Pilates and Pasta
The Telegraph | 8th April 2010
Health and wellness holidays: Pilates and pasta
More of us than ever are using holidays to find a new sense of wellbeing. Opening our package on finding that feelgood factor, Lesley Gillilan tones her muscles, stretches her limbs and cooks agnolotti in a quest for inner and outer balance in Italy.
In an airy Pilates studio high on a hill above the rolling Barbera d'Asti vineyards of south Piedmont, our teacher, Sophie Lyske, showed me how to do a "plank stretch", a simple but challenging exercise that strengthens the transversus abdominals, the "flat-stomach muscles", the body's internal corset. "Keep the pelvic floor connected and don't arch the back," she told me. "Think bottom down, shoulders open, breathe!"
It was my second day at the agriturismo of Cascina Papaveri (or Poppy Farmhouse); my first one-to-one with one of two teachers. As well as demonstrating side-bends and extensions, Sophie had shown me how to work my serratus anteriors, or "shoulder stabilisers" (an antidote to my computer slouch, "so bad for the upper spine").
And I had already done two group sessions, in which all five guests (three Americans, two Britons) congregated in the studio for an hour or so of mat-class Pilates stretches. "Nice job," said our other teacher, Dianne Wise, as three of us lay on the studio's reformers (a bed-like box of springs and pulleys) lifting our legs in the air, feet in straps, like a row of women in a maternity suite. I was toning muscles I never knew I had.
Between classes, we spent some time picking grapes in the cascina's two acres of organic vineyard, as well as sampling its own Barbera red, which was offered by the jug, more or less on tap. We cooked, too: this was a "double activity holiday", combining Pilates with regional Italian cookery lessons. On a night in, I learnt how to debone a rabbit and make a plate of agnolotti (Piedmont's distinctive take on ravioli, shaped like tiny pasties with crimped edges). On a night out, in a rustic restaurant in nearby Asti, I even tried a bit of stewed donkey.
The latter is not something I would recommend, but Piedmont – tucked into the armpit of north-west Italy between Turin and the Ligurian coast – is a place that invites culinary adventures. This is the birthplace of the Slow Food movement; its attractions include white truffles, wild boar, steak-like porcini mushrooms and acres of vineyards – wine production is more extensive here than anywhere else in Italy. It was the Pilates that got me there, but it felt, at times, that we were simply working up an appetite.
Cascina Papaveri is run by a British-New Zealand couple, John and Robyn Sims. They bought the 19th-century farmhouse and 10 acres in 1998 as a holiday home, but six years later they turned it into a business – installing five hotel-standard guest rooms, a teaching kitchen and a "balanced-body Pilates studio". I'm a Pilates-studio regular, and this one is first-class, not just well equipped but vast – with a 40ft swimming pool, a sauna and steam rooms, and garage-like glass doors that open on to a terrace. From here you can look down on Piedmont across vineyards and fruit trees. There's an even better view from an upper terrace: on a clear day, you can see as far as the Alps.
During one of Papaveri's three-day retreats, I spent quite a lot of time on that terrace, but we packed in a lot of activities. Typically, the day started with a morning excursion, piling into a minibus for a trip to, say, the market at Asti, 13 miles away. We were back in time for an hour or two of Pilates and then on to the terrace for lunch – soups, pastas, salads, made with fresh herbs and vegetables grown in Robyn's garden. There was time for other outings: a wander down the hill to nearby Costigliole d'Asti, a drive to medieval Alba or the spa town at Acqui Terme, both roughly 40 minutes away. But we all preferred to stick around for the Pilates (Sophie and Dianne are among an A-list of international instructors who find their way to Cascina Papaveri) and the cooking.
Under the direction of an amiable and very able chef, Gino Minacapilli, we donned aprons and cooked our own three-course dinner: a timballo de melanzane (aubergine pudding), rolata di coniglio (rabbit roll) and a classic panna cotta.
Thanks to the food, and the plentiful wine, my stomach didn't get quite as flat as I would have liked, but I came away feeling toned and energised, with a stack of recipes, a Papaveri apron and a Pilates fact sheet on which Sophie had drawn stickmen diagrams of the exercises I should – and will – do. "Always look for the challenge in either the range of movement or the content or both," she wrote. "Do 100 per cent." A pretty good metaphor for life, I thought.