Sitting up in bed in my wooden beamed room on the last full day of a creative writing retreat, I’m trying to ensure I take in every seemingly inconsequential detail. I’ve already peeked outside of course, it’s impossible not to as soon as you wake in your comfortable bed and realise with relish that you’re still here. At 7am the mist is still clinging to the fertile Basque mountains, and I consider if the birds and sheep took a break at all overnight from their colourful songs and conversations. For a moment I wonder if my neighbours back home would be irritated if I found windchimes for our garden that sound like the sheep bells. It seems wrong somehow to wake up without such a soundtrack after my second time on retreat here.
In 2019, when most of us were naïve enough to believe that we were the masters of our own travel plans, I first came to this beautiful mountain hamlet in Navarra, Northern Spain, for a Spanish language and walking retreat. I felt welcomed well before I stepped foot on the plane in Dublin due to the friendly, almost maternal, email correspondence from Georgina Howard, the founder and creator of this nurturing place. In person Georgina certainly didn’t disappoint. A lady who swoops into a room with purpose and enthusiasm, scanning her guests for signs that anyone doesn’t have exactly what they need to feel at home. Georgina’s passion for the beauty and history of the area and love for the Basque shepherd community remains undiminished after decades here.
We had our Spanish classes inside in September of 2019, the mountain air a little too chilly in the morning. Not a hardship at all given the spectacular views that show off from across the valley through the classroom window. This trip however there has been uncannily warm May weather and our creative writing sessions have taken place mainly on the terrace, with its timeless furniture and hibiscus and laurel trees. As the only card carrying European, strangely I’ve been in the minority with writers who have travelled as far as California. Drawn across the world initially by the reputation of our tutor Diana Friedman, an award-winning author, editor, and teacher.
Surrounded by published writers, I’ve surely posed a dilemma to Diana as a mathsy-person-turned-writer who can’t talk about literature with any authority, leaning on a business degree rather than anything more rich or interesting. But somehow Diana has woven the class content and writing prompts together so well that we’ve formed a cohesive, eclectic little group of fiction, non-fiction and memoir writers. The thought of reading my raw work aloud at the beginning of the week a little unnerving and by the end natural, even comfortable.
I’m surprised that I’ve held back so long on mentioning the food. Breakfast and lunch are a casual affair, with a vast range of delicious ingredients to assemble, so easy to create a masterpiece on a plate. Everything is included, in a ‘help yourself and tell us if there’s anything else we can get you from the town’ kind of way. For dinner Chef Carol has delighted us with food to suit both vegetarians and meat eaters. Even a side of baby gem lettuce is shaped by Carol into a masterpiece that guests can’t help but photograph. We’ve eaten outside most nights, more time to take in the views and be serenaded by the birdsong, animals’ bells and very chatty sheep.
It’s my birthday tomorrow and I’m fortunate enough to now have plans to spend some time with a couple of new writer friends in San Sebastián. But if the bus were cancelled it wouldn’t be a tragedy to spend another day here.