Travel: The art of mixing paint and pleasure: Celia Hall enjoyed a painting holiday beside the Charente in south-west France, where the setting was beautiful, the food a delight and the expert tuition encouraging

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The Independent Travel
ON A BLAZING afternoon in the middle of May, I arrived at the wrong address in a village in south-west France with two heavy bags and a serious thirst. It being Saturday, the village was profoundly and unalterably asleep.

The taxi driver (who had usefully alerted me to the delights of a local aperitif called Pineau de Charente) agreed that the gates outside the big house were identical to those in my photograph. It turned out that all the gates in the village were the same.

This minor diversion was entirely of my own making. I tend to travel casually, always getting there in the end. The man I finally extracted from the big house, 'Le Vieux Logis', was clearly in training for the title of the most unhelpful person in the western hemisphere and turned me away. I dragged my cases off down a hot lane. In the end, since the village was impenetrably walled, I hid them behind the gates of another big house and set off down its drive.

The avenue was cool and dark, shaded by enormous plane trees. The prize was at the bottom: a sunny 18th-century Charentais farmhouse sitting quietly amid wide lawns that led to the river. This was 'Le Logis de Bourg-Charente', where I should have been all along.

There were introductions on the terrace; almost immediately someone brought out a tray of tea and Madeleines. The blissful promise of that first impression was met time after time as the week progressed.

Bourg-Charente is a small village with a good 12th-century church and a major chateau, now a retirement home, in the heart of cognac country. The village is on the Charente, most languid of rivers, in which yellow lilies grow. It lies between Jarnac and Cognac, north of Bordeaux and west of Angouleme.

As a general location it had seemed to me to have several desirable attributes. I had bought a private painting holiday, an arrangement frequently advertised in magazines catering to amateur artists, in which hobby painters or beginners buy holidays in an attractive part of Europe. There are many variations. Sometimes painters stay in hotels or rooms and attend classes in a school. Sometimes they stay with English-speaking artists living abroad. Sometimes UK art teachers hire big villas and take parties of their students away to paint.

Buying a private holiday, effectively blind, has no guarantees; but, happily, artists often choose to live in beautiful parts of the world. If all else fails - awful people, awful food, awful art - there is always the view. In any case, I only pick houses with swimming pools and, as with any activity holiday, participants can expect a fair degree of like-mindedness among their fellows.

In Bourg-Charente, a working artist joins a small group of pupils - we were six - at the home of Jenny Smets, herself an amateur painter (and a first-rate cook). Mrs Smets runs her painting holidays in May or September, and for the rest of the year the house is used by her large, grown-up family.

In an informal, house-party atmosphere, we were treated more as invited friends than paying customers. Every morning and afternoon there was tuition from a qualified exhibiting artist in a range of media. You took your own materials. Full board comprised fresh croissants for breakfast (and eggs when the hens had been doing overtime), a so-called light lunch that expanded as the week went on, and a three-course dinner. Local wine at lunch and dinner was included.

Mrs Smets did the cooking, aided by Monique, who also made our beds and came and went by bicycle. Drinks before and after dinner were unfussily arranged. You wrote your name on a page, helped yourself, noted each drink in the book, and paid at the end of the holiday. We ate dinner-party food every day expect Thursday when we all went out for a meal at our own expense.

That we all got on so well was not, I think, wholly fortuitous. Mrs Smets is an accomplished and thoughtful hostess and creates a special atmosphere in a house she loves.

All this and painting, too. We were greatly blessed with our artist. Robert Harvey, an American now living in Spain, whose work is praised by Barbra Streisand, among others, could not have been, well, kinder.

A man of wonderfully good humour, his method with this group of people who were, after all, having a holiday, was masterly. He would stand behind you and say: 'Fantastic. Sign it. Put it on the wall.' As he grew to know us each a little better and judged that a hint of constructive criticism would not send one instantly on a one-way swim in the river, he became more enigmatic. Now his judgement could be delivered in a single word: 'Amazing.' When it really was time to rip it up and start again, he simply said nothing at all. His manner all week was charming and encouraging.

We hung our finished paintings each day on the wall in a part of the stables that had become the studio. In that short time, with everyone painting every day, progress was clearly evident.

What did we paint? The whole place is a visual, rural feast: the lawns, Mrs Smet's wildflower field, the vegetable garden tended by M Bonnais, the head of an iris, a border of poppies, the river, the ancient willow alley, the peacocks, the hens, the black swans with their frilly feathers, the lovely house itself, the urns, the stables, the boathouse . . .

All that was wrong was the weather. After the first day it became dull and damp, and we did not really experience the fabled light of that region. Compensations included open log fires and dinner every night in a long dining-room lit by stunning brass table candelabras. These were so tall that no one ever managed to light the candles in the brackets on the top.

Two of our group were already on return visits. The rest of us swore to meet there again in September 1994.

Le Logis de Bourg-Charente, Jarnac, France. Inquiries: Mrs J Smets, 14 Merrick Square, London SE1 (071-403 3708).

Accommodation: In May this year full board per person varied from pounds 275 for a single room with shared shower to pounds 338 for a double room with en suite bathroom. Non-painting partners received a pounds 50 a week discount.

Getting there: My choice was a BA flight Gatwick-Bordeaux, TGV train from Bordeaux to Angouleme, then taxi from Angouleme to Bourg-Charente. (There is also a local train from Angouleme to Jarnac, which Mrs Smets will meet.) Other options include flying to Paris and taking the train, car hire or fly-drive.

(Photographs omitted)