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.
My week on Isola Maggiore was restorative and enhancing in ways I didn’t expect. I made huge strides with my novel; I made seven new friends; and I fell in love with a new corner of Italy. I commend the writing retreat for anyone, regardless of where you are on the creative road or what genre you write.
Go. Have an Aperol spritz. Have two (they are quite strong, maybe stop at two). Admire the pheasants. Laugh. Tell stories.
Perugia – the impressive capital of Umbria – is well-known for its arts and culture and definitely worth a visit. It’s just half an hour by train from Passignano sul Trasimeno, where the ferry goes over to Isola Maggiore. What’s more, it has its own airport a short bus/taxi drive away, where RyanAir flights arrive from Stansted. So, if you’re looking to ‘bookend’ your retreat week with a day or two elsewhere, Perugia makes an ideal place.
It’s also easy to make a day trip there from the island on our ‘no workshop Wednesday’ and spend the afternoon exploring the art gallery, or meandering around the shops. Perhaps simply sit and watch the world go by? Perugia spreads across a huge hill top and down across the valley, with no shortage of cafés and restaurants to sit outside and enjoy the amazing views.
Perugia dates back to the Etruscan period and has an ancient university, along with a fine arts academy, a conservatoire, and a foreign language school attracting students from all over the world. Not surprisingly – this being Italy! – there’s even the ‘University of Tastes,’ a national centre for vocational training in food.
One of Perugia’s big annual events is Eurochocolate, a festival that takes place in October, when the streets are lined with the most tempting stalls imaginable and the smell of pure chocolate wafts all around. This festival evolved largely because of local company Perugina, whose Baci (‘kisses’) chocolates, wrapped in their distinctive dark blue and silver, are widely exported. When you come to Italy, you see Baci everywhere, including single chocolates piled high by café cash desks.
Perugia also has a weekly flea market, with stall after stall of all kinds of weird and wonderful things. Allow plenty of time for browsing though … you’ll find everything from vintage handbags and jewelry to nineteenth century door knockers, chaise longues and chandeliers!
‘Where should I fly to?’ This is the question I am asked the most. The answer is, you can take your pick … Pisa, Perugia or Rome. Or you can go the whole way from the UK by train and indulge in a two day trip, taking in Zurich and crossing the Alps – but that’s a whole other answer!
My favourite way is Rome. It’s such a contrast, flying into Italy’s biggest airport, with all its throngs of travellers and then, by late afternoon, finding myself on Isola Maggiore – no traffic, nobody rushing, just peace and tranquillity..
Rome has two airports, but the one I would advise is Italy’s equivalent of Heathrow: Fiumicino.
My flight from Yorkshire lands just before noon. From there, I take the non stop Leonardo Express from the airport into the city centre, which runs frequently and only takes half an hour. There’s a cheaper train, but I’m always too buzzing with excitement to choose that one.
When the Express pulls into Roma Termini station, I head for a light lunch. Like London King’s Cross, Termini is big and bustling and has plenty of places to get a coffee, a panino and, of course, to people watch … I’m in Italy, joining in the national pastime! Then I head for the train that will take me north east to Lake Trasimeno.
One of the many things I love about Italian trains – apart from their low prices – is the fact that each service has its own number and usually leaves from the same platform each time. I always remember to validate my ticket before I board though – there’s a fine if your ticket’s not stamped.
Within minutes of leaving Rome, the train’s soon plunging in and out of about half a dozen tunnels through the city’s famous hills. Then it’s time to just sit and watch the gorgeous landscape go by for a couple of hours. In May, the tracks are lined by mile after mile of poppies. By now, I’ve usually slipped my shoes off, and am sitting with a bottle of water in some kind of dream, smiling at washing hanging from balconies and the familiar creak of the train as it pulls into stations.
Gradually, deep wooded valleys give way to slopes of vines and the Umbrian hill towns, topped by churches. By the time we leave Magione, I almost have my nose pressed against the window, because I know that there’s a tunnel coming up. And on the other side of the tunnel, the lake.
Then I’m stepping down from the train at the shimmering little station of Passignano sul Lago. Just a few minutes walk round the corner is the ferry that will take me back across to Isola Maggiore. It’s around 4 o’clock by now, but who cares? Soon my watch and phone will barely get a glance – all that constant clock watching will be left behind. It’s time to check in at Da Sauro and relax with a drink by the lake.
“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
“We went to brush up our writing skills … It was magical. This retreat will centre your life” – Doreen, 2015
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 next year. You’ve no holiday booked and you’ve put writing off for what seems forever …
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 a 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 was like none I’d 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 I needed to get down on paper.
I sat, undisturbed for hours, just thinking and writing. No interruptions at all, other than the sounds of the island … The wind in the trees, birdsong and the lake 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. 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 and 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 to unwind and make you think differently about life.
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.
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.
Assisi from across the fields
Palm Sunday in Assisi
Assisi – Spring flowers for sale
A quiet place to write
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.