Franco Berrino: “Waking up at dawn, greeting the sun and eating healthy: this is how I dream of living happily and for a long time”

Homomorto. It is the name of the village which, arriving from Florence, crosses before arriving at the Mausoleum. And a paradox worthy of the best Tuscan humor, for a place where one studies how to live well and long. In the grand entrance of the 17th century villa of Soci (Arezzo), property of the Camaldoli monks, there is the scent of incense and a lot of silence, under the rule of the brothers who still live today in the monastery, a few kilometers from here. After a few seconds, Franco Berrino comes down the grand staircase. Over a black t-shirt he wears a dark blue cotton short kimono, with large hooded sleeves. a gift from Japan – tells theepidemiologist, 78 years old, for more than 40 years director of the department of preventive and predictive medicine at the Milan Tumor Institute -. Now my uniform when I’m here. comfortable, see? I can also keep my arms warm on cooler days like this.

Six months a year, the doctor who has long been considered a reference in terms of healthy eating, spends them here, in Tuscany (see the photo gallery here). When she arrives from Milan, her eyes are almost dull, whisper the three women who manage and work with the doctor in the small community of the Mausoleum: Enrica Bortolazzi, founding partner with Berrino of their association La Grande via, Simonetta Bargella, the cook , and Lucia Vigliani , yoga and meditation teacher according to the Himalayan tradition. Then, after a few days, he is reborn. I get up very early – explains Berrino -. Every day I go to see the sunrise on the terrace to do the sun salutation. If someone follows me? No, not all customers want it at that time. But I also climb alone to the hermitage of the brothers: four and a half hours of walking uphill and two and a half hours downhill. Few are behind me, you know?. He smiled calmly, almost like a Japanese monk. Who with the same immobility in the soul reveals: To die healthy is my dream. I would like my life to end like this, passing away peacefully after saying goodbye to my children and grandchildren. Yes, of course, maybe a bit of a utopia. His beloved wife Jo died two years ago of cancer. Maybe I too will fall ill with a serious illness. But it’s worth trying to imagine a different ending. In 2015, he founded La grande via, the association that now organizes seminars at the Mausoleum to teach guests who stay there one or two weeks to eat healthy. But also to orient oneself through physical activity and meditation. Target? Ambitious, and rigorously scientific: to explain the secret of happy longevity.

The question is close to his heart but also a public health emergency dictated by the figures. Thanks to advances in medicine, life expectancy in Italy has increased by 8 years in the last 40 years (Istat data), reaching 80 years for men and 85 years for women. We have been living longer and longer for some time. If we look at healthy life expectancy, the number changes and drops a lot: 72 years for men and 74 years for women (WHO estimates). In other words, this means that on average you reach this age in good health and then you get sick. Cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer. Today, more than 90% of people over 65 use drugs. It lacks a culture of old age, convinced Berrino. It is believed that the elderly are now beyond all possibility of growth and improvement. But not so, convinced the doctor. Epidemiological studies suggest much can be done to reverse the trend. And never too late to start. That is to say, many of these diseases could be avoided by changing the lifestyle. Getting closer, he argues, to that of the Camaldoli brothers. Or that of Buddhist monks, Scandinavian shamans. Or the kind of existence that transpires in many enlightened readings, from Dante to the Tao-t-ching. All the great cultures of the world have always sought the keys to a healthy and happy existence, explains the doctor in the last book,The mandala of life (Mondadori)written with Enrica Bortolazzi. And, although they were distant in time and space – she adds – they all shared the laws of universal harmony, capable of giving lightness and joy. Read that today, coincidentally, are confirmed by the same science. Therefore, say the authors, they are worth recovering. The idea is precisely this: to create a new large lay monastery at the Mausoleum. Built on the three pillars of long life: healthy eating, physical activity and spiritual pursuit.

In the villa of the monks of Camaldoli

People of all ages come here with different problems. On arrival and at the end, clients undergo measurements and medical examinations. People who left yesterday after 12 days lost an average of 5 centimeters in waist circumference, 10 points in blood sugar, 10 in systolic blood pressure, 5 in diastolic blood pressure, assures Berrino. Last week there was also a Sicilian couple, both overweight. It was only three days but they left with the certainty that they could do it. At the Mausolea the day starts at 7am with yoga. We meet in the dojo, the large room on the first floor with a view of the Casentinesi Forest National Park. But not only physical activity – explains Lucia Vigliani -. Yoga is thus set up as a Western aberration. We do meditation, conscious breathing.

Then breakfast all together at 8 a.m. in the refectory, following the precepts of macromediterranean diet. The quantities are free and the possibilities are numerous: cécine, kefir, compotes, cooked fruits, grilled seeds, bread, tea, barley coffee and herbal teas. No added sugar, no coffee: Addictive. It should only be drunk once in a while, just for the pleasure of drinking it. I give it to myself from time to time at the bar, says Berrino. At 1 p.m. light lunch, based on whole grains, legumes and vegetables, for example risotto with leeks, courgette flowers and chopped hazelnuts, followed by lentil croquettes and apple cabbage. In the afternoon, cookery or natural bread-making lessons. At 7 p.m. a frugal dinner, usually soup and some vegetables, before the last meditation. Then a little homemade dessert. But small for real! A half-filled cup of a sugar-free prepared candy. Once a week, however, dinner is skipped. Meat is not eaten. Now proven by science: foods of animal origin should be consumed with caution. I don’t miss meat at all. The last time I ate salami was at a family wedding, at Felino they served culatello and fried cake. Otherwise, I indulge in free-range chicken a few times a year. And no one is ever wrong? If he sees a cake, he can hardly resist…, jokes Bortolazzi. Cos Berrino explains: ultra-processed food hurts, in this I try not to fall into temptation. You should only eat home-cooked meals, with simple ingredients, only fruit sugars. But have any of the guests ever been hungry? Uh, that happens from time to time. Once we discovered a lady in the room who had brought snacks….

The value of silence

Guests are then guided through rejuvenating activities: from a meditative walk in the woods to walk barefoot in the meadow still wet with dew. Those who come here appreciate it very much, a way of reconnecting with nature. And then pilates, gymnastics. Finally, spirituality. Which does not necessarily mean observing the rites of a religion. In the Tao-t-ching there is a beautiful sentence: to die without perishing true longevity. What does that mean? Let die the egoic personality that we have built for ourselves to find the true essence and realize our own existence. And what is really important, that is, the things of the soul. To do this, the ultimate secret, they assure the Mausoleum, is to observe silence from time to time. The teaching of the monks of Camaldoli – explains Enrica Bortolazzi – is just that: to be silent to give things the right place. I was once a guest in their hermitage for seven days. There was a deafening silence, after the first three days I wanted to escape. Then I forced myself to stay. On the fourth morning, I woke up with a feeling of absolute peace. In the end I understood in depth what the monks say, with only an apparent paradox: in the noise we hear nothing while in the silence we hear the voice of God. Here silence is observed at dinner, during walks and meditation. Those who arrive enter into this atmosphere. And it comes out with the awareness that you can always change. To live (perhaps) longer. Certainly happier.

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