After a series of life shocks, Sue Peart was struck down by crippling anxiety and needed to get her health and emotional balance back. She checked into a luxury women-only retreat and learned these 5 key lessons in moving on
It had been a bruising few months. I’d said goodbye to a job I loved and a group of colleagues who had effectively been my ‘family’ for more than two decades. My partner had spent time in hospital and a house sale was dragging. I wasn't someone who had ever experienced anxiety before, yet I hadn’t slept or eaten properly for a couple of months and felt stressed, jittery and on edge all the time. I was worried about the effect of this on my long-term health and desperately wanted to find a way to adjust to recent events and retrieve my emotional balance.
So I headed to Borgo Egnazia (Borgo means village; Egnazia is the name of a famous Roman settlement in the area) in the heart of the beautiful sun-soaked Italian region of Puglia for a three-day retreat to reset my frayed emotions and achieve inner peace. The minute I stepped into the hotel’s cool, sandy-coloured building – with smiling staff wafting about, casually dressed in loose white linen dresses and shirts, and the aroma of fig and pomegranate hanging in the air – I felt the tight knot of stress in my stomach start to loosen.
A spa retreat that supports women
I’ve come to Borgo – a member of the Leading Hotels of the World group – to experience a unique retreat designed specifically for women. You are supported at all times by ‘camari’ (female companions) and everything – from the full daily schedule of bespoke spa treatments to the plant-based menu – has been honed and perfected to support women’s emotions, hormones, digestion and immune system.
Distractions are cut to a minimum, thus all mirrors in the villa are covered, and a total digital detox is recommended for the duration of the retreat. Drawing inspiration from the ancient nurturing rituals practised by women in the area for centuries, the Tarant retreat (winner of ‘most life-changing experience’ in the 2017 Conde Nast Traveller Spa Awards) is tailored to specific female needs. One writer went to Borgo Egnazia feeling "joyless and exhausted" and left with her "feelings softened towards herself".
It’s all about the dance
The therapy that the retreat is named after is Tarant – a traditional rhythmic dance to the beat of the tambourine, practised for hundreds of years by the region’s women to enable them to express their emotions and feel empowered. Folklore has it that a bite from a tarantula spider sent a local woman half-mad and in the absence of any other cure the villagers danced and sang with her. Through this freedom of expression, she became well again. Since then, it has been believed that dancing with joy and abandon can be a cure-all for many kinds of illness and conditions, particularly anxiety and depression. I was somewhat more circumspect about how it might help me personally - a typically inhibited Englishwoman. I was more than prepared to give it a go, however, and to give myself over wholesale to the retreat, so keen was I to find some relief from the debilitating anxiety I was feeling.
The hair brushing ritual
On the night before the retreat officially starts, my fellow guests – Lisa, a PR from Milan; Ciara, a hospital doctor from northern Italy, and Ilaria a freelance fashion journalist and mother of two from Paris – and I gather for dinner by the pool in our shared villa. We are joined by our four camari, and by the inappropriately-named Dr Grassi (meaning fat) – the hotel’s nutritionist – who, along with Executive Chef Domingo, has designed the largely vegetarian menu to support female health as far as possible.
As we head to bed, we are told that there will be a ‘surprise’ in half an hour’s time – this turns out to be Maria, a lady from the nearby village who visits each of us in our room to gently brush our hair – a ritual practised by mothers and grandmothers for centuries for their daughters – which feels at once soothing and spiritual.
Sue, left, with Maria, one of the villa staff
The wake-up call
On the first morning we are woken by the ‘pizzicata’ – the beat of an oversized tambourine – a traditional instrument used in the region for centuries. The day starts with a one-hour yoga session under an awning by the pool as the sun rises behind our villa, accompanied by birdsong. After breakfast (home-made yoghurt, ripe cherries, vegan cake, home-made seed bars, fresh juice and almonds) we hop on bikes and cycle down an avenue of oleander, olive trees and rosemary bushes and past the property’s large herb garden to the spa for our first treatment.
The candlelit Vair Spa
The Vair Spa (meaning truth, honesty, authenticity) is a magnificent 2000sq metre area within the main building of Borgo Egnazia. Candlelit, it is a hushed, calm space attended by female therapists in floor-length draped nude-coloured gowns. I am assigned the hydrotherapy treatment – a two-hour ‘journey’ starting in a warm pool with underwater massage jets, followed by a cold shower, then ten minutes in the sauna, and a bucket of icy water tipped over me. After that, I immerse myself in a warm (39 degrees) plunge pool, followed by a cold (19 degrees) pool, then once again in the warm pool, and finally a body rub with ice crystals. After that, I’m wrapped in a linen sheet and allowed to relax for half an hour, my skin tingling with exhilaration.
Luca is able to tell me – purely from my reactions to the aromas – that my life is currently overwhelmed with sorrow, and I am living ‘under a dark sky’
Finally, I am taken for the massage ritual – a full body scrub with raw salt crystals, washed off with natural lemon soap, and then a massage with slippery mineral-infused mud. Throughout the treatment, local herbs and plants grown on the property – oranges and lemons, lavender, fresh herbs – are used to enhance the sensory experience, along with mineral-rich raw salt crystals and olive oil. Afterwards, I lie on a bed in the relaxation area with a cup of herbal tea and my book.
The best sleep I've had in months
In this supremely nurturing atmosphere – surrounded by kind women, sunshine and flowers – I am able to think calmly for the first time about the events of recent months and begin to get some perspective. To my surprise, even on my first night in this new environment, I’ve managed to sleep peacefully, too, for several hours at a time – giving my body its first chance to repair; already I can feel the healing influence of Borgo Egnazia working its magic.
Later in the day, I have the U-Mor (meaning ‘the sea’) treatment, a full body aromatherapy massage inspired by the movement of waves on the shore, to the sound of the sea, using rosemary, lemon and lavender fragrances, with a salt candle to complete the atmosphere.
The traditional healing dance
At the end of the afternoon, we spend 90 minutes learning the Tarant under the tuition of Giuseppe - a charismatic actor and singer - who encourages us to let go of our inhibitions, discover our playful side, laugh, sing and enter into the spirit of the traditional local dance. With his violin and tambourine, we learn the beat of the dance – a kind of rhythmic, stamping dance which you can do alone or with a partner - and not to feel stupid when we get the steps wrong. We are encouraged to make eye contact with our partner, to laugh and enjoy the dance, and unleash our playful side.
I have to admit, as a typically reserved British woman, I found ‘letting go’ difficult – pretending to ‘fight’ our partner, for example, while actually dancing was particularly hard - but the welcoming, non-judgmental atmosphere relaxed us. Nonetheless, I was quite relieved when it was over and that any embarrassment any of us might have felt was entirely among ourselves – happily no-one whipped out their phone to record the moment for posterity on social media!
I was pleased to try to the Tarant, and to find out what it was all about though I have to say – for me – other therapies (such as deep tissue massage and talking therapies) seem to be more profound and beneficial. However, if we’d had more of a chance to get over our initial reservations, and done two or three sessions of Tarant it might have had a more meaningful effect. Certainly, watching the Italian women dancing the Tarant at our final night dinner was both joyful and moving, and I understood then why it is so valued as a way of bringing a community together, and for the women to show support to one another.
The wake-up tambourine
'Colour' massage and ortho-bionics
The next day follows in a similar vein: morning yoga, followed by an array of treatments unique to Vair. The first is based on my colour preferences – these inform the style of massage and the musical accompaniment. I choose orange and yellow, representing vitality, but also blue and sea green for a more invigorating, deep massage. The treatment incorporates chanting by the therapist and also a visualisation exercise – where I am led past an imaginary castle, and through a beautiful garden to the banks of a tranquil lake - similar to hypnotherapy.
In the afternoon, a session of ortho-bionics – intense manipulation of the skeleton and muscles to release trapped energy and ease pain. I realised I had stored the pain in tight knots in my shoulders and stomach, and I could feel the tension and aches melting away – the effect is deeply relaxing.
After that, the Abbel Bel facial – a luxurious treatment incorporating freshly harvested herbs from the garden (rosemary, sage and mint), almond milk, lemon, lavender and camellia to nurture and stimulate the skin.
The most profound treatment of all…
Day three is the final one of the retreat: a day to prepare to come back to the real world. It is on this day that I experience the most profound treatment of all. Luca Fortuna is a kind of ‘mind magician’ - an aromatherapy expert well-known across Italy - who has devised a simple exercise taking your reactions to eight aromas (which link to imagination, senses, memory, desire, intuition, logical thinking, sentiment and emotions) to reveal your innermost feelings and thoughts.
Although we’d never met before, Luca is able to tell me – purely from my reactions to the aromas – that my life is currently overwhelmed with sorrow, and I am living ‘under a dark sky’. My emotions are buried deep inside me, he tells me, and I am yearning for soul-food to enrich my life again. I have metaphorically placed myself in a ‘temple’ – away from conflict – until I am emotionally ready to face the world again. I am stunned by the accuracy of his words which seem to strike right to my soul; tears spring to my eyes and start rolling down my cheeks and I find I am unable even to speak.
He assures me then, however, that there is cause for optimism. The soul-food I need is on its way and ‘nothing can stop it’ and that I must welcome sorrow into my life rather than resisting it, but also look for joy …. And that a time will come when I am ready to emerge from my temple, fully healed. After an hour, I leave emotionally drained and with tear-streaked cheeks, but also with my first chink of hope and excitement for the future. I feel as if certain negative emotions – such as hurt and anger – which have become ‘locked’ in a destructive pattern in my head have shifted and released their grip on me. For the first time, I can see past them to better and more positive things, such as optimism.
Our last night, dressed in white
On the final night of the retreat, there is a ‘festa’ at our villa. The table is dressed with candles and lace, candles surround the pool and a firepit is lit, and the four of us – along with our camari: Patrizia, Dora, Annalisa, Emanuella and Ivana – dress in floor-length white skirts and T-shirts. I feel rather self-conscious putting on this garb, but once I see the other girls looking stunning in theirs – some choosing to tie a brightly coloured scarf or sash loosely around their waist – I lose my inhibitions. A chef prepares a buffet of tempura vegetables, fava beans with spinach, figs, baked ricotta cheese, and an array of salads. Afterwards, we dance our cares away, clapping and whooping to the sound of the accordion and the tambourine.
It has been a cathartic few days. The aim of the retreat is nurturing: caring for the soul and the emotions in gentle, supportive surroundings. It is exactly what I needed, and when I return home I feel rested and restored, renewed, optimistic and calm.
Healthy, hormone-balancing food
All food is prepared on the hotel premises by top chefs using the freshest of local ingredients. Breakfast is a buffet of fruit, nuts, fresh juice, vegan cake, seed bars and home-made yoghurt.
Lunch in the hotel main restaurant includes such dishes as orecchiette with baked tomato, rocket and cacioricotta cheese; tuna in bread crust, caprino cheese sauce, rocket salad with radish; grilled cauliflower with anchovies and toasted bread. Desserts are delicate and delicious: almond ice cream with almond milk and goat milk yoghurt with wild fennel were two examples.
5 things I learned on a women-only healing retreat
- To embrace uncomfortable feelings rather than resist them
Most of the time, we don’t need to feel sorrow, anger or betrayal so when those feelings occur our response is to push them away. Recognising and accepting them rather than fearing them helps to get them into perspective and thus reduce their impact.
- To really value my sleep
Until recently, I had no idea what insomnia felt like. Now I sympathise with any sufferer! Removing myself from my normal surroundings and sleeping for a few nights in a peaceful - if unfamiliar – bedroom without the usual anxiety-triggers all around was extremely positive for me. Once your body allows itself to sleep again, you can encourage that habit further once back in your own surroundings.
- Tears are OK
After many years working in a high-level environment and bringing up a family, I had learnt to effectively suppress my emotions. I’d gone through a divorce and the death of a dearly-loved sister, yet never cried. The emotions don’t go away, however; they end up stored in uncomfortable knots in your shoulders or stomach, weighing you down and eventually debilitating you. Finding the trigger to release these emotions will lighten and relieve your whole body, mood and outlook; tears are nothing to be ashamed of.
- The company of women is like medicine
I’m not saying being with men won’t help, but the Tarant retreat – which was for women only – was extremely nurturing and soothing. The camari are kind, accepting, warm and understanding. The atmosphere is happy, calm and gentle. Even something quite simple, such as the act of having salt rubbed into one’s body or having one’s hair brushed by the light of the moon is supremely soothing when carried out by trusted women.
- Unhappy situations don’t last forever
Everything passes, as they say. I found that to be true. Going to Italy for the Tarant Retreat helped move me on a huge amount through my recovery; when I came back to London I felt profoundly different from when I had left. I felt better. Stronger. Changed. More in control, far less anxious and afraid …. And, for the first time in a long time, optimistic for the future. Those feelings have continued, and now I am positively chirpy. For anyone going through a difficult time, please believe: there IS light at the end of the tunnel.
Borgo Egnazia’s Tarant programme includes four-night accommodation on a full-board basis (including water, hot drinks, and juices) and use of the sauna, Turkish bath, indoor pool and gym. Price from €3,141 per person. The next retreats available in 2018 are: 18-22 October; 22-26 November 2018.
To book visit borgoegnazia.com or call +39 080 225 5000. For further information on Vair Spa visit vairspa.it
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