It is no accident that I find myself, on a sunny Thursday afternoon, being driven by a man named Arnaud through Leonardo da Vinci-designed gates into the rolling gardens of a splendid 16th-century château in the Loire Valley, for the start of a 72-hour silent retreat. It is because I am, apparently, “the chattiest person at the FT” (a great compliment, the colleague who nominated me for the assignment assures me).
This is not just any old silent retreat, though. This is, according to its Instagram feed, “your new favourite wellness retreat”; an “exclusive . . . retreat for creatives” that will — alongside the absence of both talking and technology — feature yoga, meditation, massages, luxury skincare routines and various rituals. It has all been organised — or “curated”, I should say — by Claire Thomson-Jonville, the Scottish-born, Paris-based editorial director of i-D France, who is also a social-media influencer, fashion consultant, entrepreneur, single mother of two and, natch, a model.
Heavy embouteillage in Paris meant I missed my TGV, so I’ve also missed the “introduction circle” (our silence won’t begin until tonight). I turn up instead halfway through a “fasting introduction” being given by Emma Sawko, founder of Wild & The Moon, a hip chain of organic, cold-pressed juice bars dotted around Paris, Dubai and Amsterdam. “Don’t just drink your juice, eat your juice, chew your juice,” Sawko is telling a room full of mainly women, mostly in their thirties and early forties.
Among them I spot Erin Wasson, the Texas-born supermodel who now lives in Marseille with her French restaurateur husband; I later discover several others are or have been models, too. There are also several fashion designers, a make-up artist, three yoga teachers, a 22-year-old French TikTok influencer, an American fitfluencer, a middle-aged architect whose wife urged him to come, and a former Twitter executive who recently found out via email that Elon Musk had fired her.
It was only after I agreed to come on the retreat that I discovered I was to be subjected to a juice cleanse as well — meaning no solid food, no alcohol and, most painfully of all for me, no coffee — so I crammed in a load of carbs and sugar on the Eurostar, and then got myself a few extra coffees in Paris in the hope the caffeine might stay in my system long enough to keep me going. I have turned up, therefore, feeling wired, as well as very tired, and rather sceptical about the idea that I am going to find inner peace with a bunch of fashionistas and influencers while simultaneously going through caffeine and solid-food withdrawal.
After the introduction, I sit down with Thomson-Jonville, who is dressed in classic fashion-girl, oh-I-just-threw-this-on chic — oversized black hoodie, loose vegan leather trousers, sneakers. This is the second retreat she has organised in a series that she has branded “Out of State”, though it is the first one that is to take place in silence, and the first that is open to the general public.
It is one week after the Paris Fashion Week fall/winter shows, and she will hold another one in October, after the spring/summer collections. But Thomson-Jonville says this timing is more about having a “hook” than about creating a retreat solely for the fashion industry. “I don’t just want to appeal to white, skinny model types,” she says. A white, skinny model type walks past on the gravel outside, making a loud crunching noise under foot that will become one of the defining noises of the next few days, along with birdsong, the hum of traffic from the main road that runs along the bottom of the château’s grounds, and the rumble of hungry tummies.
She also brings me up to speed with some of the things I missed during the introduction: as well as not being allowed to talk or use our phones, we won’t be allowed to make eye contact with other people or to use body language. If we do need to communicate, we must use Post-it notes, and leave them in the entrance to the château, where we also get Post-it responses to our queries. Other than the Post-it notes, the only reading we will be allowed to do is of “spiritual materials”. The one hot meal of the day will be in the evening: a kale soup that has also been made by Wild & The Moon, which all 28 of us will heat up ourselves in the château’s one rather retro-looking microwave and then wash up the bowls ourselves afterwards.
“Part of the process is washing up and being part of this kibbutz-like situation,” Thomson-Jonville tells me. “This isn’t, like, a boujie thing.” The words echo in my ears over the next few days as I contemplate what a boujie retreat might look like, if this isn’t it.
I am shown up to a magnificent, en suite bedroom with exposed beams and bright green walls, which is named after a 17th-century marquess, Madame de Sévigné. The room is in one of the outbuildings — the oldest parts, I am told — and its large, wall-dormer window looks directly across the garden to the main château building, with its characteristic tuffeau limestone walls, steep, slate roof and cone-topped towers. On a glass table in front of the window is laid out an astonishing array of beauty products by natural skincare brand Tata Harper, which I later discover are worth more than £1,000.
Each guest has been given these products to use during our twice-daily communal skincare rituals (in which we sit around in the hall and are guided in a 10 or 13-step skincare routine by a Tata Harper beauty therapist). This is not the only freebie: on a wicker footrest I also find a brand new pair of top-notch Asics running shoes (we had been asked for our shoe sizes beforehand), on the bed is a gold-edged notebook, and on the table there are various herbal remedies, to be taken at morning and at night, that will apparently help us with our detox.
Later in the retreat we are also given a pair of Out-of-State-branded Asics running leggings, and a branded Asics running jacket. This is the power of someone like Thomson-Jonville — she hasn’t paid for any of these products, and now we get to have a taste of what it might be like to be an influencer, too. Nothing can be shared on social media until we get our phones back. “There’ll be plenty of time for getting content on Sunday,” we’re told.
I’m struck by the strange contrast between the consumerist, influencer world of fashion and freebies that Thomson-Jonville inhabits and the traditional idea of a retreat: transcending the ego, asceticism, abstinence. The whole thing feels incredibly luxurious — a bit like a solo spa break with the added bonus not just of giveaways but of not having to make small-talk with anyone — but I wonder whether luxury might have a limiting effect on spiritual enlightenment.
After I’ve been shown to my room, it’s time for our first yoga session — led by Ian Szydlowski-Alvarez, a Paris-based instructor with a cult following — in a large, airy room with vaulted ceilings and lit by at least 20 scented Diptyque candles. I am relieved to discover that we are going to largely be practising restorative yoga today, which involves barely moving at all: a few nice, deep, stretches and lots of lying down. Towards the end of the hour, while we are in shavasana — corpse pose — I hear some loud snorting to my right: David, the architect, has fallen asleep.
After yoga, it’s time for soup. We still haven’t started the silence, so I seize the opportunity to ask people how they are feeling about the whole thing. “I just can’t wait for everyone to shut the f*ck up,” says Wasson, who is very warm and chatty, as she sticks her bowl in the microwave. The silence begins as we head to bed after a fire ceremony in which we have formally given up our phone, something that fills me with a wave of panic. My brain is busy and loud as I head to bed.
We are woken in the mornings at 6.30 by a bell, and the days then have a certain rhythm, along the lines of: 7am “bam shot” — a small, bottle of lemon, turmeric and ginger juice — that is delivered to our doors; 7.30 meditation; 8.30 juice; 9.30 skincare ritual; 10am yoga; 12pm more juice and personal time; 3pm juice again and a forest ritual; 4.30 more juice and time out; 6pm more yoga; 7pm soup; 7.30pm more skincare; 8pm sound healing; 8.55pm “beauty shot”; 9pm bed.
Château de la Bourdaisière, which is set in 135 acres of gardens and woodlands, is owned by Prince Louis Albert de Broglie, a “friend of a friend” of Thomson-Jonville. De Broglie is a former M&A banker, the head of Parisian taxidermy emporium Deyrolle, and the son of Prince Jean de Broglie, a Gaulliste former foreign minister who was assassinated on Christmas Eve in 1976. He is dubbed le prince jardinier on account of his love of horticulture, and is particularly passionate about tomatoes: he grows more than 700 varieties in the grounds.
We are encouraged to explore these grounds in our downtime, which I do, though my favourite activity is lying on a sofa in front of a huge fireplace in the château’s opulent living room, sipping on one of the juices — which are delicious, and surprisingly filling — or herbal tea. One evening I spot David surreptitiously putting several spoonfuls of sugar into his cup from a stash he has found in the tea room — he sees me noticing and we both try very hard not to laugh.
It’s not until the Saturday that my body seems to cotton on to the fact that I am not going to be feeding it any coffee — any residual caffeine in my system has left me, and in its place is a banging headache. But it is also on this day that I realise that my mind has calmed down, a lot. The internal chatter has slowed. And after a disturbed sleep full of anxiety on the first night I have two blissful nights of undisturbed sleep.
One person who won’t be getting quite as much sleep as me is a Paris-based fashion designer who is currently undergoing fertility treatment of the “timed intercourse” variety. Her doctor has told her that her boyfriend must visit her on Saturday night, and not leave until Sunday morning. She assures me that she is going to remain in silence for the duration of his visit.
By Sunday afternoon, I really am feeling thoroughly relaxed and happy and grateful for the whole experience. We are sitting in the “saddle room” where we do our morning meditations, and where a veritable cacophony of rumbling tummies is punctuating the silence. Suddenly, we are faced with imminent disaster: a Diptyque candle is about to be blown off the window ledge by a shutter that has suddenly swung open in the wind. Instinctively, I scramble over the lap of the 6ft 3in fitfluencer who is sitting next to me in an effort to avert catastrophe, which someone else manages to do just in time. “Sorry!” I blurt out to him, before realising I am not yet supposed to be speaking. The whole room laughs. I feel the blood rush to my cheeks.
It is finally time to break our silence, and to share our experiences of the retreat. I watch person after person break down in tears as they talk about the self-healing and breakthroughs they’ve had. As soon as I open my mouth, I too am crying, which takes me slightly by surprise. It feels like there is a real sense of connectedness between us, and an openness that I hadn’t been expecting. Even David — who has seemed a touch reluctant to “lean in” to the whole experience — admits that yesterday, in the forest, he “felt something”, which makes me feel rather moved and so I cry more.
I’m not sure I had any breakthroughs, but I leave the château feeling extremely relaxed, pampered, and well-rested. I also feel like I could do several more days of this. What is sometimes misunderstood about “chatty” types like me is that we actually crave the opportunity to sometimes shut the f*ck up, too.
Jemima Kelly was a guest of Out of State (theoutofstate.com). The next retreat runs from October 18 to 22 at the Château de la Bourdaisière and costs €2,750 per person (with a maximum of 25 guests)