the yoga shala up in the eaves, looking out over the village roof tops to the Pyrenees beyond. The practice here is the antithesis of so much modern yoga – no striving, no pushing, no forced gymnastics, no cult of the yogi. Gertrud leads quietly with the breath, connecting it to the earth and our inner universe, bringing awareness to the physical inner body. She calls it ‘embodied meditation’. ‘It’s about building, sculpting the inner space, healing as it goes,’ she says. ‘It’s from my background in massage, healing and reiki, as well as sport. We never stretch into a pose, we always relax into it. No competition.’
Silence is kept until midday so, after yoga and meditation, there’s a soft dispersal downstairs to take breakfast wheresoever you wish – at the table, curled up on a sofa, out in the garden. Wherever you eat, it’s a sensory explosion – a frisson to the eyes, the nose, the palate; a hug of taste and art. Food at Yobaba is a big deal, a really big deal. Always without sugar, dairy, meat, fish and grains; meals are vegan and mainly raw (but still kind on the digestion – many people find their IBS symptoms disappear here). Come evening, there is usually something light and warm on the menu. Absolutely everything is prepared with love, care and a great deal of thought. For example, when Gertrud uses turmeric, she also adds black pepper – as apparently without it, you can’t absorb the active ingredients of the turmeric.
Plates are plentiful, wildly generous. In fact, everything here smacks of plenty, of open-hearted, arms-open warmth. It’s a place that nurtures deeply.
After lunch, you’re free to pursue your own delights. A trip to the nearby lake is a simple joy, on offer most afternoons. There’s also a larger excursion, totally optional, maybe to nearby Puivert Castle, or the Faery Forest at Nebias, or perhaps to the Gorges de Galamus for more wild swimming. Gentle conviviality makes a pleasing contrast to the inward-focused mornings, and excursions feel like spiritual Famous Five adventures. Or… stay back and relish yet more of the peace. Loll in a hammock, walk the labyrinth, wander the streets of sleepy Chalabre. Or deepen the relaxation with a massage (Swedish, energetic, ayurvedic, intuitive) for an additional £60/hour.
This isn’t just a business for Gertrud; she’s turned it into a way of life and you are invited to share that life, albeit for a short time. She is a warm, wonderful woman brimming with kindness, humour and a deep (yet not remotely hand-wringing) humility. Yobaba shows that it really is possible to introduce little pockets of mindfulness and spirituality into the everyday. It’s deeply special and more than a little magic.
PRICE: From around £700 for five days (inclusive of everything except flights, transfers and massage)
CONTACT: +33 647 23 49 66; http; www.yobabalounge.com
NEAREST AIRPORT: Carcassonne
TRANSFER TIME: 50 minutes
FIRST-HAND VISIT WRITE-UP BY: JANE ALEXANDER