Write, retreat, refresh … Seven relaxing days on a little Italian island, with writing workshops led by a professional published tutor
This year’s retreat on the island was filled with sunny days, rich autumn colour and lots of laughter. We welcomed writers from the USA, Canada, the UK and Australia. Most arrived with no particular plans about what they might write. Seven days and four workshops later, everyone’s notebook or tablet was bursting with words and full of ideas.
There was the island’s mouth-watering food (and the tightening of waistbands!) and the irresistible ‘sunset hour’ … simply sitting with an Aperol Spritz and watching the sky slowly spreading its pinks and yellows above the distant hills.
Once again, the island was working its magic.
“It was great to be away from the madding crowds and traffic and live life at a different pace.” – Angela 2016
Sometimes we take a punt on an adventure and it really pays off!
I was thinking about what sort of holiday I would like, when I saw the advert for Glynis’s writing retreat. That’s it! That’s just what I want to do. My writing experience was limited to a rough draft of a short story and a few poems. But there was something appealing about the adventure of finding my way by train and boat to an island in the middle of Italy and seeing whether I had any talent for writing.
Glynis provided an encouraging, safe and fun place to explore writing potential. Her short, playful exercises help stimulate creativity and there is a good balance between workshops, time to rest and do one’s own thing, with lovely treats mixed in. These included an afternoon trip round the island in a boat and prosecco aperitifs one evening.
Mariapia, the hotel owner, is very welcoming and the dinners made by her mamma are gorgeous. Even now I am salivating at the thought of Pasta Bolognese! Together with a large glass of Merlot and good conversation, the evenings were a special way to end the day.
It was great to be away from the madding crowds and traffic and live life at a different pace for a while.
Thanks to Glynis and her capacity to critique in a constructive, kind and helpful way, I am now working on a second draft of my short story.
– Angela, May 2016
Michelangelo and Maurizio stand on the harbour with their fishing rods, waiting. The sun is just starting to dip and there’s that usual anticipation of a sky softly streaked with pink. I’m back on Isola Maggiore for the May retreat.
Next afternoon, the writers begin to arrive, stepping off the ferry with rucksacks, cases and bags, ready to stop the clock for a week. The days are filled with everything from writing to wandering, from reading to reflection. There’s a lot of gazing at the lake and deep, deep sighs of contentment.
The morning workshops go organic – we span from Angela who’s new to writing to Joe who’s on a novel – and pages quickly fill with plots, people, bubbling ideas. At eleven, cappuccini and fresh croissants arrive, then off we go again.
On two evenings, Giulia comes over from Abruzzo, here to lead aperitivo time sessions in conversational Italian. We drink prosecco, laugh a lot, and head for dinner ready to practice the phrases we’ve just learned.
Dinner goes off piste. Mariapia waves the menu aside, offering us fish fresh from the lake, swirls of steaming pasta and – her Mamma’s speciality – delicious salsa di persico. The spinaci is the best we’ve ever tasted – how does she do that? – and we can’t resist her tiramisu.
It’s a whole week of slowing right down, of taking time to savour food and new friendships, of exploring ways into writing and sharing words. For me, it’s the pleasure of knowing I’ve been of help, of hearing Angela say “I’m just so happy.”
“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 gently lapping.”
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 gently 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
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.
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.
It’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.
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.
I’m based in Assisi this week, an hour from Isola Maggiore, because the island’s albergo Da Sauro is still closed until April, but I headed over to say hello and round off a few arrangements for the May retreat.
About five of us got off the train at Passignano sul Lago, including a couple of young guys from Japan, with camping gear on their backs. The one with a Nikon camera thudding against his chest asked me in Italian if I knew where the best place was to take photos? In my creaky Italian I explained that I was English but that I could definitely tell him the perfect place – Isola Maggiore, no contest. ‘Just follow me!’ We swapped our Italian for English and headed off to the jetty together, with me feeling like I should be holding up a sunflower on a stick.
They were studying Italian language for six months, Nikon guy told me (his friend spoke little English) and had been told in Perugia that they should head to Lago Trasimeno, because it was so beautiful. They’d never heard of it. No surprise there … Like most other people I’ve spoken to, they’d heard of Como and Garda, and probably been, but Lago Trasimeno? I told them about its quiet magic, about its absence of cars, its tiny population, and how I’d come across it completely by chance eight years ago. (A very long story, involving a monastery.)
It was my destiny, Nikon guy said, some of the best experiences were found tucked away in the smaller places, in the history of a landscape, in the stories of its people. Absolutely. This young man was on my wavelength. And now, he said, I had passed the destiny on to them, because they would never have known about Isola Maggiore and would have stayed on the mainland. Yet my own destiny would continue to grow, he went on, because as a writer I needed somewhere beautiful to write the most beautiful words. He wasn’t to know my writing was more bleak than beautiful, but still.
When we reached the jetty we said goodbye, because I was heading for a cappuccino and they were off to ask about camp sites. I sat watching the lake, waiting for the ferry and thinking about our few minutes’ chat. Who would they be passing the baton to? And where would it be? Back in Perugia … Japan? It could be anywhere. And it could be tomorrow, it could be eight years.
A humbling experience this morning. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but brought along my olive branch from Isola Maggiore – slightly wizened since I was there on the last retreat week – and joined the small crowd outside the Temple of Minerva in Assisi to have it blessed. As the bells rang 9.30 (nine heavy chimes plus two dings for the half hour) the short service began. The priest, dressed head to toe in bright reds and gold, invited us all to raise our olive branches. Mine looked quite sorry for itself by comparison, but no matter … it was from the island, and therefore very special.
Then, time to process up the narrow winding street to San Rufino, headed by men laden with sheaves of palms. I didn’t go into the church for the full service, but opted instead to go and write in the small museum garden in the sun.
On Isola Maggiore, services are kept for the Easter weekend itself, when a priest travels across on the ferry specially. But the handful of islanders will be marking this Palm Sunday in their own quiet way, and a little bit of Isola Maggiore has been blessed.
2015 Retreat Participant Biddy Unsworth tells us why Isola Maggiore is the perfect place for a writing retreat.
Our first glimpse of the island from the ferry and a growing excitement after the journey to Italy.
A taxi, a plane, a coach, a train, a taxi and then the ferry and our journey’s end in sight. As we came in to the jetty we saw Glynis waving from the shore. A week later and the same in reverse, waving to those who were to catch a later ferry, wiping away a tear. The magic of this wonderful place, which in just a week had got right under my skin; I did not want to leave.
So, what is it about Isola Maggiore that is so special? Yes, it is quiet (except for the pheasants), yes it is small and old and Italian, yes the food is wonderful, yes, the people are welcoming but there is something else. A deep seated sense of history and of place, the olive trees on the hills, the pathways that all lead to the church, the water all around and a slow, slow pace of life.
Then, of course, there were the workshops. I had never done anything like this before so I was a little apprehensive – would I be brave enough to share anything I wrote? I relaxed quickly as Glynis led us gently through well planned activities that got us writing straight away and I did find it easy to read out what I had written as everyone was so open and supportive. I looked forward to each workshop – what would it be today? A pair of lace gloves, some old postcards, a description of a walk in a garden, a piece of writing by a brilliant author, all served as starting points for our writing about characters, place, dialogue. We discussed where we wrote and where we got our inspiration from. We tried our hands at styles well away from our own. By lunchtime each day I was buzzing with ideas.
The afternoon walks and the evening meals (with a large glass of wine) complemented the workshops and there was time to reflect and write as well. Sitting in a garden, under a medlar tree, surrounded by yellow autumn flowers and looking out across the lake, how could one not be inspired?
As the week progressed, my ideas developed and I think my writing did too. There was something about the slow, quiet pace of the island that settled into me more and more and this helped me develop my ideas. This was a retreat in the real sense of the word, time away from my busy city life, time to take stock, time to think, time to write.
I will go back and I will always carry the memory with me.