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Take a Soul-Soothing Journey to the Tuscan Countryside

Relax on a yoga retreat in this Italian paradise.

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A small country church is flanked by cypress trees in Valdera valley, near Ponsacco village, Tuscany, Italy.

For the past five years, a poster of Sandro Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus” on my office wall has intrigued me. I stare at the Venus on the Half-Shell and sense that she wants to tell me something. But what? Does she have a secret? Some ancient wisdom to soothe my 21st-century, working-mother soul? I imagine what the goddess of love might say if we met at the corner coffee shop. Pulling myself back to reality, I add viewing the Renaissance painting to my bucket list.

One day while walking in downtown D.C., I spot something shiny on the ground. Never one to overlook a free dime or single earring, I stoop to pick it up. It’s a small silver charm with a figure I can’t make out on one side and, on the other, a large M with “Italy” stamped beneath it. A Google search reveals that I’ve found a Miraculous Medal. Since 1832, Catholics have been wearing them, believing in Mary’s promise that all who do “will receive great graces.”

It’s a sign. I’m going to Italy.

I’m at a yoga retreat in a Tuscan village an hour’s drive from Florence. I am here to exercise and eat and make my pilgrimage to Venus at the Uffizi Gallery.

The airline lost my luggage, but I’m chill. The Chianti Classico countryside is visual Xanax. The town of Barberino Val d’Elsa looks like it sounds: undulating green hills of lush groves and vineyards punctuated with the stiff quill of a cypress here, a beautifully aging farmhouse there. I arrive at the villa where I’m staying, La Chiara di Prumiano, and stroll among the pomegranates, grapes, and olives. I gorge on fruit.

That evening I meet the 30 other yoga participants, an eclectic, international group ranging in age from early 20s to mid-70s. Our first practice is an al fresco session of sun salutations under sun-buttered oaks.

The aroma of oregano and roasting tomatoes lures us to dinner in the garden. Seated at a long table under a canopy of vines, we feast on focaccia dipped in olive oil (pressed on the premises), chicken cacciatore, and sorbet made from backyard figs.

As we share our vino (12 euros for rosso or bianco; just scribble your name on the bottle), our teacher, Greg Marzullo, a popular D.C.-based yogi, offers an introduction to our week.

“This is about disrupting the pattern,” Greg explains. “You have left your life for a period of time. Put down the laptop and phone and make space for mystery to have her way with you.” We return to our rooms exhausted from our first day. I feel tentative about having roommates. I’m bunking with Jackie Sparks, a blonde, Amazonian free spirit who’s been an art teacher and air traffic controller, and Wendy Evans, an opera-loving cardiac sonographer and grandmother of three. Both offer to share their essentials until my luggage arrives. Wendy hands me a new toothbrush and a postcard of David’s marbled anatomy.

“Keep it, I bought 12,” says grandma Wendy. “I’m sending them to my daughters. And my mother.”

When Jackie's iPhone merengues at 7 a.m., I regret my miscalculation that this yoga retreat will be relaxing. I join the line of coffeepot pilgrims. Our salvation is espresso so unrelenting it swallows milk Bermuda Triangle-style no matter how much you pour.

“Let’s go, yoginis,” chirps Greg, leading us outside into a field. As the sun slices through pink and orange clouds, he teaches us the verses of “Jesce Sole,” a southern Italian folk song. We sing in cascading rounds. Greg’s operatic voice and the heavenly light are so beautiful that I find myself sobbing.

The act sweeps my busy mind clean and allows a simple, if cryptic, question to surface. Can you receive?

I feel something shift inside. I’m the tiniest bit unmoored. “That’s ecstasy,” Greg whispers. “You know those paintings of saints with tears streaming down their faces? Ekstasis means an out-of-body experience.”

I look at him bewildered. He doesn’t seem surprised. “We were singing a sun chant in a mode that slows brainwaves to a meditative state,” he says. “Ancient cultures have sun chants. Their purpose is to bring light to dark places.”

Mystery is making her appearance all right.

A gardener pushes a wheelbarrow filled with shiny fennel heads and an orange bouquet of zucchini blossoms. People sit alone with a book, journal, sketchbook, or camera in the backyard sun. Jet-lagged, everyone wanders in and out of their rooms to nap.

My sandal strap snaps while I’m walking. No luggage. Now no shoes. “Borrow mine,” says Wendy.

I don’t know why it’s hard to accept help from strangers but it is. Once again the cryptic message “Can you receive?” floats through my thoughts. Reluctantly I do.

That evening Greg offers an alarmingly graphic visualization of our bodies burning away. “Your bones crack and turn to ash,” he says. “The blood boils, sizzles, and steams away. The skull pops open, letting the boiling content ooze out like lava.” Jackie gasps.

“Imagine them turning into something,” Greg directs. I picture a soaring white bird. “That image is a gift,” he says.

At bedtime we compare notes on our “gifts.”

“A black-domed pyramid temple,” says Wendy. “I think it means higher learning.”

“I pictured a green ball that turned into a human heart,” says Jackie. “Which is what I want, a new heart. But that was really over-the-top, didn’t you think?”

On the fourth day, the villa’s owner, Antonio Pescetti, strides toward me. He’s tan and handsome with longish salt-and-pepper hair and Italian-preppy clothes. “Your luggage—no trace!” he informs me apologetically.

The next thing I know, we’re in Pescetti’s Volkswagen bounding through the countryside toward the town of Poggibonsi to buy some basics.

“We were among the first in Tuscany to practice organic farming,” he explains along the way, “Chianti Classico, olive oil, jams from figs and plums—we tried everything.”

Back then, La Chiara di Prumiano didn’t seem like the most obvious hotel. “No heating, two bathrooms,” he says.

Over the decades, however, he and his wife, Gaia, renovated the 17th-century farmhouse (once owned by a Florentine nobleman, Principe Corsini), retaining the architecture while adding sustainable updates like biomass heating systems and photovoltaic panels.

“My daughter was born here and my sister is buried here. We built a little chapel on the land. I feel like, how you say, roots?” says Pescetti, who considers his guests extended family. “We love to take care of people. People come here sad and we watch them change.”

That night after our class we discover a large mirror in the middle of our yoga circle. Greg calls us up one at a time to take a long look. Reactions vary from serious to smiley. Subha Maruvada, the woman next to me, returns to her mat weeping. It’s my turn. Finally I hear what he’s whispered to each of the others: “Stare into the eyes of the goddess.”

I try, but I’m distracted by my flaws: my lank, dirty hair, the circles under my eyes. I kick myself. Then I kick myself for kicking myself when I’m supposed to be staring into the eyes of the goddess. Can you receive? Apparently not over the din of my self-criticism.

At dinner, I indulge in the hot-from-the-oven focaccia, despite my gluten restriction. I’m not the only one straying from dietary confines. The peposo, beef braised for hours in red wine, peppercorns, and garlic, is so tender I watch vegans have seconds. Afterwards, I ask Subha what she saw in the mirror.

“Casey, my cat,” she says. “He died after 17 years.”

Another evening Greg concludes our 10 p.m. class with a surprising instruction: “Between now and tomorrow night there will be no talking,” he says. “Absolute silence. Give yourself this chance to go inward.”

At breakfast the only audible sound is the clink of spoon against bowl, the percussion of chopping in the kitchen, the crunch of gravel underfoot.

But that doesn’t stop a group of determined outlet shoppers unwilling to let the day’s mandate get between them and a Prada bargain.

“You may speak to the salesperson,” Greg negotiates. “But not a word to each other.” The latest trend, Zen Retail: Silent Outlet Shopping—I want to joke to Wendy and Jackie, but can’t.

We learn that our silence has been to prepare for the ancient, ecstatic dance, the tarantella. Greg apprenticed with Alessandra Belloni, a world-renowned percussionist and healer who taught him Italian shamanic techniques, including the tarantella and its mystical history. From as far back as the 16th century, this fast, spinning dance has been used to cure a hysteria brought on by the bite of the poisonous wolf spider, as well as psychological and psychic distress, before the era of pharmaceutical aid.

We learn the steps quickly (think pogo stick meets carousel) and the up-tempo music starts. Greg bangs his drum and we whirl like dervishes. I feel like an ant on a turntable. Above me the green trees and blue sky swirl together like spin art. I twirl so quickly I fall to my knees. Yet the turntable keeps spinning around me. Others pull me up, urge me to keep going.

By the time the experience is finally over, five of us have fallen, four vomited, and one participant sobbed so hard she was keening. I loved it!

We close and dinner is ready, but nobody breaks the circle. Physically and emotionally spent, we gape at each other, saying without saying that something happened.

Perhaps that something is that less than a week ago we were a group of strangers, and now we’re bonded into a solid group of shared experiences. We’ve eaten, slept, sweated together, and now we can add surviving a musical exorcism.

I’ll miss the nightly musings with my roommates. We’ve covered everything from the day’s epiphanies to the specifics of each other’s snoring. We’ve discussed suicide, addiction, heartbreak, divorce, and our children’s diagnoses. On our last day, as we reluctantly pack up our room, Jackie declares, “You are both very generous people.”

There is one last thing I need to do to round out my soul-searching week: find Venus. Florence is the birthplace of the Renaissance, the cultural shift that introduced diplomacy to politics, observation to science, and perspective to art. Perspective is exactly what I’ve come to seek.

One of the oldest museums in the world, the Uffizi displays works by Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Caravaggio. But I go straight to Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus.”

Reaching this moment has taken me five years, 4,366 miles, four airplanes, and the synchronization of a yoga retreat. I sit on a bench directly in front of the enormous painting, and my field of vision is filled with ... buttocks. Tourist buttocks of all shapes and sizes.

I catch glimpses of the seafaring, voluptuous goddess with alabaster skin and Rapunzel hair. Art critics have deemed Venus’s elongated proportions “anatomically improbable” and her pose “impossible,” as she would certainly tip over her shell and face-plant into the sea. It’s also true that her dark outline and lack of shadows renders her flat, like a sticker you can peel. Everything in the painting is moving, fluttering. Yet Venus herself looks as calm as the clamshell she rode in on.

Note to self: Be calm.

Next, I notice her gaze. She is looking toward us, but her eyes indicate that her thoughts are far, far away.

Go inward, I think.

How to decipher her expression? A slight smile plays upon her lips, but her eyes look wistful. Is she happy? Sad? Homesick? Tender is the best I can surmise.

Be tender.

Shocking display of white skin, belly gently rounded.

Be authentic, vulnerable, and brave.

Eventually I rise to leave. No dramatic “aha” moment, but one can’t argue with the subtle wisdom. I make my way through the throngs for a close-up good-bye. As soon as I draw near the canvas, my head fills with one word. It’s as if the volume of my female intuition is turned to its highest setting. “Love!”

I want to smack the painting. Venus drags me all the way to Florence to tell me the secret to life is love? Doesn’t everyone know that? Can she be a bit more specific? No. Venus sticks to her monosyllabic script. “Love, love, love, love, love.”

As I leave the Uffizi, it hits me. Venus didn’t let me down at all. She simply finished my soul’s incomplete question: Can you receive...love?

Melina Bellows is National Geographic Partners’ Editorial Director for Kids and Family. Contributing photographer Catherine Karnow leads photo workshops in Italy.


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