Leafing through an eclectic mix of prints, maps and posters collected by Frederic Coustols, owner and conservator of the 12th and 13th century ‘Castelnau des Fieumarcon’, an ancient village in Lagarde, Gascony (France) gave a snapshot of his passion and vision for the arts and vernacular architecture. The fortified hilltop hamlet can be exclusively booked-out for events, incentives and those searching a unique venue in a delightfully rural corner of southwestern France, known as d’Artagnan country.
Eurostar’s convenient city-centre to city-centre service had enabled us to transit seamlessly via Paris to Agen, the closest rail station to Fieumarcon, nestled within one of the country’s great wine producing regions. It also highlighted the synergy between Eurostar’s ‘on-board experiences’ which includes wine tasting, designed around group travel in dedicated train coaches and Castelnau’s own exclusivity for groups, not to mention Aquitaine’s ancient viniculture, renowned for Armagnac and ‘Floc de Gascogne’ a sweet wine.
Coustols pulled out a poster featuring a series of classical concerts, which had taken place at Fieumarcon back in 1987, ten years after he took over the historic yet crumbling village and breathed life, love and new events into it. “It’s yours” he said handing over the poster, a memento to remember the visit, yet the Castelnau is not somewhere one can forget easily anyway.
Historical records show the stronghold of Fieumarcon can be traced back 800-years; Guillaume de Fieumarcon who died in 1231, had a brother who was knighted by Richard the Lionheart (1157 – 1199). Also, during the 17th century, archives show a flourishing village with a cobbler, oil pressers, tailor, weavers and publican reflecting medieval life in this part of France.
Built on a rocky spur, the village is encircled by ancient fortified walls, enclosing sixteen beautifully restored cottages; think exposed timbers, stone staircases, tiled floors and elegantly selected furniture from the region and beyond. A narrow main street remains the main artery of what was once a busy village, with a consecrated Church at its heart. The ramparts and landscaped gardens now provide varying spaces for al-fresco cocktail receptions, gala dinners and team-building events.
The main building, the beautifully renovated ‘Monumental Stables’, whose grand renaissance stone arch greets guests on arrival, splits into a barrel vaulted banqueting hall on one side, and the ‘The Cube’, the buildings newest al-fresco events space, on the other. Above is a rooftop venue, which continues to resonate to the sound of piano recitals and cocktail receptions. In between the buildings battlements, the gently rolling mosaic of neatly ploughed land is punctuated by fields of sunflowers that lights up the ‘Gers’ landscape. The spires of the nearest towns, La Romieu and Lectoure, both within 7km, are just about visible. The former covets the ‘Collegiale’ which was inscribed as an UNESCO world heritage site in 1998.
What is most exhilarating about Castelnau is its isolation and exclusivity, which has the primary benefits of a complete detox and to switch off from the grid for a while. The setting continues to be ideal for weddings but is just as adaptable for corporate incentives. Anneli Faiers, owner of ‘La Boutique Events’ has arranged all types of events within the village; “there are so many options here, meaning each client – be it a wedding or corporate incentive – can structure and create their own bespoke event”.
The immovably solid boundary walls, wrap their ancient arms around the cluster of sensitively renovated stone cottages, offering 37 rooms for around 80-100 people: “it is like entering a bubble as you cross the threshold, once within the village walls it does begin to feel homely. There is an intimacy that easily develops between guests as they mingle in and out of the houses, each finding spaces to be together or find peace,” Faiers continues.
Several companies have set a precedent as to the flexibility, adaptability and creativity of Castelnau and their onsite events team. Google (Europe HQ senior management), Pinault, Renault, Infomaat and Blackbaud have been wooed by the exclusivity, heritage and the ease of obtaining modern facilities when required. Maybe above all else, the rarest commodity of all, are the 16 individual cottages of varying sizes that provides a home-from-home feel which a hotel room environment can never provide.
Renault took over the village during a 6-month period, as part of a product launch for their ‘Dascia’ brand, using the monumental stables as the nerve centre of the operation and a nearby farm as venue to prepare and repair their cars. A UK-based software firm – Blackbaud – designed, painted and recreated a series of shop front facades that represented France, whilst Google’s European senior management used one of several garden areas to build a functioning catapult from scratch.
Faiers seems positive that “after three-years of renovations culminating on the completion of ‘The Cube’ we can now look to entice big hitters like Airbus (Toulouse) here, who are right on our doorstep.” Coustols insistence on sensitive restoration and sustainability led to the RICS Award – Restoration Category – in 2001; Ecology and sustainability is another key advantage which will feed into many corporate social responsibility guidelines when selecting venues.
The poster I received is a reminder of my visit, plus the continuity of events at and diversity of the Castelnau’s evolving concept!
Castelnau des Fieumarcon, 32700 Lagarde-Fimarcon, France.
Tel: +33 5 62 68 99
Travel provider: www.eurostar.com
Ramy James Salameh is an award-winning travel journalist and works as an International Reporter for ‘Conference + Meetings World Magazine’. He writes about all aspects of travel in the MICE, business travel, luxury, lifestyle and cultural tourism sectors.
Photographs by Ramy James Salameh