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How 16 Women Found Joy and Passion in Umbria, Italy

On our first Creativity Retreat in a hilltop villa in Umbria, we played, explored, and reminded ourselves that art can be fun and re-centering.

The journey started with a question: Where are you in your life right now?

The question was asked of 16 women as we sat at a long dinner table among the stone structures of a 13th century castle, with an adjoining church and annex, surrounded by olive trees and lavender bushes. The sun was setting over an Italian hillside striped with dark green rows of grapes. Wine from local vineyards was poured; the food was a divine chicken scallopini; the music, Andrea Bocelli.

My first inclination was to shout out, “Heaven!”  That’s certainly how I felt at that moment.

But the women asking the question—Jen Vickers and Anthinula Tori, the leaders of NextTribe’s first Creativity Retreat last month—were looking for something else.

This trip to Umbria, Italy, was so magical, so creatively and emotionally fulfilling that we’re offering it again in 2024. Here are all the details. Use the code EARLYBIRD before July 31st for a $100 discount.

As we went around the table, offering our answers, it became clear that most of us were at a turning point in our lives—recent or soon-to-be empty-nesters, in the middle of career changes, approaching retirement, newly divorced, recovering from illnesses. In one way or another, each of us was seeking a full and vital next chapter.

“I’m at this space in my life where I realized that my whole sense of value and self-worth was tied to what I did, to what I produced and who I helped,” said Susan Witliff, from Austin. “And, now I’m trying to kind of crack open that egg of I’m okay just being me, and for the first time as an adult, frankly, exploring and playing, not with a purpose but because I want to.”

Over the week ahead, we would explore our individual passions and strengths and recall the joy and freedom of play—as grown ups with nothing more to prove, in the spectacular setting of Umbria, with women we met along the way and, importantly, with each other.

Read More: Feeling Like Excited Kids Again on a Girls’ Beach Retreat


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Our home for the week: Castiglione Ugolino, high on a hilltop with views, centuries-old frescoes, and a gorgeous infinity pool.

The Creativity Workshop that Jen and Anthinula devised with the help of Anthinula’s mother, artist Jean Tori, was less a pure artistic endeavor than a path to reminding ourselves of our innate abilities and to celebrating the imaginative part of ourselves that may have been lost after years of working, mothering, and taking care of others.

We were each given a handmade, leather-bound journal (crafted by a bookmaker in the nearby town of Gubbio) to record our thoughts, sketches, collages. The official goal was for each of us to use the week to make something called a “Chaekkori,” a symbolic representation of who we are, what we value, what we hold dear. “Ultimately, this creative framework, which can be continuously added to,” Jen and Anthinula explained, “may serve as a compass allowing us to re-center.”

The art itself isn’t the point. The exploration is.

They emphasized that it wouldn’t matter if the art was objectively or subjectively good or bad. “The art itself isn’t the point,” said Anthinula. “The exploration is.”

Each day of the week began with what Jen and Anthinula called a “spark,” something to get us thinking and exploring. On the first day, we picked three adjectives from slips of paper spread out on a table. “What do you admire about yourself?” the instructions prompted. “There may be a trait you aren’t always willing to acknowledge.” We were asked to paste the three words into our journals and refer to them through the week.

A 13th century chapel was our workshop for the week, as we made art pieces that helped us re-center and remember that you don’t have to be an “artist” to create and have fun. 

We were asked to answer questions, such as “What is a fear you are willing to dance with?” and “What is one mystery you’d like the answer to?” Among other exercises, there were word games, poetry, and an invitation to identify a color swatch that brought us joy. Each exercise was meant to deepen our understanding of ourselves and to heighten the sensory experience over the week.

On many days, we had time in our makeshift studio (the villa’s centuries-old chapel), talking with the leaders, sometimes discussing different elements of visual art expression (collage, sketching, perspective, color, etc.) and sometimes working quietly on our Chaekkoris.


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The beauty of Umbria, and the six local towns we visited, provided inspiration at every turn.

Our location was important to the creative and personal work we were undertaking that week. We stayed in an ancient castle, owned and beautifully restored by Jen and her husband.

The gardens of the estate are deeply layered, with an abundance of color and scents. The inside of the castle and annex that housed the 16 of us visitors was meticulously restored, featuring 13th century frescoes, vaulted ceilings, reclaimed terra cotta tile floors, and travertine marble stairs.

Our makeshift workshop for the week was in the adjoining church, with our art supplies set out on the former altar.

Our makeshift workshop for the week was in the adjoining church (now deconsecrated and restored), with our art supplies set out on the former altar.

The beauty and craftsmanship that surrounded us inspired us to open ourselves up to the creative process.

Almost every day, we would leave the villa to explore a nearby village. Each of these visits was designed to expand our creative thinking. On the day we visited the town of Assisi, for example, we were inspired by the frescoes at the Basilica of San Francesco d’Assisi (originally attributed to late-medieval artists Giotto and Cimabue). We searched among the frescoes for particular scenes that we had discussed in the morning; we were encouraged to take more careful note of the work, to look more closely, to reject the traditional tourist mindset of checking off a must-see—in essence to be fully present.

Each of the six towns we visited pushed us to new levels of appreciation for color, composition, texture, the juxtaposition between nature and the manmade, and the timelessness of thoughtful design and execution.

Returning from one of our excursions, we were asked to write in our journals five things we saw during our visit, four things we heard, three things we touched, two things we smelled (almost everyone mentioned scent of the abundant jasmine blooms), and one thing we tasted. The resulting answers created a lush word picture of the region—the gray-green of the olive trees on a hillside, footsteps on cobblestone, roughly spackled plaster in a church.

The region of Umbria is a slightly more rural and slightly less known version of neighboring Tuscany. The patchwork of golden fields and verdant meadows and mountains is similar in both; each has an abundance of medieval hilltop cities—including those we visited such as Gubbio, Perugia, Città di Castello, Spello, Todi, and Assisi.

For centuries, artists, such as the master of realism, have taken inspiration from the setting. We were happy to be following in their footsteps.


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Making the pasta from scratch, under the guidance of the wonderful Rosa, right.

Living communally, especially in such a sublime setting, created an almost charged atmosphere, where each of us fed off the energy and enthusiasm of the others in the group. We came from New York, South Carolina, South Africa, Australia, Aspen, San Antonio, Austin, Fort Lauderdale, Houston, and Connecticut. Professions were as varied as book editor, real estate specialist designer, humor writer and lawyers.

We were a diverse lot, but the one trait we shared was an openness to learn and grow from other women. We often gathered to talk about what we were experiencing. When several women used the word “awe” to describe their emotions, we drilled down on the word. The definition Jen offered was: “Being in the presence of something vast that transcends your understanding of the world.” What transcends my understanding on every NextTribe trip is how quickly and completely women who’ve never met before bond on these adventures.

We left her studio with the sense that if finding your calling leaves you with such confidence and grace, then we’d better not waste time in pursuing our own.

But it wasn’t just the women in our travel group who upped our game or boosted our idea of what is possible. During the week, we collaborated with local women who brought us into their world and their art. One day, for example, was set aside for a pasta-making class with a woman our own age named Rosa. As she worked with us on how to best knead the pasta dough, we learned  about her own passions. After working in retail and in a real estate office, she realized she sought more. “I wanted  to be more creative, and I love the creativity of cooking.” Today, Rosa cooks private meals and conducts classes all over Umbria, including for the likes of Gwyneth Paltrow, who has a home in the area.

We were similarly impressed with the perseverance of Marta Cucchia, a woman in the Umbrian capital of Perugia, who has devoted her life to resurrecting and promoting the traditional weaving for which the city became famous in the Middle Ages. Her workshop, called Giuditta Brozzetti, is located in the arched confines of a church and is an iteration of the weaving company her family has owned for generations.

“I decided to learn weaving to keep the family business alive,” Cucchia said, as she demonstrated how she makes extraordinary textiles on looms from the 18th and 19th centuries. She makes the textiles into pillows, table linens, and purses that she sells to support the workshop. We all left with a bit of a girl crush on the fascinating, glamorous Cucchia, who wore a gray pixie and had an impish spirit. Here was a funny woman who stubbornly pushed to achieve a dream, and she occupied her skin in an easy, animated way—obviously someone satisfied with her life and her contribution.

We left her studio buoyed by her story, with the sense that if finding your calling leaves you with such confidence and grace, then we’d better not waste time in pursuing our own.


Everyone’s girl crush, Marta Cucchia, demonstrating traditional weaving techniques in her studio.

After many of us spent hours in the the chapel, working on the art pieces that would represent our innermost selves, Jen and Anthinula asked us to present them to the group on the last day. I went first, having created several pages of collage and drawings (done by tracing, since I have no sketching talent) inside my journal.

Each page represented a formative stage in my life, a reminder of the many steps it took to become the woman I am today. The last page was a cutout of a bird and the word (made like a ransom note from cut out letters) that said “FLY,” what I am determined to do now that I’ve raised a family and left a marriage that was ultimately not good for me.

I realized that, like the flowers, I did not need to be more or less than I was.

Maria Austin from South Carolina, who confessed at the beginning of the week that she wasn’t keen on the idea of making art, showed us a stunning piece of work that she said was prompted by a walk on the property, where Spanish broom was profusely in bloom “I had a thought: the flowers in the field are not thinking of who they are, of being more or less in that moment, of what they were yesterday, or what they will be tomorrow,” she said. “Their only concern is to breathe and dance with the rest of life. And I realized that, like the flowers, I did not need to be more or less than I was. I was not a separate `self,’ but a lucky part of the breath of creation.”

Liz Hartmann, who works in the publishing industry in Manhattan, showed us an intricate collage of a book shelf and framed art pieces that expressed the importance of books, the primary art that inspires her life. “My whole life developed around books,” she said. The group found the attention to detail “mesmerizing,” which is exactly how Liz described the state of calm she slipped into while working on the collage.

The last to present was Peggy Miller from Austin, who had a career working with the blind and deaf. To the lovely strains of Celine Dion and Andrea Bocelli (again!) singing “The Prayer,” she signed the words. “It came to me on that last day, that we were all using our hands in activities uniquely created for us such as working making homemade pasta, creating food to share, pouring and drinking wine to celebrate us, hugging and more,” Peggy explained later. As she signed, her face and gestures conveyed so much love and gratitude that many of us were left in tears.

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Maria Austin presenting her art piece; Susan Witliff frolicking on the villa’s lawn; a farewell toast.

Peggy’s moving moment was followed by a final, glorious dinner beside the infinity pool, where we all answered Jen’s question: “What do you know now that you didn’t at the beginning of the week?” Many women chimed in with surprise that they were more creative than they ever knew. “I know now that I don’t have to be an artist to paint, or perhaps, that I am an artist even if I cannot paint,” said Lucie Frost from San Antonio. “Or perhaps, even, that I can paint and that I am an artist.”

She also echoed many other thoughts with this observation: “Remember there are no rules about anything. Just let go of judging, and feel.”

It was a fitting end to the week, but not an end to the reflection, the growth. After we parted, we continued our discussions via our text group and online.

“All I can say is I came back from the Umbria trip 2023 a different person,” said Tammy Sweed from Houston. “I must say that my stress level just melted off me being on this trip. I’ve learn to love life again. I’m getting up early. I am getting more done in a day and have more energy.”

“Everyone in our vibrant group of women was accomplished, experienced, and generous, so of course we had much to learn from one another,” said Laura Ross from New York City. “But we also practiced art under the guidance of a brilliant painter, cooked under orders from a top-notch chef, learned about weaving from a one-of-a-kind textile maker, and tasted wine and food produced by an award-winning vintner. Perhaps most special, we pushed our own creativity. At our point in life, we all have a lot to teach—but we still have so much to learn! Being reminded of that—feeding that—was at the heart of this unforgettable trip for me, and I am filled with gratitude for the privilege.”

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The whole group on our last night in paradise.

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By Jeannie Ralston


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