Farida Zeynalova seeks repose at a family-run retreat in the Portuguese mountains
I’ve never tried yoga before (yes, there are still yoga virgins out there…), and I’m so grateful to have found Vale de Moses, a blissful refuge in the foothills of the Serra da Estrela mountains in central Portugal. In need of an emotional and physical reboot, I silence my work emails, warn friends and family I’ll be unreachable and swap the tussles of London for a week on the Cultivate Contentment retreat.
I fly into Lisbon and take the three-hour coach journey to the town of Oleiros. After a short drive through the mountains and pine trees, I arrive at the secluded retreat beneath the village of Amieira, already decompressing, with London miles away, mentally as well as geographically. I drag my rickety suitcase down the rocky path leading to the main house, owned by the boundlessly warm husband and wife, Andrew and Vonetta Winter. They arrived here in 2007 and decided to stay thanks to their dog Moses, who shared his name with the valley. Their home, assembled with hard work and love, is a wood and stone complex, encompassed by eucalyptus trees and crisp, mountain air. It feels more like a Portuguese aunt’s home than a retreat — in a good way.
Walk on the wild side
Our days start with early-morning walks through the forest. Andrew teaches us to focus on meditative breathing and self-worth. “You are a perfect version of who you are,” he says softly, as we pause, standing on the edge of the hilltop. I focus on a single tree in the distance and take a deep breath — the vast, open space before me a far cry from the frenzy back home. Every morning sees us take part in a different restorative exercise amongst the striking wilderness.
We take a silent walk back to the house, and then it’s time for yoga. Proper yoga. Vonetta, who hails from Barbados, leads the class, radiating warmth and benevolence from the start. I gawp at her flawless, glowing skin as I start unrolling my yoga mat, and she instantly calms my nerves as a first-time yogi with her mollifying voice. It’s a balmy Monday morning in Portugal, and the position of the wooden yoga shala feels like we are hovering among the trees. The classes take place twice a day for two hours, and begin with freedom of movement — a way to encourage the body to undulate and move in any direction it wishes. After a creak here and a crack there, I feel ready. Vonetta’s methods centre on vinyasa yoga, and she incorporates her own moves into the physical practice, entwining them with philosophical teachings. A dozen sun salutations later, we end the class with a Sanskrit mantra: “lokah, samastah, sukhino, bhavantu” — a wish for all beings everywhere to be happy and free. I put my hands into prayer position and take a deep breath. As far as first-time yoga experiences go, I strike gold.
Downstairs, I hear the roaring voice of Spanish chef Raul, who spent years studying Sattvic dishes, popular in Ayurveda and yoga culture and known for their healing and nutritional values. His morning granola and porridge takes centre-stage, and there isn’t a stereotypically meagre vegan dish in sight. Instead, Raul, a culinary magician, creates wholesome, nutritious dishes such as curries, salads, soups and even a vegan chorizo that I devour far too quickly. The Thai soup with lemongrass is also another sumptuous favourite.
Swimming in the wild, refreshing waters of the winding River Zezere is an unforgettable experience. I slather my body in the remedial mud of the riverbanks, which glitters as it dries on my skin, ridding my pores of London’s grime. And the best bit? The trees and fish are the only other beings around. Vale de Moses, along with every individual who helps run it, is a truly unruffled corner of Portugal that’s so pure, I almost didn’t want to write about it.
• Twice-daily yoga classes
• Daily guided silent meditation walks through the forest
• Three nutritious meals a day
• Free time for swimming, massages and walking
• A trip to River Zezere for a mud bath and swim
The following retreats are available to book with Vonetta:
Rainbows on your Eyelashes: October 1-7, Cultivate Contentment: October 8-14.
Price: £715 per week excluding flights.
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