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Monticule, the French countryside festival that's half retreat, half party

Monticule combines techno and trance with yoga and meditation

  • Words: Ella Braidwood | Photos: Leon Konopizky + Kasja Lorentzon
  • 9 October 2019

Monticule festival is, by design, something of a slow-burner. Arriving on a humid Wednesday at the sleepy woodland site on the edges of the Causses Du Quercy National Park, we’re not exactly plunged into a relentless five-day rave. Instead, we go for a dip in the pool. Later that afternoon we’re greeted by Eric Schönemeier, one of the founders, who fetches us a glass of champagne from a wooden bar with panoramic views across France’s idyllic Lot valley, before taking us on a gentle wander around the site.

The next morning we go to a yoga class, then venture out on a two-hour hike, before watching a blistering set from Jan Schulte at the picturesque Pool Stage, complete with smoke machines. It’s a typical day: Monticule is as much a retreat as a party.

Schönemeier, who has sandy hair and the tanned complexion of someone who loves the outdoors, is quick to admit that a festival set up by four guys previously immersed in organising parties on Munich’s club scene is “maybe not the first thing to be connected to mindfulness and awareness.” But, he insists, that’s exactly what it is. “What we want is for people to feel better when they leave the festival than when they arrived,” he explains in his thick German accent. “That’s the main thing.”

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Essentially a Munich outpost in the southern French countryside, the festival is now in its fifth year. Schönemeier and his three friends – Richard Bücheler, Simon Weber, and Flo Scheuer – set it up after Bücheler moved to Domaine de Gayfié in 2015 to look after his elderly mother, Lilo, whose family owns an 140-acre plot of land. The main site, previously a stud farm and later a truffle plantation, revolves around a central ivy-coated house, where Lilo still lives, with many of the original buildings being used as stages (the Grange, for example, is housed in the old barn).

Artists are booked here for their music rather than their reputation. Genre-wise, it’s an eclectic mix, with everything from downtempo to techno and trance. This year, alongside Schulte (who also plays another set as Wolf Müller with Niklas), there are Jennifer Cardini, Courtesy, I:Cube, Gilb’R, and Blawan (a rare British booking). The soundsystem, meanwhile, is crisp and clear: the music can be heard 40km away (after 3:AM they only play at the indoor stages Atelier and Grange). Schönemeier says they’re looking to address the male-dominated line-up (though he is not a supporter of a 50-50 gender split, like at Primavera, describing it as “mathematical”).

Monticule started out as a “crazy oversized home party,” says mischievous-looking Schönemeier. Lasers blared everywhere, the music was on far too loud and the police even dropped by because of the noise, but were appeased when shown a permit from the French government accompanied by some coffee and cake.

Since then, it’s grown steadily but manageably every year, from 450 to 800, then 950 and now 1,500, evolving into much more than just a rave along the way. Of course, you can party, but it’s also a place of mindfulness, tranquility and reflection. As well as yoga, there’s daily meditation beside a natural spring, which has morphed into a hippie commune by day three, all naked body painting and funny cigarettes. To make the most of the low light pollution, there is even midnight astronomy. On a clear night, we’re told, you can see the Milky Way.

The artists we speak to reiterate the festival’s relaxing ethos. German DJ Martha van Straaten, sporting a leopard-print bandana and pink Monticule T-shirt, tells us over a cigarette that her love for the festival stems from its combination of good parties, beautiful scenery and relaxation. “A festival is about celebration and if you have astonishing nature around you, it’s more reason to celebrate to be on this earth and to be alive,” explains Straaten, who is playing here for the third time. For her, Monticule feeds into a growing demand for festivals to be more than just “fucked-up parties”.

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“It comes together with this movement of being more healthy, being more awake, celebrating what you really see... and not trying to escape from life through being super-wasted,” she says, before going on to highlight the family-friendly vibe at Monticule. Indeed, Schönemeier’s toddler is at his third Monticule, rocking some green sound-cancelling headphones.

Alongside its connection to the landscape, Monticule prides itself on its sustainability and minimal waste ethos. There are no single-use plastic cups – punters return their glasses for a one Euro deposit – and tiny ashtrays are attached to the bins, which have bags for recycling and food waste. There is a real pride in consideration for the local community, who get discounted tickets. A personal touch presides over the entire festival, from Schönemeier’s homemade ginger ale to the organisers’ use of regional produce like the Ratz Blonde beer. OKO DJ, here to play at her second Monticule and getting stuck into some tartines, says that this carefully crafted vision is a draw for the artists, who are given a dinner in the garden of Lilo’s house on arrival. “Having Eric really coming to you personally and taking you around, I think is just amazing,” she says, dressed in all black despite the near 30-degree heat. Like Straaten, OKO DJ is attracted to Monticule’s whole vibe. “It’s been a pretty relaxing experience – you can choose to do it in a very chill way,” she adds. “Just the nature, where the festival takes place, is so beautiful... I was feeling really good already before, but I’m feeling full of good energy [now].”

On the Sunday, we sit down one last time with Schönemeier, who has finally had a few hours sleep and looks sprightly, at the crew bar. We mention that the five days has been a welcome break from Trump, Brexit, and all the dystopia dominating 2019, but he says he has greater ambitions. “The central point is this shouldn’t be a parallel universe, like some festivals are, but in the real world, which tries to do every step positively,” he explains. “It’s not a circus where you go for five days from your bank job and then you go back, but more about creating ideas for how life could be.”

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