On the edge? Visit the Hill

Louise Scodie samples a holistic retreat in Italy to put her life back on track

April 15, 2010
The Renaissance buildings of Urbino, a UNESCO World Heritage Site

The Renaissance buildings of Urbino, a UNESCO World Heritage Site

Utter the words "holistic retreat" to most people and visions of lentil eating, sandal-wearing, superannuated hippies inevitably pop into their heads. But near Urbino, in Italy's south-west, the Hill that Breathes is a holistic (and, conveniently for the kashrut observant, vegetarian) retreat which is a lot less earnest and a lot more fun than you might expect from the genre.

Indeed, the name of the course - cover your children's ears, now - the "F*** It Week", is probably a clue.

Having spent a few months watching my life accrue more tension than the cables on the Clifton Suspension Bridge, I welcomed a chance to combine a proper Italian holiday (sunshine, beaches, ice-cream, pizza, and a beautiful hill town), with the chance to - if not exactly change my life - attempt to steer it into
calmer waters.

On the first morning, I found myself sitting in a plastic dome set amongst the breathtakingly lush green hills. Around 20 of us lounged on yoga mats or cushions, some suffering hangovers from the previous night's session at the pay-as-you-go bar - another happy sign that this is no retreat for navel-gazing nerds.

John Parkin, the cyber-guru who founded the Hill with his wife, Gaia, explained the objectives of the retreat: "We'll be doing some stuff that some of you will think is absolute rubbish. But after this week, two of you will leave your partners, two of you will meet someone and start a relationship and three of you will jack in your jobs." Hmm, a little more to think about than the usual holiday dilemma of where to eat dinner.

Getting there

A week at the Hill that Breathes (www.thehillthatbreathes.com) costs £700, rising to £800 at peak period. Price includes accommodation with all meals and classes, but not flights or alcoholic drinks. Ryanair (www.ryanair.com)flies from Stansted to Ancona from £34 return. Airport transfers available from around £33 each way

Sessions are optional but attending them all enables you to maximise the experience. Depending on the weather - spanning beautiful sunshine and dramatic thunderstorms - we settled either outdoors, at the top of the hill or in that extraordinary dome twice a day. John assured us that it was fine to lie down, chill out or even have a kip during sessions if we wanted to. Welcome words indeed to a seasoned afternoon napper like me.

Each day a different theme, such as "expression", "judgement" and "acceptance", was explored, often with "partner work", structured chat and dancing about to loud music - all entertaining ways to get to grips with our new-found approach to life. I can happily report that "expression" and "acceptance" are good and "judgement" is bad. You might think I could have stayed at home and worked that out for myself, but (A) I wouldn't have got a suntan, and (B) to get some objectivity on your life, it helps to remove yourself from it for a bit.

Stretching and qi gong (a cousin of t'ai chi) exercises each morning also helped us to relax. The results were so effective that they would have been startling had I been tense enough to be startled. By day three, I felt like melted Lurpak.

That blissful state was also thanks to other treats, such as reiki and massage , which cost extra but were worth paying for; masseuses Manuela and Patrizia, seemed to intuitively know which bits of my soul needed soothing.

The timetable is impeccably planned, giving you a whole day off exactly when you need it in the middle of the week-long course - though you are free to come and go as you please if you don't mind missing sessions.

The hill in "The Hill that Breathes", is very high and remote, meaning that taxis are the most sensible way to reach Fano and Urbino, the two closest and most popular destinations. Alternatively, you could hire a car, but the roads are so windy that the driving is likely to undo all that relaxation.

My first excursion was to Urbino. Architecturally beautiful and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the town is full of steep inclines, so sturdy shoes are an imperative. The walled city has enough spectacular buildings and Roman history to occupy you for a couple of days. Its most stunning is the Palazzo Ducale, a Renaissance palace and home to the Galleria Nazionale delle Marche, with a magnificent collection of Renaissance paintings.

For the ingredients of a traditional Italian beach holiday, you need to head to the gorgeous little beach at Fano, an hour's drive from the Hill. Tranquil and popular with families, the resort is dotted with charming, brightly painted beach huts. Hiring a lounger and parasol is inexpensive, and the sea shelves so gently that you can walk out for miles. I bought a vast ice-cream from a gelateria on Corso Giacomo Matteotti, and then window-shopped in the gorgeous boutiques of the nearby streets.

Generally, free time at the Hill is spent by the pool or around the big dining tables: and for those who observe kashrut, one of the most appealing aspects is that meals - impeccably prepared by resident chef Giusy - are vegetarian and delicious.

Accommodation is rustic but comfortable, with most people opting to share a room in the converted farmhouses, though singles are available at a supplement. And it is this spirit of sharing - a room, a meal, a glass or three of prosecco -where everything you learn at the Hill starts to make sense.

Last updated: 5:46pm, July 19 2010