A Fairy-Tale Place: Domaine des Etangs, Massignac, France

A Fairy-Tale Place: Domaine des Etangs, Massignac, France

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This article appears in Volume 26:
The Nostalgia Issue

The danger in nostalgia is that in looking back we sometimes do
not allow for growth – the careful safeguarding of tradition can
accidentally place us at a stalemate. Then there are those people,
places and things that manage to turn convention on its head.

In the heart of the Limousin region, an area prone to meteorite
falls, I stand perfectly still, fixated on a square of pure Yves-
Klein Blue tacked onto a wall. The paint swab sits among works by a
roster of notable creators and artists in an exhibition
appropriately titled “Stardust”. Located in a former milk factory,
the repurposed structure houses two
in two mezzanines. The first is an ode to the past
and has an air of a gentlemen’s club to it – dark-wood bookshelves
formerly belonging to a French library bear the words “histoire” in
gilded lettering, a collection of globes stand to attention in the
corner and a domineering desk lamp emits a golden light. Across the
gallery you can glimpse the future. Stacked with tomes by
contemporary artists and antique telescopes and microscopes, and
with neon tubular lighting hanging overhead, it looks
incandescently bright.

Outside cows, meadows and pasture await, framed by an artwork by
Ugo Rondinone. Further down the drive I can spot the turreted
outline of Domaine des Etangs, an 11th-century chateau that has
just launched as a 29-room hotel (plus cottages) two hours from
Bordeaux. It’s a fairy-tale place harvested with the memories of
its owner, Garance Primat, the daughter of the late Didier Primat,
one of the richest men in France. One of eight siblings, for
Garance the Domaine is a place of retreat and restoration. As
children, summers were religiously spent here. As adults, visits
remain almost as routine.

Sweeping through the castle’s
central rooms, designed by architect Isabelle Stanislas, the
aesthetic is classical yet confounding. There’s marble furniture
made by Isabelle Stanislas – nothing like a masonry couch to
circumvent expectations – and in the corner of the living room
fluffy dandelion heads have been transformed into a modern
chandelier framed by wire cubes, perhaps in an attempt at
preserving the ephemeral. In addition to playing with our
perceptions of time and space, “play” in a broader sense seems
vitally important here. A family portrait by Hans-Peter Feldmann
leans precariously alongside a baby grand piano. Zoom in and you’ll
note four red clown noses adorning each of the family’s snouts. In
the boat-shaped attic a dressing-up box is upturned, a beguiling
collection of tutus and headwear strewn across the floor. From
peephole windows I can see the wild French garden and the remnants
of a manicured cone hedge. Two small children, a boy and a girl,
are dressed as princesses and running through the greenery.

At Dyades, Domaine des Etangs’
Michelin-starred restaurant
, self-expression rules and chef
Loïc Lecoin presents a convivial menu of French classics. On a
white tablecloth the wood of a Nontron knife meets a Bernardaud
plate decorated with a delicate dragonfly. Beyond the confines of
Dyades the fields and the woods offer an al-fresco experience and
endless walking routes. Further along the estate, the spa – Le
Moulin des Etangs – provides serenity-inducing treatments in the
old mill, a space proliferated with dragonfly insignia. As lush as
the surroundings are, I break from the compound and head to the
Château de Rochechouart just a few kilometres away for a second
serving of modern art.

Back at the Domaine my room, named Mercure, leads out to the
lake’s expanse. Edging out towards the water, I start to pace the
circumference of sculptor Richard Long’s Stone Circle. The
Bristolian’s minimally invasive mark on the landscape is testament
to the estate’s overall cohesion: art and nature unite as equals.
For the final evening of my stay I move from Mercure into a new
room, Jupiter, positioned on the top floor. Life’s stages are
illustrated in terms I can wholly relate to: a room upgrade. From
the smallest planet in our solar system I climb the rungs to my
new, all-cerulean room. From the ceiling blown-glass light fixtures
in a sea of sapphire poetically mirror the stars beyond the

Meteors – or shooting stars – fall through a planet’s
atmosphere, leaving a bright trail as they are heated to
luminosity. Any debris that survive the journey are called
meteorites. Domaine des Etangs is a little like those resilient
stars, causing friction amid a world steeped in, and sometimes
suffocated by, tradition. It fosters the present, looks out to the
future and is fuelled by the childhood fantasies of the past.
Following in Garance’s celestial path, you get the sense that this
place will never be quite finished.