domaine-des-etangs-exterior

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.

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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 libraries 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 windowpane.

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.

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