Last year I was invited to teach an en plein air (in open air) painting workshop in Minerve, France. WOW! I was stunned, flattered, nervous, excited and jumped at the chance. The workshop was a dream of one of my students, Nan Dawkins, who created her company, Cerulean Blue Enterprises, www.cerulean-france.com, for the purpose of hosting plein air painting workshops in beautiful places. She certainly succeeded in doing just that – Minerve is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen! She took a chance and it worked.
Nan had arranged for lodging and meals at Les Aliberts, a French gite (a holiday home available for rent). Again, WOW! Les Aliberts sits high on a hill surrounded by vineyards, with a view of the Pyrenees in pale blue mist in the distance. The building itself dates back to the 13th century, updated with modern amenities (including pool,hot tub and steam bath) by its gracious and ever so accommodating new owners, Wendell and Barbara. Along with the paintable vignettes on site, Nan had arranged painting day trips to local villages. I arrived two days early to review locations. We made sure that schedules were flexible, since Mother Nature has a way of interfering with plein air painting, and she tried!
Day 1 – The morning was used as a painting question and answer period and a “getting to know you” time. The afternoon was spent having a tour of the ancient village of Minerve and its lovely old buildings and narrow cobblestone paths, with a local guide. No cars allowed here!
Day 2 – Painting on a hillside, beside a vineyard, overlooking the village of Minerve and the river valley below. This was an absolutely gorgeous day, with a most spectacular view of the bridge and village.
Day 3– The lovely picturesque village of Caunes-Minervois. Best spot was in the small park next to the river. Great location and absolutely perfect weather. The tree-lined river gave much needed shade. Our hosts provided a very lovely picnic lunch, including wonderful French cheeses and breads.
Day 4 – The 12th century Abbey of Fontfroide. Our host had arranged for a guided tour prior to painting, as well as the ability to paint anywhere! The gardens here were spectacular and most students were drawn to painting them. Myself, I loved the view of the gate leading into the gardens. Now, I was the lucky one, as I had a very special visitor – a lovely green striped snake! Yes, he slithered right by my chair, and yes, I jumped up quickly, as he slithered right on into the gardens.
Day 5 – The walled village of Carcassonne, housing one of the oldestremaining Cathar castles in France, was high on our list of painting locations. High winds led to a little shopping, and lunch at an outdoor café, then on to Pezenas, another beautiful ancient city, the home of one of the medieval Black Madonnas, of which we were surprisingly given a private tour.
Day 6 – Les Aliberts, a fitting end to our luxurious stay – painting the view of the vineyards with the Pyrenees. Mother Nature attempted to daunt us with her hot air again, but we were not to be denied!
The days were completely filled with visions of beauty and history of the region. The highlight at the end of each day was our gathering for dinner at Les Aliberts’ dining hall. We were recipients of culinary delights prepared by two chefs from two local restaurants, who were in friendly competition with each other to determine who could preparethe most satisfying and delectable meals. To quote a friend, “I don’t imagine you ate very well in France!” How lucky were we? We felt like judges on Food Channel’s show, Top Chef! Les Aliberts owners even arranged a wine tasting one evening, at a local winery.
One of the most remarkable outcomes of this trip was the making of such wonderful new friends. We were all very compatible, sharing so many laughs and stories, and just plain liking each other. By the end of the week, we were on the verge of tears when saying goodbye. My friend and I then ended our trip with 2.5 days in Paris – simply not enough time. However, we saw it all, the city that is – from the top of the Eiffel Tower! And, of course, Mona herself and Monet’s water lilies! I’m ready for the next trip and hope you’ll join me. Expectations met, and then some.