Reaping the benefits of a slow and sensory life at Paraiso Escondido
Anna Chapman reviews an exquisite wellbeing retreat in the Alentejo hills of Portugal and finds her sunny place with yoga, art, massage, exceptional plant-based food and supportive hosts
I thought I was feeling pretty relaxed when I arrived at Paraiso Escondido in the first few days of January, fresh from Christmas and New Year festivities. It was the start of a new decade, one that I was entering seemingly well-nourished and rested… at least I thought I was. Isn’t it amazing how you can kid yourself that you’re doing OK? As I got off the plane and looked at the bright blue Portuguese sky, I woke up to the fact that London had been endlessly grey and damp for what seemed like months. Worries and responsibilities had gnawed away at me, leaving me with a semi-hunchback, sore knees and a bloated Christmas belly. But suddenly everything felt hopeful. It was sunny and warm – in January! My shoulders relaxed a notch.
Arriving at Paraiso Escondido, I was bowled over by the view and exhaled deeply. Perched on top of a hill in Alentejo – a region famed for its slow life – I could barely spot another building. Over the next few days I would relish this panorama at every possible opportunity, from sunrise to sunset, basking like a lizard during the balmy midday hours. It was a quick step from the calm and comfort of my bedroom to the terrace, and I made this as often as I could.
On the first morning I practiced yoga by myself in the studio at the top of the complex as the sun came up. When I took eagle pose, I imagined soaring in the orange sky over the misty hills. Moving into triangle, I focused on the eucalyptus wood outside. Walking back to the main house down past Glenn’s vegetable patch, I was struck by its sweet honeysuckle scent, then got distracted by the beautiful rows of broccoli and beetroot that would appear on my plate in the coming days.
The next day I had a personal yoga class from the wonderfully attentive Louise Chardon. I’ve been practicing yoga for many years, but her careful adjustments made subtle shifts to my alignment, straightening out my bandy legs and making me stand taller and prouder. After a deliciously firm massage, my shoulders glided from my ears and the hunchback retreated. As my body felt less achy and troubled, my mind followed suit.
Gradually, as I slowed down my senses came to life. I realised that in this sweet space, the less I did, the more I experienced. As I wandered from my bedroom into the cosy reading room, I was comforted by the warm scent of cinnamon, clove and orange. While I ate a sticky banana muffin and drank lemongrass tea from the grounds, I marvelled at the beauty of an impressively large and shiny orange vase from Vietnam – how did they get that home in one piece?– and how it complemented one of Berny’s abstract works hanging on a nearby wall.
And then it was time to do my own painting class with the artist herself. I’ve always enjoyed drawing but it’s something I never manage to do. There always seems to be so many other ‘important’ things that take priority – like emptying the dishwasher or sorting out the crammed bathroom cabinet. Berny’s first instruction was to go crazy with a blitz of colour on canvas (which was super fun). And then, after loosening up, I spent a long while observing and sketching a fennel flower from the garden – experimenting with different colours and textures. While I’m not about to stick the results in a frame, it was the process that was truly special. As I switched into a new mode in my mind, the constant chatter subsided, and other – more interesting – thoughts emerged.
I’m aware that these ramblings about my inner journey paint quite a solitary picture, but my time at Paraiso Escondido was in fact rather sociable. I spent a lot of time chatting over delicious local food and wine with Berny and Glenn and the interesting characters that are attracted to their retreat. Guests of all ages come here to relax and get headspace away from their hectic city lives. I drank a glass of Alentejo red with a couple in their early 30s from Lisbon, retreating from the weekend, while also happily nattering to some older Brits at the bar. On my last evening I was lucky enough to meet Francisco Basilio, the ayurvedic chef who is helping Berny to design their new plant-based menu. Having trained in India and worked in Michelin kitchens around the world, Francisco perfectly captures Paraiso Escondido’s ethos of combining local and seasonal with global, often Asian, influences. I ate a succession of delicious plates including a beetroot salad with capers and seaweed, stunningly contrasted on the plate with a turmeric and coconut chutney. And then he served up this ayurvedic gem: ‘We’re not what we eat, we are what we digest.’
Suddenly it all made sense. For me, Paraiso Escondido was an opportunity to relax, reflect and digest. I came to realise that it’s easy to get stuck into all the multi-tasked doing in life and to lose touch with your senses and what makes you happy. And that’s a fast track to stress, impulsive decision-making and tummy trouble. So how could I stop this all happening again on my return? I discovered that drawing is a great way to release blockages and challenge fears, as is walking in nature. I left feeling more connected to an inner calm and inspired to live a simpler, slower life. Since then I’ve been for a stroll in the woods near my house, pausing to watch the squirrels rush by. I didn’t bring home the blue skies, but there’s a sunny place in my heart with Paraiso Escondido sketched on it.