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For the past several years, as both a presenter and participant of creative and spiritual retreats, I’ve wrestled with the confines and constructs of collection time – that act of escaping to other zip codes for the purpose of pausing and reclaiming the weary soul. The shape of such experiences continues to evolve assuming a host of languages and labels. Yet despite the countless interpretations, I’ve continued to long for something more free range.
Must these experiences meet certain metrics in order to transform a person creatively or otherwise? Can we not further stretch the traditional confines of such experiences? Make room for some benefits? When the closest thing I could find to such a journey (a two-week arts immersion in Chianti) did not quite live up to its expectations, I was recently gifted the chance to test my thesis. This is the story of a personal quest for solitude and how reorientation helped reshape its capture.
A GOLDEN OPPORTUNITY TO CUSTOMIZE
In the plot twist, I found this wish unexpectedly granted. Yet in all honesty, at the time of the game change, things felt far from “shimmering”. I spend much of my days on the ready side. Travel out of the country was no exception.
I had put much thought and care into the expedition I had booked – craving the clearing time and opportunity to practice some yoga and art at my leisure. Being of Italian heritage, the idea of enjoying such a solo respite in the remote Tuscan countryside helped seal the decision for me. But after a long trek to my destination, for a host of reasons said “artist immersion” did not deliver that space in which to honor my intentions.
I gave myself an evening to pout, then onwards. Nearly $2000 in the hole for a roundtrip flight to Rome, suddenly solo (and homeless) for the next 12 nights and hoping to avoid much of a sustained interruption, I was left with little time to think (and re-think) my next move. Probably for the best. In those fleeting moments, a convenient truth swiftly surfaced.
A mere 22.7 miles away from me sat Florence, Tuscany’s capital city. Fueled by equal parts impulse and instinct, Day Two found me trading in the remote hills of Montespertoli for a fresh start in the Renaissance city. Yes, city…. city of millions of tourists on the cusp of the summer travel season.
In the amplification of our modern world, I crave silence. Treasure it. Its pursuit was much of what led me to travel twelve plus hours to Europe. I’m also an artist, and so it goes the switch is never off. The city of Florence and all its riches suddenly presented me with an irresistible opportunity. Its culture and piazzas and fabled history won out. If silence was what I was seeking, I would rally and find it there.
As I made peace and quiet the barometer for my detour, I was surprised at how rather naturally an itinerary, or path, appeared. Thank heavens for resources such as Trip Advisor! I managed to score as my home base Firenze’s historic Hotel Pendini, a reasonably priced lovely pensione in the heart of the city’s Piazza della Repubblica.
While the central location and the bustling piazza was any other traveler’s dream, four flights up, the inn offered someone like me a lovely oasis of tranquility. Its sun-splashed old-world parlor quickly proved to be a peaceful and productive setting in which to write or quietly contemplate – especially in the late morning hours when many of the guests were off property. As luck would also have it, housed within the hotel was Relax Firenze an independently owned boutique spa and healing center offering a wide menu of yoga, bodywork treatments, a Himalayan salt room and free guided meditation every late afternoon.
With a safe harbor to call my own and the city’s creative energy imprinting me at every turn, six days and nights in Florence proved to be incredibly nurturing over the course of my adventure’s first leg. Every piazza roamed, every paving stone navigated and every crooked step climbed imparted a sense of timelessness which began to gently sift into my creative process.
One factor that stood out for me related to the city’s soundscape. Not being so fluent in the language of the city your are touring can have its advantages. Loud is our universal volume thanks to technology, but I found my thoughts were much less yanked around when I was unable to decipher those thick layers of conversation. This allowed my creative threads to remain in my personal foreground.
Staying true to my intentions took some skillful curating and was not without (daily) effort. Field trips and other enhancements (all of which took place on foot) such as the following lent much to honoring my central mission of emptying the mind so as to see things more clearly…
The break of the day makes for a wonderful time to experience the Ponte Vecchio and all its majesty. With the sun making its ascent and the shops not yet open, the old bridge is a pleasure to slowly traverse and offers a symbolic reminder of life’s connectors.
There is nothing like the art of connecting to place to ground oneself. Extended visits to Florence’s wealth of chiesas (churches) and other houses of holy make ideal spaces for such exercises. The Church of Saint Felicity (Santa Felícita), often referred to as the oldest church in the city, was one such stop. Coupling a visit here with a wander through the nearby Piazza Santo Spirito makes for an easeful afternoon outing.
Located in the former Convent of the Oblate between Via dell’Oriuolo and Via Sant’Egidio, the Oblate Public Library is a cultural treasure in the heart of the city. The site also serves as a lovely step away for reading… or breathing.
For a date with beauty and a break from stone, the city’s Giardino Delle Rose (Rose Garden) houses a collection of roses, lemons, and other plants, as well as a Japanese garden. It contains nearly 400 varieties of roses for a total of about 1,200 plants and several seating areas to daydream. In the Rose Garden’s foothills lies the small village of San Niccolo. There awaits a sea of open space in the local osterias and enotecas, mostly unknown to the sea of group tours.
In season, Florence offers an abundance of opportunities for enjoying a meal outdoors. You have to rally to find those which don’t cater to WiFi fanatics, but those extra few lefts and rights can make all the difference. Over a late-afternoon lunch have a date with a book of poetry and indulge in the wide margins of an off-peak meal.
Quiet pockets can be uncovered in the busiest of settings… The Uffizi Gallery’s Gabinetto dei Disegni e delle Stampe tucked on the museum’s ground floor is a sweet escape from the museum’s crowded galleries – a perch to rest and process the museum’s riches at the finish of a visit.
Not to be missed is Piazza Michelangelo, on a hill on the south bank of the Arno River. An early arrival is crucial and magical. By 8:00 AM its energy begins to quickly mount. But before then, there’s nothing to do but offer gratitude and let the imagination roam over sweeping city views. A fitting conclusion to a stay in Firenze!
A yoga mat is a wonderful device to have in one’s possession – a welcome home at any hour of the day. Also, given the scope of meditation and other apps designed to enhance peace and balance, allowing space for limited technology can also prove supportive day to day.
I credit the sense of weightlessness I experienced (of being in a magnificent setting and not endlessly pining over countless attractions and distractions) in Florence with the purposefulness of my extended stay there. I was not touring the city with the anchor of crossing sites off a list. I was there for another purpose, and therefore off the hook and free to curate heavily, focus on quality and imbibe as little content as needed.
As the first half of my retreat came to a close, and with six days remaining before my return flight home, I grew curious to see if I could maintain that agenda-less ease in a more demanding urban climate. To find out, off to the “eternal city” I went via a mid-day high-speed train to Roma. With intention I made arrangements to stay at a smaller neighborhood hotel, Hotel Capo D’Africa, tucked along a back street near The Colosseum.
An ancient (former) monastery towered over the hotel, and each morning the day broke with the tolling of church bells and a hint of prayer chanted by the nuns who now occupy the site. Taking residence on a street less traveled was integral in a pounding city like Rome. From that hushed base, I was better able to adjust the volume to my days and then pour into them only those components that truly lent to my creative clearing. This stop definitely escalated my self-imposed challenge, but here again curating proved key. Among my throttling back amendments were…
Morning city strolls rather effortlessly morph into walking meditations – especially along the ruins of historical sites such as Rome’s Colosseum. No ticket or lengthy line required to blink in the Flavian Amphitheatre’s magnificence. In the absence of selfie sticks, tour buses and ticket touts, humbling encounters abound for the early riser. Also, a delight along morning saunters is the chance to glimpse the “on the block” farmers’ markets as they stock their arugula, frisée, and frutta for the neighborhood chefs.
All can truly be dialed down while experiencing a mass delivered in a language that is not your own. For a small (optional) offering, legions of these opportunities abound in and around Rome. Sitting in on such ceremony at the onset of one’s arrival makes for a nice segue into the city’s imposing streets.
Also, the native language relaxes the ritual itself extending patrons a license, for one precious hour, to empty the mind and reconnect with all that is sacred. One lovely place to do so daily was the Basilica di Santa Maria Nova, centrally situated next to the Forum in the Rione Campitelli – one of the fourteen historical quarters into which modern Rome was divided.
The gardens of the Villa Medici, just steps away from the bustling Villa Borghese, welcomes visitors to gather quietly while enjoying a sweeping view of the city. Covering seventeen sprawling acres on Pincio Hill above the Piazza di Spagna, Henry James believed that the gardens possessed “incredible, impossible charm.”
A hushed view of the Spanish Steps awaits within the refuge of the Keats-Shelley House in the Piazza di Spagna. The historic site is most famous for being the final dwelling place of John Keats, and visitors are welcome to sketch, read, write or linger in the poet’s library for as long as the heart desires.
Apertivo does not have to equal Burrata con Melone. The day’s fading light beckons a relaxed evening passeggiata (or stroll) and serves as a splendid exhale. That gorgeous half light transforms the city’s every fountain, archway and paving stone traversed. And, as the evening meal is bumped out, the trattorias and ristorantes offer much more breathing room. Seasonal outdoor seating under trellises of freshly bloomed flora (after the crowds have finished Instagramming their flambéd strawberries) is suddenly much more available.
As in the Florence daily routine, committing to pockets of creative practice time in the quiet of a hotel’s common areas was for me a non-negotiable. While other guests are off touring, you often can find the place all to yourself. Depending on the weather, most days that timing will look like 11 AM – 3 PM.
I had sought out a retreat experience in order to breathe some new life into my creative pursuits – to step out from that zone of comfort which stagnates our true verses. Much in the way that I turn repeatedly to my yoga practice, I was interested in a cleaner slate. This unexpected sculpting to my long anticipated retreat nudged me to take a closer look at those elements which truly nourish creative growth. This probably would not have been the case if not for the curve in my travel plans, and much was learned as a result.
Absolute silence? While keeping outside chatter to a minimum proved valuable, I actually at times found it refreshing to converse with those (locals and visitors) having something meaningful to share. Some degree of community was a blessing at times.
Seclusion? A healthy dose of discipline in terms of limiting outside stimulation should definitely be part of the game plan, but in any setting large or small, as with shadow and light, there is always an opportunity for space.
Meditation and breath work? The mind must get emptied. As in a traditional retreat type environment, these practices are non-negotiable. The good news is they also can be honored through early morning wanders or by sitting quietly in off the beaten path piazzas, gardens and churches as outlined above.
Inspiration? This too must be insisted on. While my inspiration did not arrive through working alongside other artists as planned, tremendous impressions were instilled wandering smaller museums and galleries or in sifting through history.
Practice? Above all, I found this component the most integral to any progress made on my sojourn. As Jack Kornfield (a founding teacher of the Insight Meditation Society and Spirit Rock Meditation Center) counsels in his ongoing teachings, “take what is beautiful from the temple back out into the world.” Do the work every day. Produce credits. Over and over again. Repeat. For anyone seeking to express themselves creatively, this is how one’s brushstroke or voice surfaces.
O Solitude! if I must with thee dwell,
Let it not be among the jumbled heap
Of murky buildings;
John Keats first finished the poem, ‘To Solitude”, from which the above excerpt comes, appeared in The Examiner newspaper on May 5, 1816. The sonnet’s central theme is that of escaping to the beauty of nature as a contrast to the commotion of the town. Some two hundred springtimes later, my path to solitude reverses the poet’s premise.
Things take the shape they will – even retreats. And, while this tale has no sweeping Eat, Pray, Love finish, it does conclude on the sunny side with something of a long-term personal query favorably solved once and for all in the discourse. Is it possible to (really) retreat inward creatively, to forage solitude admits the “jumbled heap” and sprinkle in a few benefits? As I packed up my belongings and headed for Rome’s Fiumicino Airport and a long flight home, I pondered my answer to the question that I had not expected to tackle on this particular trip. My experience points to “YES”.
Retreats need not be saddled with the vote of “correct”, or “incorrect”. In yielding to a curve and allowing for a few benefits (such as technology, occasional chit-chat, and some sparkling wines), I remained able to deeply honor my intentions, attain the heightened sense of clarity I was seeking and most importantly… truly enjoy the retreat experience I had long envisioned. Pick your city?
Have you ever been on a retreat? If you have any additional tips for our readers or questions please leave these in the comments below.
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