A Little Bit of Tuscany
I had never been to Italy, but it was on the list… So, when yoga retreat organiser, Raven, said “How about we do the next one in Tuscany”, how could I say no?
Tuscany is fairly central in Italy, with Florence as it’s capital city and art and wine as two of the things it is most famous for. What’s not to like? We were heading to a villa in the province of Lucca, with the walled commune city of Lucca as its central point. My journey began in Rome, with three trains leading me to my final destination.
The train from Rome was high speed, state of the art, smooth, comfortable and very organised. As I changed trains in Florence to get on the district line, this luxury morphed in to a rattle trap old metal box, held together by a wing and a prayer, that left 45 minutes late, just because it could…. I did have a slight sinking of the stomach moment. Arriving into Pisa, it really showed that we were getting more and more rural by the kilometre, and our late departure from Florence meant I had missed my connection to Lucca. The thought of waiting another 90 minutes for the next train proved more than my brain could cope with, so taxi it was – and an introduction to the death defying adventure that can be enjoyed daily, driving on the Italian roads. At this point I was questioning our plan, but arriving at Villa Benvenuti and meeting Sara, the owner, calmed all my qualms. (Firstly, even before meeting Sara, due to a wild boar sow and her 4 children running, squealing, along side my taxi before diving off towards the vineyards. Anywhere that has happy wild boar choosing to live there must be a good place).
The villa is stunning, set on a large plot of land with several old established fruit trees and a small vineyard. Is there anything better than wandering through the grounds, picking figs off the tree and grapes and tomatoes off the vine and munching on their sun warmed gooey-ness for breakfast? And then of course seeing what lovely Ornella, our Italian chef for the week, would come up with using all these amazing fresh ingredients. Every time I go on one of these retreats, I say I am not eating much… Well, how can you resist fresh bread and nocciolata, with piping hot Italian coffee for breakfast. Pear, cheese, walnut and honey salad or fig and cream cheese, or apple and fennel soup, or aubergine, tomato and mozzarella stack for lunch, followed by gnudi, pastas and risottos for dinner? And then of course, all those desserts…. Tiramisu, chocolate mousse, slow baked figs…. Hmmm…. As ever, don’t come on a retreat if you are dieting.
Between Caribbean Raven, our Florida yoga teacher, Angel, and Zimbabwean me, we were a pretty diverse group for starters, but once guests arrived from US, Australia (via Singapore), Sweden, UK and Holland, we could have held international talks. This international flavour is one of the things I love about our yoga retreat weeks – from the first night, dinner conversation flows with stories of different cultures, new adventures, people’s travels to exotic places and the general ebb and flow of people figuring out who is who. And of course, the free-flowing bubbles always helps the conversation along.
Our idyllic days quickly settled into routines – getting up for long, strong, hot black coffee (black like my soul…) half an hour of gentle stretching and mindfulness, a delicious breakfast and yet more coffee. And then choices, some guests wanting to come out and play ponies, some preferring the pool or hiking trails. A death defying car ride back for more food (sigh) and then generally more ponies or a dismounted riding theory chat, followed by more yin yoga, and (yes) more food. And bubbles, never forget the bubbles…
Our day off included a wander within (and on top of) the walled city of Lucca, which is quite stunning and, so far, my favourite part of Italy. This ancient commune city was built around its 11th century cathedral, and surrounded by 16th and 17th century ramparts, creating just a little history. (Including being the birth place of Puccini). It is just lovely, especially with the annual flower market on. I could have done an awful lot of shopping if flowers and plants could travel across borders.
The riding was spread over a couple of yards, giving several horses to play with. There is a very famous horse race held in Italy every year, the Palio di Siena, which has been running since 1633. 17 contrades or districts, race against each other, each putting forward one horse and rider. These riders race their horses bareback, 3 times around the town square. It is a controversial race due to the number of accidents and horses that are lost, but still a crucial part of their history. Our most eccentric yard owner spoke not one work of English, but very proudly led me by the arm into his office, where a worn and weathered black and white photograph was pinned on the wall, obviously many, many years old, when he himself had been a jockey in the race. Next to it was a portrait photograph of an ancient horse, greyed, hollows above the eyes and rubbery lips hanging loosely over long teeth. He pointed to the horse he was racing and back to this old equine face several times, showing that he had kept his racing friend for an awful lot of years after their fame, and his affection for his horses was beautifully obvious.
My thoughts on leaving Italy – well, the food – sigh, I would be as big as a house if I lived there. The people – open, friendly, welcoming. The scenery, stunning. But maybe my roots in third world countries and their love of rubber time, (promptness is optional, time is like rubber and can be stretched, 5 minutes can easily become 55 minutes) still irritate me slightly… As a holiday making guest, being on time is optional but as an organiser, please, please can 2pm actually happen at 2pm? Maybe? So will I be back? Oooh, yes please, when shall we book our ticket???