Review of Vale de Moses, Serra de Estrela, Portugal
Anita Pati balanced in 'tree pose' at Vale de Moses, an eco-built yoga retreat snuggled away in the Portuguese Serra de Estrela mountains hosted by a friendly British family and their dogs.
The slopes start lurching skywards about three and a half hours out of Lisbon. Our coach is winding its way up the foothills of the Serra de Estrela mountain range in North East Portugal. We glimpse the country’s highest mountains – now in lilac shadow, from between skinny-trunked eucalyptus and olive trees.
Having been picked up at Oleiros bus station by the chirpy manager, Ollie, we’re on a further 30-minute drive before turning down a long pine-fringed path to park up. We scramble with the bags down a rocky incline before encountering Vale De Moses, a stone farmhouse complex built on several terraces. It is night-time and the place is strung with blue and white Chinese lanterns, brightened with candles and enlivened by a lively pack of volunteers, dogs, teenagers and our hosts, Andy and Vonetta Winter.
The family, and dog Moses, were motor-homing around Europe in 2007 looking for a place to settle when they stumbled across Vale de Moses – so it seemed a no-brainer to start putting roots down there. Vale de Moses means 'valley of many millstones' and there are remnants of decrepit mills through the hills. The cottages have been lovingly restored in traditional Portugese rustic style. The 3-hectare farm estate is on a forested hillside in the village of Amieira, central Portugal. There’s a lovely lounge with library and wifi, and a well-stocked kitchen (but alas not with unhealthy crisps or chocolate).
The main sleeping area is in a farmhouse a few hundred metres down the slope from the principal farm cottage. The adega – once a winemaking shed – is even further away and ideal for those seeking perfect isolation.My private room, with antique four-poster, was, like most houses in the Serra de Estrela foothills, hewn out of the mountain so there was no window and the only light came in through the glass door. A heavy brocade curtain afforded privacy as the room was on the path near the main farmhouse. At first, I thought this little cave was too dark but it soon proved its worth as the sun rose and the heat fried – my cosy bolthole kept cool.
Meals are eaten in the sunken courtyard whose gingham-clothed tables display pretty painted stones (they encourage guests to decorate whatever they like with paints supplied). I was attending an Introduction to Ayurveda week so all food was vegetarian or vegan. Breakfast is fruit, brunch at 11 being the main meal of the day.
All food is either home-grown or locally-sourced. The kitchen garden produce includes herbs, amaranth, courgettes and potatoes. Local traditional cheeses from the Serra de Estrela tend to be made from either goat or sheep's milk, or from a blend and taste like a less salty haloumi. Andy dons the chef’s hat at Moses helped by his band of young staff and volunteers. An example of brunch includes delicious amaranth leaves from the garden – amaranth being like spinach only softer and stickier – with tamari; sauted sweet and common potato with garden rosemary; mushroom and leek casserole, and all much tastier than I expected from a vegetarian menu.
Vale de Moses aims to be 100% self-sufficient but Andy admits they are “far from it”. However, they are certainly on their way there. All toilets are compost – but don’t be put off! The toilets are kept scrupulously clean, checked three times daily and are pleasant places to park oneself, what with their vases of flowers and incense sticks. You can even look straight across to the tree-carpeted hillside while contemplating your wonderful brunch.
The place has two thermodynamic heating systems, which, in winter, are topped up with wood-burning water boilers. They are currently on the electricity grid. “It's quite difficult to run a family off-grid when you have computers, fridges and washing machines”, says Andy. The house, like all in the valleys, are solar facing to maximise the sunlight so the sun heats up the stones in the day which radiate heat back into the rooms at night. There is modern insulation in the roofs, cork insulation between the floors and the stone walls are pointed with the original clay and plastered in natural lime to reduce humidity and control heat. They have four sources of water, including a 100-metre deep borehole that they drilled which supplies natural mountain spring water.
Vonetta and Andy provide yoga, massage, acupuncture and other treatments, rest and relaxation and Ayurveda. Vonetta is a fully qualified and experienced dynamic Hatha yoga teacher, acupuncturist, and Tui Na massage therapist.
However, I was here to experience a week’s introduction to the ancient science of Ayurveda with yoga and nutrition, hosted by Liese Van Dam, an Ayuredic teacher from Holland (www.Shantiyoga.nl). The week proved inspiring. Following each morning’s silent walk, Liese would guide us through Ayurvedic yoga and then later in the day provide some nutrition and other theory. My yoga week typically began with a one-hour silent walk at 8am followed by two hours of yoga. At 11am, we had brunch, the main meal of the day followed by treatments and then an hour and a half of Ayurveda teaching on nutrition and food preparation. For two evenings we sang chants using musical instruments with Liese.
If you have previously only done your downward dog in a sweaty gymhall, yoga at Vale de Moses will be an eye-opener. The yoga studio, or 'shala', is simply incredible. It was first an open air platform overhanging the pine and eucalyptus-covered hillside. It has floor to ceiling windows, brightly-coloured rugs covering the cork floor and a wooden roof.
There is variety of walking routes: one takes you down to the river – currently being restored so it can accommodate swimming – another rambles across ledges past the farmhouse and the Adega to climb the ridge where you encounter the burnt forest – forest fires are still common in this part of Portugal.
How to get to Vale de Moses by public transport
The Serra de Estrela is one of the most remote parts of Portugal. Andy and Von encourage guests to use the low-cost coach service from either Porto (4pm) or Lisbon (6pm) to Oleiros, which both arrive around 9.30pm from where Andy or Ollie will collect a group. You can book at http://www.rede-expressos.pt/ There is also a train from Lisbon to Castelo Branco which runs a coach service twice a day but this takes two hours and is more arduous, says Andy.
Be open to the little surprises a week’s retreat can reveal: I was amazed to find how I could control my hunger pangs. Plus, the morning silent walks – contemplation in pale mountain sunshine – were wonderful.
Best for singles and couples with some experience of yoga who are looking for a break in a place of beauty with the restorative powers of the wilderness. Although family friendly in spirit, at the moment there are a lot of slippery paths and places where kids could trip for this to be 100% family friendly but contact the owners if unsure.