If we are lucky then there are those serendipitous times in life when everything falls into place – right location, right people, right time – and the world feels in complete harmony. Well, I’ve just experienced one of those occasions – the first week of yoga in a new retreat, Santillan, hidden away in the hills above Malaga. And to be there at the very beginning of something so special has been a privilege and a pleasure, though our guinea pig status testing out a brand new venture did have some interesting moments.
This may sound rather overblown but what comes to mind when musing on my wonderful last seven days in sunny Andalucia is a quote I remember reading about a Bruce Springsteen concert. It went along the lines of: “there are good concerts, there are great concerts and then there’s a Bruce Springsteen concert”. I now feel the same about yoga retreats – there are good ones, (it has to be said there are also some terrible ones!), definitely some great ones (I’ve been on some of them) but there’s Simon Low. As a teacher, for me, Simon Low could well be the Bruce of the yoga shala, though he might not thank me for the analogy!
Put Simon together with the warmth and light of southern Spain, add Eija Tervonen, his telepathically-talented accomplice, the most beautiful yoga studio imaginable, like-minded people to get to know plus my favourite kind of food, and blend together with Spanish hospitality in a glorious setting, and the experience has been unforgettable. Oh, and there was a gorgeous dog too…. and a yoga wall to hand upside down on.
Lucy Edge, author of Yoga School Dropout (a copy is currently winging its way to my door) and the Yogaclicks web site, was another alumna of this inaugural week and has written her own blog post Yoga Clicks – Santillan about the set up and launch of the Santillan retreat by Simon and his new business partner in the venture, hotel owner Tana Marchini. So I am going to focus on the food!
No surprise there of course but I will say initially it was not quite what I expected. Because being in at the birth pangs of the Santillan experience meant that, when it came to meals, we happy few had the pleasure of witnessing what might be termed as two very different worlds colliding, reeling a little and then settling into a felicitous harmony that led to real benefit for all of the participants.
Let me explain. The day before we arrive the hotel Molina de Santillan was still operating in its alter ego as a premier Spanish wedding venue, used to entertaining people on one of the most important and public days of their lives, and in the process serving large numbers of guests lavish platters of party-style food during one intense session.
I’ve been to a couple of Spanish weddings and just the canapes would be seen as a full-blown meal by most of us. And then you sit down to a gargantuan six-course meal (at one I went to in Pamplona each guest was served up a entire small leg of lamb for one course), followed by wedding cake. May I also remind you that the Andalucian region of Spain is, when it comes to eating out, resolutely non-vegetarian friendly, as we were reminded on enjoying tapas at a local bar in Malaga on our night out.
So the transformation to catering for an holistic and mainly vegetarian group looking to enhance well-being by (maybe) avoiding too much caffeine, alcohol and sugar, sitting down to meals at what, to Spanish eyes, were rather odd times and designations (brunch at 12, lunch/tea at 4ish and so on), with food all laid out on along a buffet table initially caused some slight hiccups in the smooth running of the establishment.
Days one and two were a little challenging for all as expectations were not in necessarily in sync. But what was clear from the outset was the love and prowess displayed in all of the cooking, and the desire to listen and adapt as necessary. Whatever we ate during the week was testament to the skill and mixed heritage of the house, with Italian and Spanish cooking at its best.
And once the kitchen got into its stride everyone relaxed and really appreciated all the food that came out of it. I was really pleased to enjoy local dishes making the most of the fine Mediterranean ingredients – roasted aubergines with manchego; the daily fresh tomato and olive oil salsa that added flavour to salads and the local meats and cheeses on display, or was delicious just spooned onto good bread; white fish baked with clams; the most perfect tortilla; fine jamon Iberico with wedges of fragrant melon; a silky smooth and wonderfully cooling gazpacho made in the Thermomix and thickened in the classic way with bread and olive oil, the ideal way to to cool down after a session by the pool before late afternoon yoga.
Then there were lots of lovely aubergine and tomato combinations, and the little tortas – local specialities like mini pizzas but made with a thinner pastry type crust and topped with tomato and all kinds of other goodies, aubergine, olives, some with anchovies and a scattering of cheese.
The highlights were the stupendous paellas served up to us on our last night – one seafood and, naturally, one vegetarian, the local almond cake dusted with icing sugar, homemade ice creams, a lusciously squidgy carrot and almond cake sandwiched with soft cheese, a local layered chocolate confection that bore some resemblance to tiramisu, and roasted stuffed red piquillo peppers served with a creamy bechamel-style sauce. Every day there were different salads to try – pasta based, green bean, and conventional lettuce with all the regular additions. Most meals came accompanied by bowls of fresh fruit, slices of melon, cherries that challenged those of my home county, Kent, for flavour, good bread and olive oil. Local wine was on offer or cold beer for those who wanted it.
And we ate companionably together at one of the large tables set either outside on the terrace with the incomparable view down to the Mediterranean stretching away below us, or when the sun was too high, in a shady vestibule.
But if any of the group felt more solitary there were tables and chairs set under orange trees or banana palms and in other sheltered spots around the gardens, to which one could retire with a plate of goodies, a cool drink, or once the coffee machine was mastered (which took all week for some of us!), a coffee or herbal tea, and a book or, for some, a laptop. Up in the hills the heat of the Spanish summer was tempered by breezes or we could dip into the pool when things got a little too hot, so although we sweltered on our evening-off trip down into Malaga (but loved the old centre of the city with its wonderful Picasso museums, cathedral, local restaurants and shops), I didn’t even turn on the air conditioning in my very comfortable room, making do with the ceiling fan.
As you can probably tell, a yoga retreat at Santillan, Simon Low-style, is not all abstinence and going for the burn (unless you overdo it by the pool maybe) but more about restoring body and soul, taking time to cherish both solitude and the company of others, and enjoy the chance to find or rediscover an equilibrium that is all to easy to mislay in our busy modern lives. And that can’t be bad……