Earlier this summer I enjoyed a heavenly week relaxing and practicing yoga at the beautifully rustic Yoga Evolution Retreat Centre, located deep in the hills in central Portugal. The nearest town, Oleiros, is around about a 20 minute drive from the retreat. I went with a friend, and to get there we travelled to Oleiros by coach from Lisbon which was straightforward enough, taking around 3.5 hours. In Oleiros we were picked up by one of the retreat owners, Pete, for the final leg of the journey to the retreat centre, which is pretty much in the middle of nowhere and perfect for switching off and focusing on relaxing, nature and yoga. All in all the journey from my flat in London took about 12 hours which included a couple of hours wait for the coach in Lisbon. We arrived at the retreat fairly late in the evening, where we were welcomed by Pete’s partner, Sue, and show to our rooms to leave our luggage before heading to the outdoor dining area for a lovely dinner with the rest of the group who we would be spending the week with.
The food served throughout our stay (which was included in the retreat price) was incredible. All vegan and largely made from local produce, it was probably the healthiest diet I have ever eaten for 7 consecutive days in my entire life; there was nothing I didn’t enjoy eating. Although I’m not vegetarian or vegan myself, I love vegetarian food, and I am always happy to eat as many vegetables as possible. So cutting out meat and dairy for a week didn’t seem too traumatic. The type of food served was grain porridge, fresh fruit and muesli for breakfast, a selection of hearty salads for lunch and a grain served with a vegetable or pulse stew and a veg side dish for dinner. Super filling and always followed by a vegan dessert which was quite literally the icing on the cake. We were even served a vegan cheesecake on one evening. Admittedly it wasn’t quite the same as the real thing, but in some ways even nicer, knowing it was far healthier and made with all natural ingredients. All cooked up by the resident cook, Kate, the aim of the diet, as quoted on their website, is “to prepare food that is incredibly tasty and totally nutritious, that allows your digestive system to function optimally”. I can verify that the food was wonderful, and eating outdoors with the rest of the group makes it a lovely social activity. I felt great at the end of the week, but that may have also been due to the lack of alcohol and caffeine, lots of sleep and exercise and beautiful fresh air.
Which brings me on to the yoga. Firstly, I must admit that I do not practice yoga regularly while at home in London. In fact I do not have much experience of yoga at all, having only been to a handful of yoga sessions in my entire life. So I was a bit worried that I would feel like I couldn’t keep up with the rest of the class or manage the postures. But the sessions were designed for people of all levels and both teachers were absolutely fantastic, explaining everything thoroughly and correcting people in a friendly manner when required. They made the yoga feel quite manageable, so I didn’t feel like I struggled (too much!). The retreats are purposefully designed for small groups (there were nine the week I was there) so that the teachers have more time to spend assisting with the yoga practice. Sue took the morning class at 8am, which was a Dynamic Yoga Flow, lasting 2.5 hours. This practice was a flowing yang/yin asana practice which is designed to “build gradually over the week, gently relieving tensions while strengthening muscles, increasing endurance & enhancing flexibility.” Some of these sessions felt quite tough (for me!) as they required a certain level of strength and you move through some of the postures quite fast, but I felt great afterwards. I could definitely tell they were working muscles that barely get used! The evening session at 6pm was a 2 hour Yin Yoga Meditation with Peter which took a ‘yin approach’, where postures are held longer, always on the floor, “using mindful attention and awareness”. This is very much a strengthening session, and as the week passed, holding the postures for a long time seemed to become easier. The evening session started with meditation, which was gradually applied to the yin practices throughout the week. It was very relaxing. The sessions felt laid back and tranquil. All in all I really enjoyed the yoga and would definitely recommend a trip to the retreat to anyone with any level of experience, who wants to build on their ability or simply dip their toe into yoga.
For me however, part of the charm of the yoga sessions was the environment and location in they were carried out. Yoga was practiced in a wooden cabin set slightly up the hill from the main house and dining area, in a wooded area, a few minutes’ walk away from the main house. It really was a stunning location. I could see the yoga cabin from my bedroom window across the valley, which was a beautiful view to wake up to for the seven mornings I was there. I loved practicing yoga in a rustic wooden cabin and not a city gym or yoga studio. It felt utterly blissful. If you are looking to ‘get away from everything’, the location really is the best. It is very isolated in a rural location in central Portugal, and there are no towns within walking distance. There are a couple of tiny hamlets with a small number of houses not too far away, but that’s as built up as it gets. It is set in wooded forest land which is very steep and hilly, with lots of valleys and mountains in the distance. For me it was perfect, being from Shropshire and living in London means I yearn for the countryside so I am quite happy being away from urban and suburban areas. My friend and I went on a few walks while we were there and I couldn’t have felt happier. Just meandering through the hilly forests and not seeing a soul for hours was a true holiday for me. There is a saltwater swimming pool next to the house from which you have panoramic views across the valley; a perfect sunbathing spot with lovely cold water in which to cool off.
The price is £475 for a single room for the week, which includes all your food, yoga and accommodation plus transfers from the nearest town, Oleiros, which I don’t think could be better value. The room I stayed in in the main house, a rustic stone building, was utterly charming. Not in any way luxurious, but far from basic. Very pretty with vintage furniture and floral bed linen plus wooden shutters on the window which help keep your room cool during the days (it was 38 degrees when I was there at the end of June). There is no air con but I didn’t need it since the stone cottage is designed to keep the rooms cool in hot weather. Bathrooms are shared since the rooms are not en suite, but there are a few bathrooms dotted around the site, so not everyone shares the same bathroom. The showers were excellent, with good water pressure and hot water (or cold if you want to cool down). My friend paid £375 for the week and stayed in a wooden gypsy caravan set slightly up the hill from the main house, which is even better value, although way too hot during the day to go and have a lie down in. This didn’t matter too much as we spent a lot of time by the pool or walking. There is a Moroccan style lounge in the house which is great for hanging out with other guests, and a library where you can borrow books. There are also a number of super friendly cats and dogs which makes it feel like a home from home, as different pets come and park themselves in your room and demand cuddles throughout the week.
You can get cheap return flights from the UK to Lisbon, so for just over £600 I had the most relaxing holiday in a stunning location, with fantastic, healthy food and 4.5 hours of yoga a day. An absolute bargain. We spent an afternoon in Lisbon on our way back to the UK, which I utterly loved. I’ve been before and it is one of the best European cities there is in my mind. There are a number of pretty districts with trams riding steep streets, and a panorama of cobbled alleyways overlooking the Rio Tejo. It doesn’t feel as commercial as many major capitals, and is far cheaper, with very friendly people and an abundance of great cafes, bars and restaurants. I plan to go back later to Lisbon to spend more time there later this year, so I’ll save my ramblings about that until then.
As it turns out, I chose the timing of visiting a yoga retreat in central Portugal perfectly, I flew to Lisbon the day after the Brexit result. The day before, when the result was announced, I felt absolutely heartbroken. I couldn’t concentrate on anything other than the fact over half of the British people who went out to vote wanted to leave the EU, a union with the rest of Europe which is essentially a strong economic and political partnership. To me it seemed like absolute madness. So getting away from Britain and its people, who I felt pretty angry with, was definitely for the best at that point in time… A week of calming yoga in a serene location was the perfect antidote to Brexit madness at home.