Divino Amore at Yoga in Salento

The dining room at Yoga in Salento

I had a wonderful time at Yoga in Salento in the summer of 2016. Yoga in Salento is a divine yoga retreat in an agroturismo in Salento, the heal of the boot of Italy in the early summer season.

I had such a wonderful time there – as an invited wellness writer then for my website The Global Yogi, that I am hosting a Radical Self Love Retreat there this year, in late September! So exciting!

Here is the story of my 2016 stay at Yoga in Salento, from the archives of my beloved Global Yogi website.

I spent one of the best weeks of my life thus far at Yoga in Salento in the heel of the boot in the stunning Puglia region of Southern Italy in 2016.

I had just escaped a dominatrix manager at another yoga retreat not far away in the Puglian hills, where I had been working as an volunteer wellness dogsbody (translate: chopping veggies, cleaning, making ‘activated’ almonds, washing dishes after dinner, taking out the garbage and complaining loudly about the state of the recycling – or rather complete lack of it – system).

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t have anything against being a karma yogi (I have done it dozens of times) and I am totally fine with manual work. But, I do have a minimum requirement: that people are kind and caring to me… so this particular gig was not my jive.

I was so happy to be back in my more ‘elegant’ role of wellness writer, where I got to test out this retreat for a week and then write about it for my audience. This was much more my kind of job!

It was so relaxing that I sometimes I almost melted into the earth after a rigorous yoga class followed by a divine breakfast of muesli and a sprinkling of dew speckled mulberries straight from the tree.

I wanted to stay there forever. And I did investigate that possibility, but it seems they didn’t have an immediate opening for a full time wordsmith and purveryor of all things well.

This was a common feeling for me during my years as the Global Yogi – as a guest at yoga retreats around the world, but I experienced it much more intensely at this one.

Here are ten reasons to visit Yoga in Salento.

1 Beautiful nature at Yoga in Salento, Italy.

One of my favourite things about a retreat is connection with the natural world. Yoga in Salento is set on 20 hectares of land; much of it cultivated for veggie gardens and fruit orchards.

There is also a swimming pool surrounded by lush green grass peppered with olive trees and bedecked with hammocks for lying on and reading your favourite author between dips.

Or you can just lie in the grass – one of my favourite ways of connecting with the Earth and grounding your energy.

The food in the vegetarian restaurant is sourced from the large and well cared for veggie garden, which at the time I was there was full of just ripening tomatoes, young zucchini, eggplant, potatoes, carrots and capsicums.

The orchard just outside my bedroom provided fresh peaches, plums, loquats and apricots for the breakfast buffet, as well as a freshly picked pile of mulberries every day. I felt like i had died and gone to heaven!

The main Yoga Studio at YIS
The small Yoga Studio, in the main house

2. There are two studios at Yoga in Salento, one big one, which provides 360 degree garden views through the windows on all sides.

In the evening you can watch the sunset while you are peeping over your toes in forward bend.

The second studio is in the old part of the house, with vaulted stone ceilings and shiny wooden floors.

YIS founder Francesca Maniglio is a firm but kind teacher, and leads both led and Mystore style Ashtanga yoga classes on her retreats. She comes around to see everyone in the class, making suggestions and adjustments as necessary. As someone with a lets say – ‘not so strict’ primary series practice, I really noticed the workout my body was getting during her practice, compared with my sometimes much ‘lighter’ version (although – no self-judgement here!).

Though I was very tired after our first class, I really noticed the openings in different parts of my body and deeply appreciated this chance to get my lapsed primary series practice back on track. By the second day my body was getting used to the discipline of the 2 hour practice and I was not tired any more but energised and refreshed after class.

After a few days together, the six of us on our retreat were joined by a few of Francesca’s local students, and we did a group Mysore practice, which felt like a long slow moving meditation for me each morning.

3. New Friends

Paola and Roberta from our retreat spending the afternoon at the beach in Otranto with the Iyengar retreat group. RIGHT TOP: Paola and Giuliana from my retreat checking out shoes. RIGHT BOTTOM: Me and Elisa checking out Zollino town in front of some interesting sculptures we found there.

Our retreat group was fairly small but comprised of a mix of nationalities and ages.

There was Nadine, a psychologist in her thirties from Germany, Paola also in her thirties, a communications specialist from Amsterdam (via Colombia), another thirty-something – massage therapist Roberta and her mother Giuliana from Northern Italy, and a beautiful, fun loving real estate agent Elisa also from the north of Italy.

By the second morning at breakfast it felt like I was hanging out with old friends, with jokes being cracked left right and centre in a mix of Italian and English with a smattering of Spanish (with me, Paola, and our Italian restaurant host Anna, who had spent many years living in Costa Rica). Passion for yoga was such a strong connecting thread, and I couldn’t help but notice how very positive and optimistic all in our group were. 

Could this be evidence of the successful cultivation of ‘Santosha’ (contentment)?

It is not often, I noticed myself thinking, that you are in a group of six or so strangers, and you feel close to zero envy, jealousy or resentment present.

Is yoga responsible for this or does yoga attract these kinds of people? Chicken or the egg? At the same time as us, there was another retreat group: about six older ladies and one older man, who came with their teacher, an Iyengar yoga specialist from Northern Italy. Laughter yoga was also in full swing at this table.

Two ladies in the other group were like Italian versions of Eddy and Patty of Absolutely Fabulous fame (but healthier!!), riffing off of each other at every turn. They were cracking jokes like wildfire and the joy literally bubbled over like a good Prosecco from this table of mirthful Italian yogis.

I hadn’t signed up for laughter yoga, but I got a healthy dose every morning at breakfast, lunch and dinner.

4. Luscious Healthy Organic Food       

Delicious delights were laid out for us every day at YIS

Although I have already mentioned it: just the food alone is a great reason to come here. A lot of the fresh veggies and fruit come straight from the ground to the table.

The food at Yoga in Salento is lovingly made by the Italian chef Gianfranco who each day creates a feast for the eyes, which quickly translates into a festival for your taste buds. Having worked as a chef in restaurants in London for many years, he has a vegetarian repertoire than spans many continents and cuisines. 

Anna is the divine hostess in the restaurant and serves the food with a bright smile in a different gorgeous outfit each day.

And though I adore Italian food I was so happy to be eating delicious Moroccan style chickpea salad and couscous on one day, and Japanese sushi and delightful vegetarian tempura the next (yes, it is fried, but it is also – divine!).

For those who are on a strict vegan or even raw diet, every meal there are plenty of options from tasty salads to chopped raw veggies with dips and raw deserts made from fresh fruit from the garden.

5. A Piano

As a musician I had to put this one in.

At the back of the restaurant there is a lovely piano in good working order. I spent many a happy hour or so playing the piano each night while the chefs were preparing dinner.

6. Swimming Pool

In the hot summer months in Southern Italy a pool is like this a gift straight from the heavens: una piscina divina.

After a two hour Ashtanga Vinyasa class there is nothing better than jumping straight in. 

I spent a few very relaxing afternoons in the hammock brushing up on my rudimentary Italian reading the Italian Yoga Journals I found in the front office. Plus – If you forgot your bikini, you can pick one up from the shop next to reception!

7. Zollino and the Pisello Enano

Paola and the famous ‘Pisello Enano’ which I didn’t find on my walk in Zollino, but luckily she took this pic to prove it really exists!

Just a ten minute walk up the road and you are in the centre of the town of Zollino is one of eleven towns that form Grecia Salentina; a group of towns populated by peoples of Grecian descent, some of whom still speak the language Grikoa, a variant of Greek.

Greek people have been living in Italy for millennia and there is some dispute as to whether the Greek Salentinians or Salentinos in the local dialect, are descended from ancient Greeks or from the medieval Byzantine migrations to southern Italy caused by the Ottoman conquest.

Either way, I had no idea there was this little pocket of Greece here in Southern Italy.

Though it appears somewhat desolate in the afternoon hours (siesta), and can feel like a bit of a ghost town, in the evening it comes alive, with a singing mass in the church and folks young and old chatting around the local bar.

With Elisa exploring Zollino

I went there on Friday evening with Elisa for dinner. We wandered around, took some pics or us in front of some beautiful alabaster sculptures (see pic above) we stumbled upon in the towns perimeter, and then went to a rather fancy restaurant.

We arrived at about 9pm and it was completely empty, but by 10, it felt like the whole of Zollino plus a few travellers (perhaps on a Pisello Enano tour!) had come down to celebrate Friday night with plates of fresh fish and shellfish. We broke out from the yoga retreat menu and each had a glass of white wine and sampled a delectable seafood selection.

Though I didn’t manage to find it on my afternoon wanderings, according to Paola, the highlight of Zollino is the infamous Pisello Enano.

Translating as the  dwarf pea, Zollino is home to a statue in honour of this wondrous legume.

No doubt the pisello enano has tantalised the taste buds and filled the stomachs of Zollinians since time immemorial, and thus, is very much deserving of such an enduring honour. As you can see, it had a big impact on Paola, who spent the next few days reminiscing about this impressive homage to this small pea, definitely a candidate to add to the odd monuments of the world collection.

8. Lecce, Otranto and Surrounds

Beautiful piazza in the middle of the white paved streets of Lecce

Curious to visit Lecce, the jewel in the crown of the ‘città bianche’ white limestone towns of Puglia, I caught a small rackety two carriage ‘regionale’ train from Zollino station.

Just a 30 minute ride (thankfully, because the only aircon was from the open windows), within a jiffy I was gliding across the white stoned streets of Lecce. I had one mission: gelati, and found an old fashioned trattoria where I was choose ‘mandorle’ (almond) and pistacchio. A nuttylicious ice cream.

Just a short drive from Yoga in Salento on either side of the Salentine peninsula are the stunning beach towns of Otranto and Gallipoli, with white sandy beaches and aquamarine mediterranean water.

I didn’t visit these towns, but my retreat companions did and were full of praise for the stunning beaches and the people they met. For those of you like me who love spas, there is also Santa Cesaria del Terme: a whole town dedicated to the delicate arts of pampering the body and nurturing the soul.

9. Divino Amore

Divino Amore, AKA Clarke Gable from Gone with the Wind

On day three of the retreat, in the late afternoon, a handsome stranger came to town.

You know how every story is a variation on one of two themes: I went on a journey, or a stranger came to town.

This time it was the second one.

Yes, just like in the movies. (I am going to make her an offer she can’t refuse…..) …. I was relaxing in the chairs just outside the restaurant with my fellow joyful yoginis when this tall dark haired, tanned, good-looking Italian man turned up. In a fresh white shirt and chinos, shiny black shoes and swept back hair a-la Clarke Gable in Gone with the Wind, he didn’t look really like your typical yoga retreat-ant.

Somehow he was too shiny, hair too perfect and the cigarette he pulled out was also a bit of a giveaway.  

Oh, and…. he was a man. We wondered: Was he lost? What was he doing here? Who waaaas this man? Hmmmmmmm.

Something for all of us to think about, which we did. And er, talk about, at dinner. At length.

Funny the effect of a handsome stranger on a group of women away from home at a yoga retreat. It came to the end of dinner and Paola showed us all some of her trophies picked up during the afternoons’ tour of the surrounding district. One was a bottle of liqueur called ‘Divino Amore’.

Yes, that’s right, a bottle of divine love.

Only in Italy. Suddenly a connection was somehow made with this bottle of luscious almond liqueur (which Paola then opened and poured into little glasses for us all) and the handsome stranger of the afternoon. As we clinked glasses together for another round, the jokes were coming thick and fast until…….. there he was at the door.

A hushed silence came over all of us.

He walked in, looked over at us nonchalantly, sat down at the free table next to us and ordered a glass of wine. And we broke out giggling like a group of schoolgirls. He looked over, raised an eyebrow, and also raised his wine glass with a certain panache.

Good looking, and stylish too.

Will he come back again for our retreat?

Unfortunately I cannot guarantee this, but, the Agroturismo that plays host to Yoga in Salento has many rooms and is always open for overnight stays of non-yogi people, so, as my favourite snack food vendor in Rishikesh says every day to passers by…. everything is possible!

Later that evening I got a knock at my window. It was him.

Yes, Divino Amore himself.

It was after midnight, and somehow, he had lost his cigarette lighter and he mimed at me the action of striking a lighter and waved about an imaginary cigarette…… did I have a light?

Hmmmmmmmm. I looked up from my book and mimed at him my chakras opening up from the top of my head:

I am a yogi, darling, I mimed back: I AM the light!

10. Time for some Divino Amore for you?

Number ten, is, how about creating your own week of Divino Amore (AKA, Radical Self Love) at Yoga in Salento with me this September?!

I can’t wait to go back to this place on my upcoming retreat, and see the world famous Pisello Enano of  Zollino that I missed out on last time, and knock back a glass of Divino Amore after dinner, hopefully with some or all of the lovely friends I met here last time.

Or maybe even – with you!

Find out more about my Radical Self Love Retreat happening late September 2019 at Yoga In Salento.

Big thanks to all the friends I met at Yoga in Salento and to Roberta Rosati and Nadine D’Orsay for letting me use some of their photos.