Spas and LifestyleWednesday, March 28
A novel retreat
Relaxing outside the dining room and lounge at the Hill
Last updated at 10:20AM, January 7 2011 Qi Gong, a family-like community vibe and the beautiful landscape aid a quest for the muse in Central Italy
In his excellent book On Writing the best-selling author Stephen King describes an ideal writing community. It's a fairy-tale place in the woods where each writer has a little cabin, food prepared for them and peace and quiet for an afternoon nap. In the evening the fledgling writers gather to share dinner and drink wine in front of the fire.
King could have been describing the Hill that Breathes' new writing course in Central Italy. Enticingly named "Finish (or Start) Your Book" this was a ten-day retreat, so what with the travelling, settling in, and a day off for a walk in the mountains or cultural and retail browsing in nearby Urbino, you really got a full week for writing.
There were 12 of us. Eleven women, aged from their mid-20s to mid 60s, a tutor (Claire Gillman, a freelance writer and journalist specialising in health), and me.
I knew a bit about what to expect. Run by two former advertising creatives with an interest in New Age philosophies, the Hill has had its fair share of press coverage describing its kick-back attitude to well structured retreat weeks in a beautiful setting. Its infamous "F*** It" courses and literature are well known to regular retreaters.
We soon settled in to a daily routine punctuated by three superb buffet meals. The kitchen team, led by Bente, a Danish woman who came to Italy in the 1970s, performed near miracles with vegetarian Italian fare. After breakfast we headed into the woods to the biodome (imagine half a giant golf ball with a wooden floor) for about 45 minutes of Qi Gong exercises "to get the energy flowing, release the tension of not writing and loosen up our creativity". It felt good. The gently flowing yet vigorous movements were meditative and manageable for someone who struggles with yoga.
Most of us then spent the day writing (alone in our rooms or in the shared living room) on laptops. We'd break for lunch and Chinese green tea or coffee, take walks (up the hill for panoramic views stretching to the Apennines or down through the truffle laden woods to the river), lounge in hammocks reading and talk by the fire in the shared hub by the kitchen.
At about 5pm each day we gathered around the dining table for a 90-minute writing class. This was largely a series of basic, timed writing exercises exploring scene setting, authorial voice and story telling. We then shared our writing with each other, which was invariably met with near universal approval (King notes in his book that this is not helpful but it was necessary encouragment for us). As many of us were at the stage of writing as therapy, processing personal trauma in words, several of the stories were raw, personal and poignant, and moved the group to tears. The Mills & Boon exercise, however, stimulated laughing fits. At the end of each session we'd crack open bottles of local wine (including a rose frizzante, which cost extra but were very reasonably priced) and sit down together for dinner. We soon began to feel like a large family.
The whole gentle pace of the week, the lack of distraction and the autumnal landscape created a splendid space both mentally and physically to buckle down to a creative writing project. The season suited the course - had it been summer we would have been tempted to pass the days by the pool. We would chat about our work with each other and Gillman was always on hand for valuable one-to-one tuition.
Accommodation is in suitably simple rooms, shared with one other in most cases, all part of, or just 30 yards away from, the main restored farmhouse. There were lots of little touches that added something special to the stay such as the bowl of warm roasted chestnuts put out with afternoon tea, the smooth concrete floors in the rooms with underground heating and the delicious healthy food (did I mention the food?). On the final evening the staff, who were incredibly helpful and always on hand, made and cooked us fresh tagliatelle with white truffles, which we'd bought from a nearby hunter.