We ran on to the plane and rushed to our seats. I took a deep breath, looked around, and settled into my seat. Within minutes, the doors closed, and the plane was pushing back. I looked out the window and waved a silent goodbye to Milan. The lights dimmed, I plugged in my earphones. Upon hearing the sounds of the first English-speaking music, a big smile came across my face. “Wow, what an experience. We are so blessed.”
Rewind to about 6 months prior. I was working with a group of women in my Pilates studio when one asked me about travelling and retreats. My clients know that I travel a lot, and, most of the time, to off the beaten path kinds of places. I went to Medellin, Colombia when I was sixteen years old, to Seoul, South Korea in my mid-twenties, Hawaii more frequently than most. We were talking about Yoga retreats in strange places, and one of my clients asked,”Are there any Pilates retreats?”. I had to think about it at first, but soon remembered that there was a Pilates & Cooking Retreat center in Piedmont, Italy, near Asti. The room of 5 ladies became instantly quiet, and all of them then said at the same time,”If you book it, we will go.” Serendipitously, and long story short, I booked the trip that week, and I hosted a Pilates and Cooking Retreat in Mombaruzzo, Piedmont, Italy in June of 2014.
I had never been to Europe. I had never hosted a retreat. I had never tried to speak Italian. All of those things and more were pretty large obstacles as I planned a week-long cultural experience on the other side of the planet from my home. But, hey, I’m an Aries. I go in head first, right?
Of course, I chose a region of Italy that is quiet and rural – far from the busy streets of Milan, Florence or Rome. Not many Americans travel to this part, and many locals there do not speak English. Very little is written on this region, or at least accessible to me via the internet or travel services, so I felt I was flying a bit blind upon planning this retreat. What I did know, however, was that this region was known for exceptional food, marvelous wine, and happily the home of the slow food movement. I was able to book a van for us to drive around (a 4-speed, 10 seater van), and was ready for a very cultural experience.
In my research, I found the perfect venue for our trip – a 17th Century restored guesthouse called La Villa Hotel. Owned and operated by Chris and Nicola Norton and their two daughters Kelly and Gemma, this English-owned villa is a hidden gem among the vineyards. The house was more beautiful than the internet pictures ever showed, and the care and service that we received was just amazing. The buildings are classically gorgeous and the gardens were filled with numerous blooming flowers. You could smell the lavender growing as you strolled through the brick paths.
During our retreat, we spent the mornings in the garden or poolside, where I taught Pilates and stretched our travel-ridden bodies. Following our garden session, we would stroll inside to enjoy a standard European breakfast (which was completely not standard and new for all of us), which included a variety of breads, pastry, juice, cheeses, meats, farm fresh eggs, homemade yogurt, and made-to-order cappuccinos. After our morning meal, we would head back to our rooms to clean up for the day’s adventures. The guest rooms were unique, as each room was different from the next. Some were spacious, some were smaller, but all were perfect in their own way. Our room featured an incredible clawed bathtub that looked through a window over the vineyards, and La Villa provided the most beautiful shampoo and body wash made locally from fresh grown lavender.
La Villa provided us with our Culinary experiences, as well. Their own Chef Charlie Mozley led us through two culinary experiences, as well as cooked three meals for us, that I can say changed the way I eat forever. He has a wealth of experience in preparing great tasting, fresh, authentic home-made Italian food – all with locally sourced ingredients. Charley was an excellent and very patient teacher, coaching the retreat ladies first through a lesson of pasta making. We all learned how to make Piedmontese style pasta, as well as make all kinds of stuffed pastas, including an egg yolk ravioli. Our second experience was, by far, the favorite of the group. We were sent to the market with Charlie and Nicola, the owner, to locally source our ingredients for class. With 8 people in tow, each pair received a specific ingredient to shop for, like cheeses, hard meats, veggies, and desserts. We were given a timeline, “just like the Amazing Race!” It was quite an adventure to shop the market, and upon our return, we made salads and snacks to eat for lunch, while Charlie gave us a risotto demonstration. In addition to our lunch lessons, we ate three dinners prepared by Chef Charlie, and all three were the best meals we ate on the trip. From swordfish, to steak, to grilled veggies, to white chocolate soup, my taste buds will never be the same. My favorite part of our trip was eating good food and drinking good wine. As silly as it sounds from a fitness professional, nothing I have ever eaten at home has touched the quality of food that we ate in Italy, specifically at La Villa. It really goes to show the quality of organic, locally sourced, raw, unprocessed food.
On a side-note, before I step away from La Villa, I have to tell you that the hotel also features quite an extensive wine collection and is withing walking distance to a well-established local winery and grappa distillery.
Our adventures outside of the hotel were a mix of planned and uplanned events. We strolled through the town of Aqui Terme, a city founded during the Roman period that served as a wellness center. It’s natural hot spring waters have been a source of healing for centuries. We took a dip in the warm water at a local spa, and enjoyed learning history at an ancient Aquaduct.
We also were able to experience local flair with walks into small towns, dinners in local establishments, World Cup game watching in sports pubs, and history reenacted at the Siege of Canelli Festival. For me personally, the Festival was another highlight, as the entire town of Canelli dresses in period costume, and awaits the battle between Alba and Asti to commence. Troops ascend through the walled-in city up to the castle where “fighting” begins. We were able to enjoy locally made wine, watch musicians play period instruments, watch cannons get shot, see some swordfights, and even purchase flower crowns for our hair. Such fun!
As with every big experience in my life, I learned some big lessons, made some new friends, and experienced a part of the world that many will never see. Many of the ladies commented about how we did not see many other Americans for an entire week, and how we learned to speak some Italian while we were there. I feel lucky to have been able to experience ‘Real Italy’ and am blessed to have the opportunity to share it with a great group of ladies.
I am heading back to La Villa on June 19, 2015 for our next Pilates & Cooking Retreat. Would you like to join us on our next adventure? Click here for info. Grazie.