Mum and Baby Experience review
Bonding healthy holidays for new mums in Tuscany
The Quick Read: The Mum and Baby Experience offers a week-long much-needed reboot for new mothers who despair of ever having a holiday again. The combination of ruggedly healthy Tuscan countryside, Italian home cooking, yoga, childcare and the camaraderie of other women in the same position, is a winning one. For guilt-ridden working mums, run-ragged single mums and mothers who just need a break from the routine, it is a chance to relax (ok, not completely, but just enough) and reconnect with their children in a lovely hillside villa with a pool. The healthy holidays run about 4-5 times a year, in May/June, and in late August.
Who it’s best for: In a word, mothers. They come from the UK and other European countries and most are attracted by the idea of a communal holiday (almost an extended family model) where they can share childcare and baby banter with other women while their children play together and learn from each other. You are likely to find professional working mothers who want to enjoy quality time with their little ones without the distractions of work/home and generally mums, dads and their partners who need a break.
Although men are welcome, and many women do come with partners, there’s a solid matriarchal element going on, so it won’t suit some men.
What you do: The villa is tucked away on a hillside, surrounded by oak trees, with a child-friendly enclosed garden and an idyllic view down the valley to a reservoir. Going for long or short walks along the practically deserted country roads with your baby/toddler in a sling or pram is easy and there is a lovely swimming pool which is always at guests’ disposal. Wellbeing activities include walking, yoga and meditation, cooking, swimming and massage. There’s a hot tub too.
On this retreat the daily yoga classes were taken by Renata, an excellent local yoga teacher who practises a very gentle Ayurvedic therapeutic yoga. She focuses on poses for recovering core strength and flexibility following birth. The rishis (toxin cleansers) are combined with gentle asana. The final session will be a meditation, which can be moving or static, and will draw on either Buddhist, yogic or North American Indian traditions. If you’re impatient to get back shape and hoping to do it through aerobic yoga, then you may find Renata’s meditative style frustrating. However, if you just want to reconnect with your body and coax flexibility back into your limbs, it’s ideal. There’s always the pool if you want to do more vigorous exercise.
Maria is a good local masseuse with 25 years of experience and training in shiatsu and deep tissue massage. One treatment is included in the price (massage or facial) and Maria’s massage is a good all-round full body massage. If you want strong deep tissue or work on specific areas you will need to ask for it. Sessions last 45 minutes and extra sessions cost 50 euros.
Where you stay: Villa Radicata is a traditional stone Tuscan farmhouse with exposed beams, dark wood and tiled floors. The barn is being converted in 2015, which will adding another three en suite double bedrooms and a kitchen.
The decor is homely and unpretentious (it is also the Kobraks’ home) and the main living spaces, kitchen and bathrooms are kitted out for little ones (bouncy and high chairs, play zones, buggies, and toys galore).
Meals take place on the vine-covered veranda or inside in the dining room if the weather’s bad. The main living room is a traditional inner hall on the first floor from which three bedrooms are accessed. This is the communal play area for kids and has a TV with some English channels (the DVD was on the blink during our visit). The floor is hard and tiled but quilts and yoga mats can be used to form a soft surface. The communal bathroom has a baby bath and baby changing accessories.
Your ‘experience’ can vary according to the bedroom you are allocated. At time of review there were three double en suite bedrooms, which are easily big enough for a couple and a small child. The first floor room has the advantage of its own balcony, access to the garden and a lovely sunken bath. The second floor room only has a shower in the en suite but has lovely windows and a floaty four poster bed. There are two other small bedrooms, one which has two quite narrow single beds and the other a small double. The converted barn will provide three extra en suite doubles.
Once in Tuscany this works out as a low energy holiday as sheets and towels are not changed unless requested, most food is locally sourced or grown and rubbish is recycled. Solar panels are also planned for this year.
How was it for us: I was curious to find out how ‘retreat’ and ‘baby’ could go together in one sentence. When my son Rex (my firstborn) was six months I found myself a physical wreck holding on to my sense of self and wellbeing by a strand of hair (one of the few that hadn’t already been ripped out by cute little hands).
We were driven through some gorgeous countryside to a Tuscan farmhouse on the side of a hill which had a view that could have been painted by Raphael. There were just two other mothers on retreat: a thirty-something marketing executive with an 8-month-old daughter and a teacher from Barcelona with a toddler.
After a wholesome lasagne cooked by Maria, the epitome of a jolly Italian mama, we all fell into bed early. Despite the fact that Rex slept through a thunderstorm, my first night was rather uncomfortable in a small room on a child’s size single bed. The next day I upgraded to the big double en suite which turned out to be a wise move as the weather wasn’t great.
Spirits were a little low that evening as we realised this wasn’t going to be a holiday in the sun. However, having accepted it, I was able to get on with giving my son the unlimited attention he deserved, which was made easier by the fact there was no internet at the villa and a limited mobile signal.
Overcast skies did not stop us from lovely walks and enjoying the sights of the nearby medieval fort town of Anghiari on market day, or the delicious home-prepared meals. One of the big highlights was designing our own pizzas and cooking them in the wood oven one evening and I’m chuffed that I now know how to make fresh pasta.
The mother from Barcelona, who was struggling to bring up a demanding little girl on her own, found it a godsend. The mum from London enjoyed herself but felt there could have been more to do in bad weather.
As for my son Rex, he definitely seemed to benefit from having the undiluted attention of his mother and several other adoring females and from the stimulation of being around older children in a healthy environment.
What we took home: It was an opportunity to take stock and recognise that things do change when you have a baby and it’s OK not to push yourself. I really benefited from Renata’s recuperative yoga and despite being a lot gentler than the kind I was used to before Rex, it was just about right for my post-partum physical state. She gave us asanas to bring us back into our bodies after giving birth and to strengthen the pelvic area and release tension in our backs and shoulders, which was bliss.
Would we go back: Yes. I relaxed, I got through an entire novel, caught up on some uninterrupted sleep (something about the country air…) and shared some funny stories with the other mums over a few bottles of wine. If I’d gone on a family holiday with my partner, I would’ve ended up doing most of the washing up, cooking and childcare.
People watch: The M&B Experience is the brainchild of Rita Kobrak, who designed the retreat seven years ago with her daughter around mums in their baby club in London. They fantasised about having a holiday without cooking, cleaning and childcare. Rita, who had been working in the tourist industry for 17 years and happened to be renovating a Tuscan farmhouse at the time, put two and two together. As an Anglo-Italian, Rita is very knowledgeable about Italian food, culture and the local area. She is also a relatively new mother herself and understands the needs of her guests. Her lovely daughter Alessia helps out too. Host Rita teaches part-time at a nursery school and so has been CRB checked. Maria and Fernanda are not formally qualified (except by having children of their own) but are wonderful with kids and are around during the day to take your baby off your hands during yoga, or if you just want some time to yourself.
Food watch: Breakfast at 8am is typically a choice of fruit, yoghurt and cereal. Cooked breakfast (eggs) is available to order. Lunch and supper are classic, tasty Tuscan dishes – the usual suspects of risotto, lasagne, homemade tagliatelle and home-baked pizza, prepared by local cook Fernanda, using mainly locally grown and organic produce. Every meal is accompanied by delicious local wine. A lighter lunch might be prosciutto, wild boar sausage, local cheese, truffle paste nibbles and salad.
As a mid-week treat (included in the price) guests dine at a wonderful family-run farmhouse restaurant just outside Anghiari which is also an olive mill. Guests are asked to bring their own formula or special baby diet, if required, but otherwise toddlers can eat with the adults. The kitchen is always open for baby food prep, teas and coffee.
Afternoon cookery classes take place in the kitchen and are hosted by neighbour Fernanda and Maria, both restaurant trained. Demonstrations include homemade pasta, pizza (the villa has an outside wood oven) and traditional treats like tiramisu and lasagne.
What’s queenly: The M&B Experience really stands out as unique – there is very little else out there for new mothers, apart from the odd spa day. It’s a golden opportunity to spend undiluted time with your little one, eat good food, catch up on sleep (in the daytime if not at night) and share the highs and lows of motherhood with people who really understand what you’re going through.
What’s lowly: Although it advertises (and mostly delivers) a ‘home from home’ experience, there are some little details like a welcoming drink and flowers in the bedroom which would make a difference. There also could be more activities if the weather is bad.
Insider tip: Pay extra for a large bedroom – the small ones really are tiny and, if the weather isn’t great, you might tear your hair out in such a small space.
Price per person going solo: £800-£900 for five nights (depending on room) including accommodation, meals with wine, classes, babysitting (during classes, massage or facial), excursion and airport transfers. Babies/toddlers stay free.
Price with a companion: A second adult sharing the same room is charged £500.
Value for money: It’s a generous-hearted package with pretty much everything included (even wine).
Reviewed by Imogen O’Rorke
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