Year after year, organizing and orchestrating The Academy France is my most fulfilling and beloved project. Not only is the environment so beautifully quaint and authentically French, the people I meet and the experiences we have together are unforgettable. I've been settled back home in California for a few months and have finally gathered my thoughts and images from this years event in order to share with you now. I hope it conveys all the magic that transpired this summer at The Academy.
Hosting a week-long event in a foreign country for a large group isn't a simple task - it requires an enormous amount of prep work and planning! I don't often share behind-the-scenes of The Academy, but dreaming up and assembling all the little details brings me so much joy. From the welcome baskets, itineraries, and arrival gifts, to the flower arrangements, snacks, room decor, and a variety of special surprises throughout the week, my team and I have tons to do in the days leading up to the experience.
The rooms of the château are simple, but very lovely. Parts of the home were constructed in the 13th century, which means that the walls are made of stone, the original wooden floors creak a little when you step on them, and the entire property is full of tangible history. The authentic mix of rustic and elegant is the reason I keep returning to this location year after year, and making sure that every single room is arranged beautifully is immensely satisfying for me, as I want each guest to feel pampered and thought of.
Before the guests arrived, we assembled the array of special items I curated for the welcome baskets, and created dozens of floral arrangements for every single room in the château. We sourced flowers directly from the garden, grounds, and nearby fields and vineyards, which gave them a perfectly imperfect feel. It's was one of my favorite team "activities" during the week, as there was plenty of laughter (mostly about our lack of floral design skills) and excitement about everyone's arrival the next day.
The Welcome Reception
Once everyone had the chance to settle into their rooms, we had a beautiful welcome reception in front of the château! After popping the champagne, we enjoyed a luscious cheese platter and various other French delights from the local market.
While we're on the topic of food, I'd like to give high praise to our very own private chef this year, Marisa Curatolo! She did a truly amazing job preparing French-inspired food for the entire week, and I can't thank her enough. Marisa is a Paris-trained cook, food stylist, and cookbook author, as well as a wonderfully kind and generous human being. I can't wait for her to come back next year!
Our first major activity was shopping at an amazing annual brocante. I plan each year's dates according to this specific brocante - that's how amazing it is. The market covers a very large area, with hundreds of vendors, some are professional dealers, while others are simply local residents emptying out their attics and storage rooms. You can find so much here: miscellaneous trays, cups and bowls, pottery, antique monogrammed linens, milking stools, copper pots, oil paintings, wire-rimmed spectacles, and SO much more. The treasure hunt is what makes this brocante so exciting and it's fun to see what everyone found.
Around lunch time, you'll see the vendors start to take their lunch breaks - and in typical French fashion, they don't take lunch lightly! They bring out the tablecloths, wine and glassware, gather together around a table and enjoy a proper meal, right in the middle of the market. It's a wonderful sight to see the local community gathering together in this way.
After shopping to our heart's content, we all plopped down at a little sidewalk cafe for something cold to drink while we discussed our shopping strategies and victories. Usually those attending don't speak French, and bargaining with vendors can feel intimidating. I've found it only takes that first prized purchase to get the ball rolling - after that, their confidence kicks in and it's game on!
Styling & Photography Sessions
The workshop sessions are an all day affair. Before everyone arrives to our private atelier for lessons, I set up a table full of props that attendees can use later on in the day (along with those they purchased at the brocante), but first, we spend time learning the basics of styling. I really enjoy sharing my knowledge and the lectures cover things like composition, visual techniques, best practices, things to avoid, and how to tell a story though imagery. After we break for a delicious lunch, the hands-on practice begins. This year, the attendees set up a variety of different scenes. One chose to do a culinary setup, another focused on a charming outdoor picnic scene, someone else focused on a painting and art-themed composition, as just a few examples. I love seeing the unique visions of students every year. It's always a little bit different - it's amazing how many creative directions you can go with a table full of props!
The French Food Market
Another one of our excursions was to a local open-air food market. Imagine the smell of fresh buttery croissants, ripe nectarines, and cinnamon spiced canelés you see local customers engaged in lively conversation with their favorite vendors. The food shopping experience here is a universe apart from that of a typical supermarket, and it's incredibly inspiring to see.
After enjoying the market, we wandered around town, admired the architecture, shopped for espadrilles and pharmacie staples we're obsessed with, before settling in at a sidewalk cafe for a long, leisurely lunch. This day felt steeped in authentic French culture!
The Dîner en Blanc
The Dîner en Blanc is the grandest meal of the entire week - thanks to our amazing hosts and owners of the château, who prepare seven plus authentic French courses for us. We coordinate our outfits by wearing white, and the entire dinner consists of cuisine in white or cream colored hues. It's an extravagant affair, with endless wine and extending late into the night. If the weather permits, we do this outside, but this year it was a tiny bit drizzly that evening, so we brought the fête indoors. With the candles as our only source of light, it was a cozy, intimate evening filled with wonderful conversation and the most delectable French cuisine.
Saint Émilion & Picnic
Saint Émilion is a gorgeous UNESCO Heritage village surrounded on all sides by rolling vineyards. The architecture here is incredible, the highlights being the main tower in the center of town, and the monolithic church that was carved from solid stone. There are many wine shops here to taste the local libations, as well as various little boutiques for shopping. We had the afternoon free to explore, then rendez-vous'ed in a secluded medieval courtyard for a delicious homemade picnic lunch.
It's a bit difficult to encapsulate the entire week in a single post, but I hope I've been able to give you a glimpse into what makes it such an amazing experience. In all honesty, I hesitate some with sharing it, only because I so desperately want to keep the magic and surprise hidden for those who attend. When they land in France and make their way to The Academy, I want them to feel like they've been transported to a fairytale where their needs are taken care of and their creativity can blossom. But then, on the other hand, I want the same for those of you reading. I hope that the essence of The Academy translated here for you to enjoy as well.
The Academy France 2019
We're currently planning next year's event and are just a couple weeks from our public launch. Stay tuned for details!
Most of the photos in this post were taken by my dear friend - photographer, Irene Berni. We met several years ago when I stayed at her charming Bed & Breakfast near Florence, Italy called Valdi Rose. You can read all about it here.
A handful of additional photos were taken by my trusty creative assistant Hannah Wilson. Who's fluent French helped tremendously this year!