The dictionary definition of ‘retreat’ is ‘to withdraw from action’; ‘to withdraw to seclusion or shelter; and ‘to alter one’s opinion about something’. My week at The Watermill, Posara with Jo Parfitt ticked all of these boxes.
Having failed to find a buyer for my business, The Woolly Pedlar, and having worked for several months with potential buyers, drawing up contracts with my solicitor, only to have potential buyers withdraw at the eleventh hour, I arrived in Tuscany exhausted and ready for a break. I admit to having been nervous and hesitant at first, never having joined a group on holiday before, let alone a writing group. My husband and I are seasoned solo, independent travellers. Being met at Pisa airport, by a man with a sign was a new experience, as was being whisked to my destination without having to find a bus or haggle with a taxi driver. (Memories of arriving in Marrakesh and haggling over the fare of a taxi ride with packets of Marlboro. )
My bedroom was more of a suite than a room, with the most sumptuous leopard print settee, which came in very handy for elevating my ankles, swollen by the flight and heat. A quick unpack of my things, and I went out to explore the grounds and meet my fellow writers.
Being an ancient watermill, we didn’t have to go far to find a babbling brook, and a chance to cool off. Valerie and Maggie here, were getting to know each other whilst cooling their feet in the river. Marie meanwhile had waded across to find a swimming spot. Later that afternoon, Bill took us for a wander around the grounds, and through the amazing bamboo forest. Pockets of shade and tranquillity abounded, and sun loungers and seats offered tempting sunbathing spots. Siestas were clearly going to be amazing!
There were so many beautiful spots around The Watermill to read, write or doze in the sun. The garden was filled with vibrant flowers, and the gardeners worked hard to make sure every spot was bursting with colour. Terracotta window boxes and planters filled every nook and cranny with beauty. The vine terrace provided shade from the hot sun and made the perfect place for our group to gather to chat, write, and listen to each other’s stories.
Drinks each night were also on the vine terrace, a wonderful spot to gather in dappled shade and get to know each other. Karsten and Anastasia served us each night, and all drinks and wine included in the price of the week, which flowed as freely as the river. One evening we were entertained by a lovely young duo, who sat under the rose trellis while we sipped our aperitivi. Had I just died and gone to heaven?
The week was interspersed with visits to beautiful Tuscan villages, with writing tasks to be completed, and meals out at superb local restaurants. I loved how The Watermill supported local businesses, and it felt great to be out and about in the locality, practising my Italian where I could. The sight of Verrucola took my breath away as we arrived, with its hilltop castle and ancient streets. I was delighted to wander around them and hear Bill tell a little of the history of the town.
After a delicious lunch of homemade pasta with the best fresh tomato sauce I have ever tasted, a superb beef and tomato stew then fresh fruit salad, we sat under the cool of umbrellas by the stream, and wrote our thoughts as they came into our head. Here are mine, they are just a stream of consciousness, unrefined and unedited:
Verrucola I feel I have come home. This country is in my blood. I was not meant to live in the cold, grey north-east of England. Despite my swollen ankles, I love this heat. I tip my head back to greet the warmth of the sun and I feel alive. There is music all around. The colours sing, from the fiery red of the geraniums bringing passion and vibrancy, to the deep rich cobalt blues of the skies bringing depth and calm. Terracotta tiles tumble down the hillside and nestle one behind the other on a mish mash of roofs. The stone is ancient, what stories they could tell of old, if only they could speak. What have these stones witnessed? What knights and ladies of old have trodden these alleyways, ducked on horseback under arches and crossed their bridges? The sound coming from the conversations of a group of Italian men is like music to my ears. I want to bathe in Italy and let its passion and vibrancy fill me. I have arrived. I am home”
Day two, and after our class with Jo Parfitt, our tutor, on ‘A Sense Of Place’, we were taken to the little town of Fivizzano, where the market was in full swing. Some of our group made a bee line to the stalls selling linen, and we have a lovely photo of ‘The Linen Ladies of Lunigiana’, which sounds like the title of a novel if ever I heard one!
Leaving the linen ladies to make their purchases, and feeling I needed some time by myself, I headed off to explore the beautifully tranquil streets of Fivizzano. Rounding a corner, I was met with the most wonderful view of rural Tuscany, so green and verdant, with rolling hills, but with the sharp rocky points of the mountains beyond. I have a significant birthday coming up soon, and I made a promise to myself to return to this corner of Tuscany and explore it further.
Returning to the market, I paused by the stall selling meats and cheeses. I was drawn at first to a large bag with ‘Funghi Porcini’ and muttered to myself as I tried to work out the Italian for ‘100g of porcini mushrooms please’. I hestitated, stood back, and listen to the fast paced chatter of the Iocals, I reckon I had it, ” cento grammes funghi porcini, per favore” Bingo! I’d done it!! Not at all easy, and the piecing blue eyes of the very handsome Italian man serving me made my heart flutter. I returned later to the stall, and made further purchases before retiring to a nearby gelateria to write up my experiences with the Italian men at the meat and cheese stall. Rather than write it all out here, and made this already lengthy blog even longer, I’ve written it up in another post. Click here to read “The Salami Boys of Fivizzano”
On Wednesday we were given the day off from writing, and the bulk of the group chose to visit Lucca. I love Lucca, and feel it needs to prefix, ‘lovely’ Lucca, but having already visited it with my daughter a couple of years ago, I thought I would plump to go to Cinque Terre on the coast with Maggie and Trevor. Don’t get me wrong, the group was a wonderful mix of some very lovely people, but I was glad of the chance to just go out for the day with two others. I find the whole mass tourist group thing visiting a place slightly embarrassing. Everything at The Watermill is included in the price, all drinks, food and even our train tickets to Cinque Terre. Karsten, one of the staff at the mill came with us to the train station, and made sure we were on the right train. We had been told that Cinque Terre would be busy, but that was somewhat of an understatement. We were squashed on the train like sardines, but fortunately the journey was brief, and we were soon at the stunning beach of Monterosso al Mare. There are, as the name of the place suggests, five small villages along the coast, with Monterosso being the furthest, and final stop by train. the plan was to catch the boat back to Riomaggio, stopping off en route to have lunch at Vernazza.
Maggie and I were kicking ourselves for not popping a cossie in our bags as the water looked inviting. Skinny dipping was out of the question, but like true Brits we rolled up our shorts and went in for a paddle. All we needed was a knotted hankie for Trevor, who was sitting patiently on the beach while we put the world to rights with our feet cooling in the clear waters of the Mediterranean.
The boat is a great option, and up on deck there was a lovely breeze, and the views stunning, with vine covered terraces and tumbling houses painted in bright colours. We had a superb, leisurely wine fuelled lunch in Vernazza, and then caught the boat along to the final village of Riomaggio. It was boiling hot by now, and we sat in the shade of a boat house eating gelato. It was cherry season in Italy, and being a fan of seasonal eating, I wasn’t disappointed with my choice. We headed home by train, having had a wonderful day.
Thursday morning’s class, ‘Writing on a Theme’ prepared us for our task of ‘Finding your Plot’ which we were to work on in the cool shade and tranquility of the Carmine Monastery. Having lost the plot several years ago, I was beginning to feel that with the help of my writing, and the wonderful journey I was travelling, previously as ‘The Woolly Pedlar’, and more recently and with the help of therapy and now with the support of Jo and my fellow writers, I was finally beginning to find mine. I had gone on this writers course about memoir writing, with thoughts of writing my own life story. What came to me that day, sitting in the monastery, was that I no longer felt the urge to write my history. I no longer needed to revisit the past and all its pain. That night I had a dream. I was stepping out of a dress and leaving it on the floor. It was time to move on.
I have come home, inspired by my time in Tuscany to write a book, but not the book I had set out to write. Following discussions with Bill, our host, Jo and the others on the course, I have decided to write a guide to using social media for creative folk, interspersed with stories from my life as The Woolly Pedlar. Jo helped me to find my voice. She said I could ‘write funny’, and this book will be far from a dry ‘how to guide’. It will I suppose, be part memoir, but also a useful guide to using social media from an older woman, not some young tecchie guy. Hopefully this will be something many creatives will be able to relate to. I taught myself, and the hard work I put into my social media, building up relationships with my followers, helped The Woolly Pedlar grow from a cottage industry to a global brand. I would love to share my knowledge, and help others show their work to a waiting global audience, and in turn convert those views into sales.
If you would like more information on this, and be kept up to date about the book and any subsequent courses that might come as a result of it, then feel free to sign up to my newsletter.
I would like to offer thanks to Bill and Lois our hosts, and to Jo our wonderful tutor. I have made some great friends on this course, and the support of my fellow writers as I went through what was at times an emotional journey, was phenomenal. We did of course have many laughs too!
They say that blogs should be brief, and my web guy, Terry, says they should only take ten minutes to write. However, there was so much to say this, and so much more I could have said, and many more photos to show you. If you’d like to see more of my photos do hop over to my Instagram (@suereedwrites) or Facebook accounts, and scroll back through the posts where you’ll find more. I’ll leave you with a link to the story I wrote about how I came a cropper wearing this linen dress on Friday’s excursion to Monte dei Bianchi for lunch at a gourmet restaurant. It’s called ‘A Ripping Yarn’.
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I’m now going to get on with the task of writing my first book, so without further ado, I’ll say Ciao!