Retreats are normally for things like meditation and yoga, where tranquil settings are required for creating internal harmony. So a new five-day residential tennis course, set in a historic chateau in the hills of the Cote d’Azur, was an intriguing concept. Tennis is such a psychological sport: the chance to focus on my game – in gorgeous surroundings, no less – seemed like an excellent idea.
The venue, Lou Casteou, is the location used as the judging house in the X Factor. You can lounge around the same pool all those hopefuls had shed tears of joy and disappointment.
Come to think of it, my tennis game is something of a sob story. I never reached a level where I could stroke the ball with confidence. As a scrawny kid the racket always felt too heavy. But that didn’t stop me queuing up to watch Wimbledon many times. Now was the chance to exorcise my tennis demons.
The chateau is a 40 minute drive from Nice Airport, but the final approach takes you through the quiet, winding tree-lined streets of the village of Frejus. The magnificent building is hidden from view until the last moment. At least if my tennis was a let down, the location wasn’t. The entrance avenue takes you past gravel-covered cloisters, plants and a fountain. The building leads onto gardens and a heated pool. Set on top of a hill, the view reaches out beyond nearby tree-tops all the way to the curved bay of St Tropez.
The courts are located at The Golf & Tennis Club de Valescure, five minutes’ drive away. Watching some of the others warming up, it was clear I was among some very competent club players. Fortunately, our coach Richie Baker had the kind of personality my inexperience required: encouraging, laid-back and armed with a dry sense of humour. The others might be keen players, but nothing I did was going to be taken too seriously.
With the other experienced French coach, David, taking the better players, the pressure was off. Richie’s instructions were punctuated by rhetorical questions that served to get us thinking and self-correcting: “Dan – why have you drifted in front of the baseline? Look at your racket – is that what you call the ready position?” On the second day we switched to a different club to try clay courts, the surface played on at the French Open. Clay slows the ball down, which suited me perfectly.
Our hosts, Morag Baxter and her husband Chris, own Lou Casteou and have a deep love for tennis, as well as a wicked pair of forehands. The idea for the retreat came when Morag couldn’t find a comparable experience. “I’ve been on a lot of tennis holidays over the years. But I never found any luxury option in an intimate location, that could feel like a real holiday with friends.” Morag’s own experience was corroborated in conversations with my fellow guests: you can go on tennis holidays in Spain, but these only really cater for the mass market. Then there are the tennis academies, but the set up is really for fast-tracking talented youngsters. Florida is an option, with a wider range of courses on offer but it’s a long way to go, and certainly doesn’t come with the sense of historic grandeur of Lou Casteou. What Morag has created is unique.
In fact, her first task had been to rescue the chateau from a state of dereliction. It was built in 1904 by Lord Amherst of Hackney, a lover of antiquities who funded the discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb. Walking through its corridors and lounges, it’s difficult to imagine that such an exquisite building had recently been in a state of disrepair. “Saving Lou Casteou from its sad state was a hugely challenging, two-year renovation project,” Morag told me. “But it had such incredible potential. The facades still retained their original beauty, as did the cloisters. And the location in the Esterel National Park, so close to the sea, was perfect. Its period features were still intact and we loved the personal touches Lord Amherst had included.”
The tennis is rounded off with high quality, healthy food courtesy of chef Jonathan Levy. Meals were eagerly awaited – and not just because we’d worked up an appetite on the courts. The menu included gambas salad with rocket and tomato on mashed sweet potato; Angus fillet with truffle sauce, mashed potato and fresh truffle; barbecued scallops with peppers; and dorade fillet with vierge sauce. At lunch we would converge on a huge table laden with dishes that included Nicoise salad, tartare of tuna, tomatoes with buffalo mozzarella and homemade pesto.
The other guests were from a range of occupations, cities and backgrounds. Session by session, our tennis was improving, and mine had come on in leaps – albeit from a low base. Nevertheless, I chose to duck out of the men’s mini tournament. I didn’t want to be the tennis equivalent of playing San Marino or the Faroe Islands.
Instead I hired a painting teacher, Tatiana, as a welcome tennis break. Convinced I was an amateur at this, too, I felt like I’d be wasting her time and paint. But remarkably, the technique we were shown, using a small painting knife, proved a match for my lack of ability. Stroke by stroke, the picture began to emerge. Back in the UK, I was able to fool friends and tell them it was a work of art I’d found in an old market. The chateau plans to offer an increasing number of activities, including a fitness course planned for September.
There are also countless things to see and do within minutes of the chateau, including stunning coastal walks in the Agay area, with its beautiful red cliffs and clear-water creaks – perfect for snorkelling and diving off the rocks. The beach of St Aygulf is a five minute drive, and the mountains of the Esterel Park, roamed by wild boar, create a stunning backdrop, the skyline punctuated by pin parasol trees. There’s plenty of history, too – Frejus is a Roman town with an amphitheatre, aqueducts and fascinating architecture, as well as a Provençal market and, of course, many French bistros and bars.
The introduction of a new direct Eurostar service between London and Marseille allowed me to take the train all the way home. As the scenery swept by, I could still hear the thwap of tennis balls pinging off rackets. I took this as a sign there was unfinished business. Maybe next time I’ll enter that tournament.
Tennis triviaNo Frenchman has ever won Wimbledon in the Open era, but two women have: Marion Bartoli in 2013 and Amelie Mauresmo (pictured) in 2006.
NEED TO KNOW
A five-day tennis retreat at Lou Casteou costs £1,180 inc VAT per person, for a private room or £980 inc VAT per person, for two guests sharing a room. The next tennis event is being held this September. For dates and booking information, contact Morag McLaren Baxter by email on firstname.lastname@example.org or telephone 07990 573 287. Go to www.loucasteou.com for more information.
Fly direct from London Heathrow to Nice with British Airways, (britishairways.com; 08444930787). Travel by train from London to St Raphaelle, via Marseille or Lyon, with Eurostar (eurostar.com; 03432 186 186).