What to expect

I wasn’t sure what to expect of the writing retreat initially.  You’re at home in the English winter and you discover there’s a retreat in Italy in September.  You’ve no holiday booked and you’ve put writing off for what seems forever. Then on the spur of the moment you just think ‘why not?’

So off I went, and in two hours I’m in Rome.  Hot, vibrant and bustling.  The excitement of travelling through Italy by train to the beautiful town of Arezzo for one night and then the next day a train and ferry to Isola Maggiore.

Time has stood still there and within hours I felt relaxed, but excited about the week to come.  How had Glynis discovered this tranquil island where the pace of life is like none I’ve ever known?

I wanted time to get back to my writing and this was the perfect solution.  Inspirational sessions led by Glynis and the added bonus of a wonderful camaraderie with the other writers.  Sharing ideas, experiences and I loved every minute.

Other highlights included the welcoming islanders, the little restaurants and discovering the island itself.  Either walking and enjoying the wonderful views, or heading off with my notebook and a head full of ideas that I needed to get down on paper.

I sat, undisturbed for hours, thinking and writing.  No interruptions whatsoever other than the noises of the island … The wind in the trees, birdsong and the sound of the water lapping on the small beach.

It wasn’t a real beach, just a rocky outcrop, but it was my beach.

I found the week to be more inspiring than I’d ever have imagined.  It was just what I needed to help me. My characters developed from being two names to being living breathing characters … all the things Glynis had said helped everything fall into place. It was a real moment of clarity. I couldn’t wait to see what my characters would do next.

I’ve never felt more relaxed and more creative and that’s in no small part due to Glynis’ support and encouragement.

Isola Maggiore is a secret hideaway that’s the perfect place to write, but also relax and make you think differently about a lot of things.

Would I go back?  I have to …

-Tony Dixon 2015 Retreat Participant

 

A lake full of poetry

Imagine sitting by the shore at dusk, just reflecting on Lake Trasimeno’s peace and beauty … Who could fail to be inspired by it?

When Vittoria Aganoor, an Italian poet with Armenian ancestry, arrived in nearby Monte del Lago in the late 1800s, she felt compelled to write about the majesty of the lake. In 1901, she married a well known local politician, Giudo Pompilj, who – thank goodness – saved Lake Trasimeno from drying up.

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Less than ten years later, with the couple now living in Perugia, Vittoria fell gravely ill and died. Giudo was heartbroken by her death and took his own life close to her grave. In the note he left behind, he asked to be buried next to Vittoria.

The heroine of this romantic but tragic love story is considered to be the best known 19th century poet in Italy, and you don’t have to look far to see why Lake Trasimeno inspired so much of her work.

Workshops – with the occasional pheasant

Sometimes, when I take the big iron key and turn it in the lock, I have to pinch myself … are we really allowed to use this amazing old building for our writing workshops? It feels like trespassing.

The Priest’s House – or Bishop’s House, depending on whose translation you hear – has been standing empty and cobwebby for many years now, with just a few pieces of furniture on the ground floor. But oh, what furniture: the long oak table that we sit at once lived in the local school, way back in the days when children were still taught on the island. Mariapia, owner of our hotel, remembers it well. She runs her hand along its surface, telling me how she did all her lessons sitting at this very table. Then she comes back to today and puts a big plate of pastries on it for our coffee break.

WP - workshop building at back

The narrow doors that open onto the garden are even more impressive, fastened in place with all manner of old locks and bolts. A long iron rod slots into two holes at either side of the doorway, and easing it out sends crumbs of plaster spilling to the floor. Then it’s time to push the doors open. Light floods in, sending the local pheasants scattering over the grass to the lake.

We’re so privileged to have somewhere this atmospheric all to ourselves. It’s all thanks to Isola del Libro, the local cultural organisation, keepers of the big iron key. They just love us being here, putting the house to such good use. They don’t even mind us picking the occasional handful of walnuts and bashing them open on the wall. Every time I turn that rusty key in the lock, it’s like the adventure begins all over again.

Why Isola Maggiore?

TreviIt’s a long story – involving a monastery, seafood risotto, and a fair amount of serendipity – but I first discovered Isola Maggiore a couple of years ago … and as soon as I set foot on it, I was hooked.  This little bit of heaven had been waiting for me all along.

Life that year had been like one of those snow globes. You know the feeling? Everything swirling around, so that you can’t see anything clearly.  But on Isola Maggiore, all that mad fluttering magically settled. I’d  only gone across for an afternoon visit, but in the first hour I knew it was a very special place. I kicked off my sandals and swished my feet in the lake, making my own Trevi type promise:  “If I dip my toes in here,” I told myself, “I’ll be back.”

Here and there – in the ice cream shop, the hilltop church, the lace museum – I saw small cards, advertising a photography blog, run by a Belgian man who’d retired to the island 20 yrs ago.  While I was drinking a Peroni overlooking the lake,  turning one of these little cards over and over in my hand, I had a ‘lightbulb moment’. I emailed the photographer from my phone. I’d fallen in love with the island, I told him, and just knew I had to write there. Somehow.

The next day, I found myself on the ferry back across the lake, already feeling at home. During the next couple of hours – and involving generous amounts of caffe, olives and pistachios – I was introduced by my Belgian host to several of the island’s 17 residents, including Silvia, who owns the gelateria, and Mariapia, owner of the island’s only hotel, Da Sauro. Before I knew it, we had a plan … and the rest, as they say, is history.

When I’m wandering along the lake shore, heading to where St Francis slept on a rock, I always stop for a moment at my own little Trevi and smile. Never underestimate the power of those lightbulb moments … Sometimes they lead you back to a secret island.

Glynis

 

 

Irish lace … on an Italian island?

WP - Signora Benini making lace
Anna Benini making lace on Isola Maggiore

You could be forgiven for thinking Isola Maggiore’s tourist office was … well, just a tourist office. But take a closer look and up the stone stairs you’ll find the Museo di Merletto. Quiet and understated, this museum is home to some of the most exquisite Irish lace around.
The vast building that dominates the island was once the Convent of the Order of the Friars Minor. When the Guglielmi family bought it in the late 19th century, they extended it into a grand castle … and grand castles need beautiful furnishings.
Marquise Elena Guglielmi, the daughter of the family, had been thinking of ways by which the daughters of the local fishermen could earn money. She came up with the idea of crochet lace, punto da Irlanda (Irish stitch), which had become very fashionable again.  In 1904 Elena set up a lace school on Isola Maggiore and brought several specialist teachers over from Ireland. A far cry from spinning hemp and mending nets, creating this exquisite lace was an extremely delicate art. The girls worked with the thinnest of metal hooks, using thread so fine it was barely thicker than a strand of their hair. One of the islanders who learned this complex technique, Elvira Tosetti de Sanctis, went on to become a renowned lacemaker and she continued to teach punta da Irlanda for many years.
The lace making school was a resounding success, doubling its number of pupils, and meeting the great demand for lace items of the very highest quality. By learning these complex skills, the girls were also able to create their own beautiful trousseaus.  The Guglielmi family were well placed in society, and their island Villa – with its exquisite lace tablecloths and napkins – often attracted noble ladies not only from nearby Perugia but also from Florence and Rome. Lace from Isola Maggiore became much sought after.
Sadly, all good things come to an end. Lake Trasimeno slowly became more and more shallow, making it increasingly difficult for the noble ladies’ boats to visit the island. Eventually, the Giuglielmi family left, and in 1930 the lace school closed.

But today, we can enjoy its legacy, and marvel at the stunning work that Isola Maggiore proudly displays in its Lace Museum.  It is, of course, on the Via Guglielmi, in the heart of the village.  And if you pass Signora Benini, quietly making lace outside her home, be sure to say Buongiorno and admire her work … she was once a pupil at the school.