In this hectic life, the holiday is often the time for one to take things easy: give more attention to each other and yourself, and more attention to the things one does. Mindfulness is the buzzword nowadays. We find ourselves in this exact state of mind while we spend a considerable part of the morning preparing just a single cup of coffee; normally an operation of a few seconds on auto-pilot. Today, however, we are in a tent. Not just any tent; it is a "Feather Down Bed" tent. The term glamping probably springs to mind; well this is it. Tucked away in some of the most gorgeous country spots in the UK, France, the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany and Switzerland, you’ll find around 70 locations offering perfectly comfortable accommodation in safari style tents. It is still camping, but in a very convenient way.
The location we chose is situated on the gorgeous Domaine de Saint-Christophe not far from Metz, in the north-east of France. My wife and kids are still fast asleep as I search for what I need to get the coffee making process started. Since there is no electricity, a large stove in the tent provides heating on the colder days and doubles as a cooking facility. There is a stove / BBQ outside. The adventure starts by fetching wood, after which several branches must be chopped into kindling wood. The cut wood is then transported by wheelbarrow to the tent where the pyromaniac in me is unleashed. I start by building a pyramid from the kindling wood, add starting wool and some shreds of paper and then light it, using the sliders in the stove to get the air supply optimal. After a fair bit of time, the water in the large old-fashioned kettle is ready to pour onto the coffee. A little later I sit in the morning sun enjoying the best cup of coffee I have ever had.
Maybe this sounds like a logistic nightmare, but staying at this place was one of the highlights of our road trip through France. Our daughters love animals and the great outdoors. At the same time, we also like to have some comfort on holiday as well as nature to explore. “Feather Down Bed” Domaine St Christophe offers this combination like no other. After driving through a thick forest, the road takes a turn and we see rolling meadows with beautiful Friesian horses lumbering in the afternoon heat. Then we spot a small clustering of buildings on the top of a small hill: the heart of this 80ha estate. The Domain St Christophe was originally a cloister dating back to the year 707. It was founded by Wulfoad and his wife Adelsinde honouring the archangel Michael. So, this is a place with an abundandce of heritage, and it is immediately clear to us why the owners fell in love with it.
Entrepreneurs Savine and Pieter work very hard realizing their dream with this magical place. What started out as a breeding and training station for the Friesian horses the couple adore, developed into a unique combination of farm, small ‘auberge’, equestrian centre, and glamping site. Besides the ‘Feather Down Bed’ tents that are sprinkled throughout, you can rent one of the apartments in the main building. All are named after the couples (grand)children. So you might stay in apartment ‘Boris’, that comes with some of the original walls dating back to the very early times of the cloister; well over a thousand years back in time.
It is love at first sight for us. We enjoy just rambling around the tent, taking great pleasure in busying ourselves with normally mundane tasks, and finally having ample time to finish reading some books while lying in the hammock. The girls are over the moon with all the animals on the farm. Of course, they spend a lot of time in the stables as they both love horses. Children are more than welcome to lend a hand tending the horses, but for sure the best parts are the riding lessons and guided rides in the surrounding countryside. Savine and Peter, together with their equally kind and enthusiastic team, really take their time assessing each one’s riding skills, coaching and teaching when necessary. So after two days we are totally confident going on one of the ‘outdoor’ rides. Such an amazing ride it is! We are all on Friesian horses with their shiny black coats. The Friesian horse is a breed originating in Friesland, in our home country, the Netherlands. This breed is considered willing, active and energetic, but also gentle and docile. They tend to have great presence and to carry themselves with elegance. The horses are graceful and nimble for their size. It is believed that during the Middle Ages, ancestors of Friesian horses were in great demand as war horses throughout continental Europe. We feel safe riding them, and we can fully enjoy the beautiful environment. This region is a history treasure trove offering historical sites from the Roman times through to WW1 and WW2. The area was even treasured by the Celts as a sacred place. Have a lookout for their magnificent Menhirs that are still to be found on the estate.
In a barn set aside a little from the main house, there are goats, chickens and cute rabbits, which is the girls first port of call each day. And they sometimes spend hours petting and playing with the animals. We also encounter dogs, cats and if you are lucky you will spot wild boar and deer. Your dogs are welcome and you can even bring your own horse. And the children also gather around the big trampolines and football field.
This is a place designed to really help you appreciate the small things in life. Everything is in very good order, but do not expect the luxury of a hotel. The tents are ‘safari style’ which adds some real charm and feeling of adventure. They have space for six people to sleep, but we would recommend sticking to four. The girls sleep in a cosy bunk bed, separated from the living space by a curtain while we have a proper queen size bed; all having high-quality mattresses. Lighting is provided by oil lamps and candles as there is no electricity, and each tent comes with a picnic table as well as two deck chairs. Each tent has its own toilet and comes equipped with a starter pack of candles, kitchen linen, and enough firewood for your stay. We even have a shower with hot and cold running water. The tents are also equipped with every conceivable piece of kitchen equipment: from scissors to frying pans, from knives to coffee cups. There is no WIFI and very limited mobile coverage on the property, which really enhances the tranquil setting.
In high season, the family operates their restaurant Table d’Hôte so there’s no need to cook if you don’t wish. This former stable is transformed into a lovely intimate place to have diner. There are several windows and doors in the old stable. The former monastery doors are still there, adding to the romantic atmosphere. Starters and desserts are served at the table, whereas the dinner is served buffetstyle, where you can help yourself and eat as much as you like.
As we are here in early season, we stick to preparing our meals with the stoves in our tent, and again we spend quite a bit of time chopping wood and getting the fire going. As said before, this all adds to the charm of our stay. Although there are some shops and a supermarket just a short drive away, you will find basic food items and other handy things like matches, lamp oil, toilet paper, etc. in the honesty shop on the premises. Bread, pastries and croissants can be ordered and delivered in your dedicated basket. The girls love to take a hike in the morning, greeting the animals and picking up our breakfast while doing so.
As the days pleasantly linger by, we do not really feel the need to undertake major tourist outings. But if you are in for some city vibes, a trip to the nearby Metz is highly recommended. It has a rich 3,000-year-history, having previously been a Celtic oppidum, an important Gallo-Roman city, the Merovingian capital of Austrasia, the birthplace of the Carolingian dynasty, a cradle of the Gregorian chant, and one of the oldest republics in Europe. The city is steeped in the Romance culture but has also been strongly influenced by the Germanic culture due to its location and history. The city features noteworthy buildings such as the Gothic Saint-Stephen Cathedral with its largest expanse of stained-glass windows in the world, the Basilica of Saint-Pierre-aux-Nonnains which is the oldest church in France, its Imperial Station Palace displaying the apartment of the German Kaiser, and its Opera House, the oldest working one in France. Metz is home to some world-class venues including the Arsenal Concert Hall and the Centre Pompidou-Metz museum.
If you are even slightly into history, we also recommend a visit to one of the WW1 battle grounds. Tranchée de la Soif is the nearest to the Domaine de Saint-Christophe. Today the place represents a lesser-known, highly interesting field of exploration. This section of the front was the stage of a prototypical static war of attrition, lasting the full duration of the war. French and German trenches faced each other at a distance of a few yards, and they were consolidated and fortified to last for a long time. Today some of these trenches are still visible, and the region is dotted with memorials erected after the war. A distinctive sight in the region is the imposing memorial to the US forces, commemorating the successful action against the German army in the salient, and those who died in the operation.
Another WW1 site is the ‘disappeared’ town of Flirey. It ended up on the border between the invading German forces and the retreating French troops. When the line of the front was consolidated, the village was caught in a kind of ‘no man’s land’, and hence was rapidly reduced to rubble. It suffered the same fate of many towns and villages in similar circumstances. Today, some of the ruins of the original buildings are preserved in a dedicated small park. There you will also find informative panels about the history of the salient.
Now these may not be the first things that come to mind when thinking of something to do with kids, but our girls are impressed with the history of the trenches and ask a lot of questions about what went on there, and they really love the hike.
If you are not really into horse riding but still like to do some sporty activities, consider taking a canoe trip with Canoe Kayak Club Saint Mihiel; especially on a hot summer day as it provides ample opportunity for a refreshing dive in the river as you paddle along. Or ask for a mountainbike tour through the forest. Real dare devils will have a blast at the different rope courses and over 500m of zip lines at the Forêt'vasion. At the same site, you can also enrol in outdoor laser gaming; armed with laser guns, you will team up with your family on a terrain studded with obstacles to try and capture the opponent’s flag. A little more laid back is the sensory course. On this fun and educational course, you can take off your shoes and go barefoot for a walk of about 1 hour in the forest. Several trays containing different materials (stones, pinecones, sand ...) line the path and you will discover many different sensations.
# What a magical place! So pretty. And the tents are very secluded. Our first feather down holiday and not the last. Enjoying the starry nights sitting outside a very comfortable tent, and the small things in life become real treasures.
# Even we are proud of the Friesian horses, and we love to see them each day walking the property and having a wonderful ride through the forest.
# A once in a lifetime opportunity to stay in a historical and unique location dating back to the year 707.