There's no place like Puglia

I was lucky enough to experience the ‘Tarant’ retreat at the Borgo Egnazia hotel in October 2018, which was published in the July 2019 issue of ‘Psychologies’ Magazine. Due to space, the feature was cut so here it is….without the cuts! I’ve also posted some pictures from Borgo Egnazia before in an older piece, so here are some new images of Ostuni and Pogliano la Mer interspersed within the text.

I love Puglia and I’m lucky enough to visit every year, each time discovering something new - the fishing village of Pogliano la Mer, the higgledy streets and white-washed walls of Ostuni, the conical Trulli houses of Alberobello.  Between these places lie expanses of olive trees, old and gnarly with secrets to tell, whispering myths of the Puglians and their traditions of music and song. On my last trip there, I discovered more about the centuries old ‘Tarantism’ phenomenon in Southern Italy, whereby farm-worker women are said to have danced in a kind of trance for days on end to rid themselves of venom that a bite from a wolf spider would leave, making them feel hysterical.  Whatsmore, I discovered a spa that used Tarantism as the basis for their most healing and immersive experience.

2018 was mostly joyous; an endless merry-go-round of wonderful experiences, meeting my new partner and the blessing of working from home with a fabulous team of women.  Out of nowhere, I was struck by anxiety and insomnia that reached maddening levels. I’d sink into a downward spiral for no apparent reason. Daytimes were sometimes like manoeuvring through sludge as I was so tired.  

So this time in Puglia was about resting, not travelling around.  My destination the Borgo Egnazia, a hotel that simply exudes calm and a feeling of healing.  Like the women with venom running through their blood, I was starting to feel hysterical so booked into the Tarant programme, a retreat  held within the cocooning walls of their Vair spa. The Tarant is for women only, attracting those in need of rest and regeneration. By October 2018, I felt overwhelmed by responsibility.  I needed time out, free from anxious thoughts over the troubles that plagued me.

I was joined by a frazzled business woman and a younger Italian lady wanting some respite.  Thankfully we all bonded despite our different backgrounds and lifestyles, a relief as we were all staying together in one of the Borgo’s magnificent villas within the grounds of the hotel.   We settled into our beautiful rooms, the gorgeous decoration gave our surroundings a heavenly soforfic feel. My veranda opened out to the rolling flat landscape of Fasano, the village where Borgo Egnazia is situated.  Each morning we were greeted by our joyous maid, Maria, who laid on a magnificent healthy breakfast spread. In the evening we had a private waitress and chef, rustling up our balanced dinners based on the Mediterranean diet.  Every morning, I made a point of taking a swim in our private pool before the Iyengar yoga session in the comfort of our villa.

The Tarant is tailor made and expertly scheduled, determined partly by a questionnaire I completed a week before arrival, and partly by observing how you’re getting on, tweaking things if need be.  I’m hesitant to give too much detail for there are surprises unfolding everyday. Control freaks would balk at the mystery but I found it exciting, relinquishing any need to take charge or make a decision was appealing.  The Vair Spa, situated under the main hotel, is an underground candlelit warren of calm, expertly run by gorgeous staff, mainly women, dressed like angels in their covetable Grecian dresses, who, I later find out, are the closest of friends.  I more or less spent the entire time being cosseted, moving from treatment to treatment. When recuperating, I was eating delicious healthy lunch in one of the fabulous restaurants either by myself or with one of the other ladies. I even had the chance to read by the outdoor pool, eeking out every last drop of Vitamin D.  I wallowed in the tepidarium alone, was scrubbed with raw lemon, olive oil and salt, feeling like a layer of angst had been scrubbed away. I experienced treatments from the daintiest of facial massages to the most deepest of pummelling, the Ortho-bionomy technique obliterating every bodily knot I never knew I had. Doing nothing was exhausting, having to take afternoon naps, relief from the headaches brought about by constant massage and inner realisations.  On day two I felt listless, broken and emotional but always thankful. I was well aware I was having the most amazing experience.

But the healing didn’t just come with bodily touch.  My ‘villamates’ came back one day enthusing about the sensory olfactory experience created by aroma specialist Luca Fortuna,  a subconscious smell test of nine key scents said to reveal your inner turmoils. My session with Luca jaw-droppingly revealed things I’d long suspected;  I’ve got to say ‘no’ more and exert my boundaries. I realised I was holding onto resentment for a current situation which was causing insomnia and anxiety.  

At the heart of the Tarant is the Puglian dance and song, the ‘pizzica-pizzica’, where resident musician, Giuseppe, expertly played the tambourine and sang enchanting lyrics.  But this wasn’t a personal concert just for me, I had to get involved. I copied his movement and his voice, an exhausting yet euphoric experience. At times, I felt I was in a trance-like ecstatic state.  I could see why the Puglians thought dance was a cure-all ( I’m a big fan of dancing all night at a nightclub even at the age of 40, the endorphin release is good for me). I’d read about the Italian physician, Nicola Caputo, who studied Tarantism and it’s victims finding that dance was a healer; he says, “at the third melody, or maybe the fourth, the young woman in my presence awoke and began to dance with so much force and fury that one might have called her crazy.  After two days of dance, she was free and healed.” Even I’m not quite sure I could stretch to two days of foot shuffling. Those Puglian’s must’ve had some serious stamina.  I found some clips of Tarantism on Youtube, black and white footage of ladies dancing like crazy loons.  Yep, that was me alright.     

One of the main linchpins of the programme is the actual ‘Tarant’ massage set in the most feminine of rooms adorned with candlelight and hundreds of flowers.  I was essentially the spiders’ prey, as I found myself flat on the floor on a large mat in my bathing suit.  The therapist worked on my whole body from gentle stretching of the muscle fascia, limb manipulation and more Ortho-bionomy, all to the sound of the pizzica music, adding to the authentic experience.  He rolled me up like I was in a web before pushing me back out again. Afterwards, I felt emotionally wrung out and good for nothing but my word, did my body feel like it was on cloud nine!  

Finally, at the risk of giving too much away, the last evening made me weep with joy for the way the whole unfolding of that evening's experience played out, a few big treats in store made me grin from ear to ear.  I want to tell you but it would remove the magic from it. It was a real celebration of what it means to be a woman.  

I left Borgo Egnazia with the foundations to start building myself up again, knowing how to give myself healthy doses of self care, finding the courage to say no and exerting my boundaries.  Arriving back home I felt fresh and ready to go, feeling lighter and more confident somehow. Just being away from everyday life had a huge impact on my mind. Puglia still remains my favourite place in the world, just now with more added ‘oomph’.  

Borgo Egnazia offers the 4 night Tarant Retreat from £3,080pp when booked with Health and Fitness Travel (0203 397 8891 This includes a full-board basis, the retreat, return flights and private transfers.