Deputy Editor Yvonne Martin heads to France for a week to stay at a retreat designed for women entering menopause, and connects with like-minded souls.

Sitting around the dinner table, the conversation goes from hilarious to sad to practical and back again. Each woman tells her stories and listens intently in return, sharing frustrations, triumphs, anecdotes and wisdom. To see us you would think we’re old friends, but in fact we’ve only known each other a few days. We have something in common though: we’re going through the menopause.

We’re in a beautiful country house near Limoges in France for a fitness retreat designed specifically for women at this stage of life. It’s organised by retreat specialists &Breathe, which started out running weeks away for postnatal women.

A nurturing approach

Behind the company is Clio Wood, who set it up in 2015. She had the idea when she was unable to find the kind of supportive break she needed after the birth of her daughter five years ago.

It soon became apparent to her that the same nurturing approach would work for women at another hormonally-challenging time of life. ‘It’s about making sure people take time for themselves, because as women we do that so rarely,’ she says.

Getting to know each other

It all starts at Limoges Airport when four women ranging in age from late forties to early fifties (I’m the oldest at 53) are picked up by taxi and driven through the French countryside to Manoir La Croix de La Jugie. We’re strangers at the start of the journey but that doesn’t last long as we chat the whole way.

We get a friendly welcome from Clio and fellow hosts, women’s fitness specialist Stef Larden, and Jo Bihari, a friend of Clio’s who went through an early menopause three years ago when she was 37.

Getting physical

Stef spends time privately with each woman to find out more about us and our bodies. I unload a list of creaks and ailments from my slightly restricted shoulder joint and twingey knee to the plantar fasciitis in my feet. It’s not all bad though as Stef notes some areas of flexibility and I tell her about my morning stretch routine and the fitness classes I do. She plans the exercise sessions only after she has spoken to each of us.

Every day we do three hours of exercise. This includes High Intensity Interval Training, cardio, strength moves, bodyweight exercises and stretching. It’s challenging yes, but you know what? I can do it… well, most of it. And each day as I get used to this level of activity, I find my body is moving better. I even find that I’m looking forward to it.

Some of the classes take place in a fitness studio in one of the rustic outbuildings, but we also do circuits in the open air and we have a wonderful Pilates session out on the grass in the mellow autumn sunshine.

Stef creates a positive atmosphere, pushing us, but always working with care. She remembers everyone’s needs and adjusts exercises as necessary. There’s advice to take away and once home, we each receive an exercise plan to carry on the good work.

Nourishing the body

Our all-round health is supported by nutritious food, prepared by Clio. Returning to the kitchen after an exercise session to be greeted by the delicious smell of her cooking is wonderful.

We start the day with a small healthy breakfast such as a little bowl of nuts, cooked spinach and houmous. I also try my first chia pudding and discover it’s delicious.

Brunches include restorative soups and salads and the evening meal highlights are a hearty mushroom bourguignon and a fragrant chickpea curry (and yes, there is some wine with dinner if you want it).

Mealtimes prove to be a great chance to share experiences, not just about hot flushes and menopausal irritability, but life in general. It feels supportive and open.

Time to let go

The pace is just right, as when we’re not exercising or eating there’s plenty of time to truly relax. Nothing is expected of us. We’re being looked after. Have a nap, go for a walk, read a book; it’s our choice. It really is ok to wind down. The only interruption is a welcome one: an afternoon snack.

The retreat includes a massage on one of the days, and you can book an extra one if you’re really in the relaxation vibe. The mental health side of menopause is also addressed with mindfulness sessions led by Clio, and the day often ends with a relaxation stretch with Stef. Nothing is set in stone though. The routine outside of exercise sessions and meals is flexible depending on what people want to do.

So what did I take away from the experience? I have a marvellous WhatsApp group on my phone (which I called on for moral support after an upsetting paddleboarding experience a week after we got back). I’ve also got some healthy mealtime inspiration and a renewed commitment to meditating and exercising regularly. Best of all, I feel stronger… in all kinds of ways.

The next &Breathe Menopause retreat at Manoir La Croix de La Jugie in France runs June 13-19, 2020; prices from £1,000 per person including accommodation, personal consultation, fitness classes, mindfulness sessions, massage, and tailored meal plan and all food and drink. I went with Ryanair, which flies to Limoges from various UK airports.