Simon and Monica Roberts swapped their lives in rainy England for adventures running painting and foodie holidays in vibrant Languedoc, says Steve Turnbull…
The unique beauty of the south of France has attracted artists for centuries. But Simon and Monica Roberts have gone a step further than most. They set up a painting holiday business here several years ago and have never looked back.
But before we get into the French part of their story, let’s sketch in the background. Simon is English and Monica is South African. The couple met when Monica hired graphic artist Simon to do some storyboards for the advertising agency in Bath where she worked as the creative services manager. Prior to this, they’d both been through a traumatic time. Simon lost his wife to cancer and Monica went through divorce. But love quickly blossomed and soon they began to dream of a new life in the Languedoc (now part of Occitanie). They’d been to Provence, but liked the look of the Hérault department even more, not least because the property was more affordable.
So one day, after a particularly demanding spell at work and relentless English rain, Monica asked Simon, “What are we waiting for?”. He agreed, and they hit the road.
Simon had already had some adventures. Not only had he travelled extensively around Europe and lived in Germany for several years, but he’d also made a solo motorbike trip overland from England to Kathmandu, Nepal. This resulted in his illustrated book Tea With Bin Laden’s Brother, a “cult classic in adventure motorcycling circles” according to its author, somewhat tongue in cheek. Fast-forward to 2011 and, after a year of renting and “57 viewings”, the couple finally found what they were looking for in the picturesque village of Pouzolles, at the heart of the Haut Languedoc et Vignobles area.
However, as Monica admits, it has subsequently cost more -in time, effort and money – than they’d anticipated to do their property up. “It’s a slightly a typical village house with some strange ‘modern’ renovations done to it in the 1970s, which we are slowly stripping out. Apart from the original structure, which was very sound, we have redone or renewed the kitchen, bathrooms and most of the flooring. We’ve also stripped out some seriously dodgy wallpaper and completely redone the garden.”
CREATING A HOME
Over time, and despite the difficulties, the house became a home. But the idea of starting a painting holiday business – now called Painting Holidays in France – didn’t spring to mind until they were well established. As Monica explains: “Simon started doing weekly painting and drawing classes in our studio after a couple of people who lived locally asked if he offered them. After a couple of years of doing this, we decided to expand into multi-day holidays for an international clientele.” As the business grew, the groups became larger. But Simon and Monica found the solution to their accommodation problem, quite literally, just around the corner.
This solution, La Couronne, is an elegant holiday rental and former home of a maître vigneronne or winemaker, run by an Australian couple. It has five bedrooms, five bathrooms, two living areas, two dining areas, a pool and a courtyard. It’s also right in the centre of the village with a traditional restaurant next door. Just next to this is the commanding 15th- century Château de Pouzolles with its cone-topped turrets. In fact, the architectural style is fairly unusual for the area (it’s more reminiscent of the Loire) and comes from a 19th-century makeover, but it’s undeniably charming. Another interesting feature of the village is its ‘Château d’Eau’, or public fountain, which is situated in front of the park opposite and fed by a well. Curiously, though, the water has run dry for the first time this year.
The couple have had a bit of a bumpy ride with Painting in France in more recent years following Brexit and Covid, but the journey as a whole has been well worth it. Along the way, they made an appearance on Channel Four’s popular series A New Life in the Sun. This was more intense than they’d imagined, but it certainly helped to raise their profile, to the point that they became minor celebrities and were recognised by a host of holidaymakers at the airport.
One of the painting locations that featured in the programme is the delightful village of Roquebrun, which lies at the southern edge of the Haut- Languedoc Park. Beyond this, the landscape around Pouzolles stretches out towards the Mediterranean in the form of open plains and rolling hills, covered in a patchwork of vineyards and olive orchards. With its mountainous backdrop, this reminds Monica of the Cape region in South Africa where she spent many holidays as a child.
But, as Simon points out: “The region as a whole is remarkably varied. That’s why I love biking or motorcycling around it.” In fact, he still has his beloved BMW motorbike which took him halfway round the world and back. The couple also enjoy hiking together when they can find the time in their busy schedule. One of their favourite walks, Les Fenestrettes, starts from the medieval village of St-Guilhem- le-Désert and climbs through the jaw-droppingly beautiful Cirque de l’Infernet to offer breathtaking views.
Monica has also played an active role in the local community. For instance, she helped organise a collection, co-ordinated with the Red Cross, for the nearby village of Montagnac when it was badly flooded several years ago. She was also on the committee for the voluntary organisation, Languedoc Solidarité avec des Réfugiés (LSR), and built their first website.
Brush in hand and relaxed teaching style to the fore, Simon may be centre stage with their painting holiday business, but Monica’s contribution is equally important. As operations director, she is responsible for organising the holidays and promoting them through their website and other channels. She also provides alfresco meals for guests in their garden and ‘chic picnics’ among the vines, as well as trips to local markets and food producers. An example of the latter is the Ferme du Mas Rolland fromagerie down the road in the hamlet of Montesquieu, which makes Pélardon goat’s cheese. AOC-protected since 2000, this is creamily moreish. It teams beautifully with salads, drizzled with honey and garnished with walnuts.
Monica’s passion for food stems from her trips to Europe as a teenager with her parents: “We travelled around in a camper van and one of my clearest memories was the food we discovered in the different countries along the way. Fantastic spaghetti alle vongole in Venice. Amazing Dutch Emmental in Delft moules-frites in Bruges. Simon says I remember our holidays by the food that I eat!” One of her favourite specialities from the region is La bourride à la sétoise, the lesser-known but equally delicious cousin of bouillabaisse, made with monkfish (lotte) and aioli. She also loves the range of high- quality wines now produced in the Languedoc, many organic.
As well as ‘gourmet meals’, the holidays include transport, materials and equipment. They are also offered in the cooler months of June and September and are designed to accommodate all levels of painter from absolute beginner upwards. In addition, the couple offer single workshops ‘en plein air‘ locally, and free live classes online for free via their YouTube channel and Facebook page, to help with promotion.
So, apart from choosing picture-perfect locations, what are Simon’s top tips for creating a frame-worthy watercolour painting, or ‘aquarelle‘ in French?: “Whatever scene you’re painting, be sure to add strong light and shade to add to the drama.” He adds that it’s important not to be afraid of the ‘canvas’ (making mistakes is how we learn) and above all to enjoy the experience.
The repeat business that Simon and Monica have been getting (their clientele comes mainly from the US, Australia and the UK) shows they’ve got their approach right. The feedback has been great too:
“I would recommend this Painting Holiday for anyone who not only wants to sketch and watercolour a bit, but see the south of France, eat wonderful cuisine, and not have to think about anything except what will we be painting (or eating) next!”
As far as plans to develop Painting in France go, the couple are considering a roll-out to other parts of the country. This would provide more choice and complement the painting holidays in Morocco that they offer in their portfolio (they offer holidays in Greece too, in partnership with another company). Plus, they’re planning to rent their property over the summer (complete with new pool) starting this year, so they can explore more of Europe and the Mediterranean, keeping an eye out for new holiday destinations at the same time.
The couple are looking to document their trips in interactive books aimed at foodies as well as adventurers. But nothing beats coming back home. Especially with so much to enjoy on the doorstep, and the prospect of providing more memorable holidays for their budding painter guests.
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Lead photo credit : © SIMON AND MONICA ROBERTS