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Dragons, Sea Adventure And A Centuries-Old Mystery

Dragons and other fantastic creatures, time travel, dramatic escape on the High Seas and an intriguing search for a long-lost woman. Such were some of the entertaining stories shared at our latest ‘Ireland Writing Retreat’ amidst the gorgeous landscapes and cobblestone streets of charming southwest France.

And with participants from countries including Australia, Canada and the United States with backgrounds as diverse as teaching, law, IT, banking and social work, there were many interesting life experiences to share as we gathered together in the rustic Pyrenees-Orientales region.

As with all our retreats, our week together was a combination of travel excursions and lively cultural activities with writing workshops on specific techniques, as well as critiques of participants’ new and ongoing work.

The workshops in subjects such as character and plot development, sensorial writing and memoir, were led by tutors, journalist-turned-author Sean Hillen and Kathleen Shine Cain, Ph.D, Professor Emerita at Merrimack College in North Andover, Massachusetts.

Guest speaker for our midweek wine and cheese ‘Conversational Corner’ was Lancashire author and life-long learning expert, Norman Longworth.

Belfast-born Sean is a former foreign correspondent for The Times, London, The Irish Times, Dublin and Time magazine, New York, whose creative writing includes the novel ‘Pretty Ugly;’ memoir ‘Digging for Dracula;’ and novella ‘Driver’s Diary.’

Professor Cain, Ph.D, has enjoyed a 45-year career in higher education in the US as professor, writing center director and dramaturg. Kathy is also the author of several academic books and articles, including Leon Uris: A Critical Companion; Living in the USA: Cultural Contexts for Reading and Writing; and From Comfort Zone to Contact Zone: Lessons from a Belfast Writing Centre.

As for cultural activities and travel excursions, our week began with an exclusive traditional Catalan group dance performance by Els Dansaires Catalans de Thuir in full costume combined with a special wine tasting hosted by Solenn Genot, co-owner of Mas Llossanes vineyard and a sumptuous French buffet. The week ended with an olive oil tasting evening presented by Marie-Neige and her husband Philippe, owners of Huile Des Orgues olive farm, a buffet and a lively sing-a-long (complete with songbooks) led by talented local musician Derek Taylor.

Other highlights during a most enjoyable week were a walking tour of the medieval fortified village and UNESCO World Heritage site of Villefranche de Conflent led by Fanny Pla, an historian and tourism guide; a bustling local outdoor French market with alfresco lunch; a visit to the exotic red-rock landscape known as ‘Orgues d’Ille-sur-Tet’ with formations sculpted by Nature known locally as ‘Cheminées de Fées’ (Fairy Chimneys); and a bus trip and walkabout in the picturesque town of Thuir, including a guided tour of the cellars where the famous aperitif, Byrrh, is made, with the largest oak vat in the world.

Our home for the week, Villa Lafabregue, provided a most inspiring setting with palm trees, flowering plants, herbs, cactus and a goldfish pond with seating scattered around the well-tended garden and panoramic views of Canigou mountain.

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