Zen Rocks Mani, Greece
Nurture mind, body and spirit in a stunning olive grove on the Peloponnese
Best for: People who want to slow down and go deep.
Not for: People who want a quick fix or a party vibe.
Zen Rocks nestles in a tranquil olive grove on the rugged Mani peninsula on the Peloponnese of mainland Greece. A collection of elegant stone houses built in the traditional style in the foothills of the Taygetos Mountains, with views towards the stunning Messenian Gulf, it offers a range of retreats to nurture and nourish your mind and body with exceptional yoga and meditation, fresh, local produce, and enchanting nature. Revive your senses and your spirits and return to the world with deep gratitude for the miracle of life.
Zen Rocks is personal and heart-led. Created by Vivi Letsou and her partner Eraj Shakib, it’s a labour of love – the summation of 35 years of honest soul seeking – offering a richly woven tapestry of wisdom in the traditions of Zen Buddhism, Tantra, Ashtanga Yoga and Anusara (to name but a few) alongside elegant aesthetics, a beautiful location fronted by the sea and backed by mountains, and the kind of service that leaves you feeling like a friend not a guest.
If the weather is bad and you don’t have a car, it’s easy to long for the distraction of a day trip to one of the beautiful villages or beaches nearby. Of course, this is all part of the teaching – the perfect time to surrender to the process of letting go and being in the moment!
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Retreats normally last 3 or 6 nights though shorter and longer stays are also available (by arrangement) for those wishing to drop in on the daily yoga, pilates and zen meditation schedule. The teacher is either the owner of Zen Rocks, Vivi Letsou, or one of her trusted team of international teachers. A typical day features morning Zen meditation followed by an Ayurvedic healing drink, a two hour Yoga and/or Pilates class, brunch, rest or yoga therapy training, then an evening restorative yoga or pilates class followed by dinner and sunset meditation with a late evening Yoga Nidra/music/relaxation/Zen meditation session.
Vivi Letsou handpicks yoga teachers who are calm, centered and deeply knowledgeable. Expect to practice Abhaya Yoga (created by Vivi to help us align with the wisdom of the heart and live fearlessly), Dynamic Vinyasa Flow as well as Therapeutic Alignment, Restorative Yoga and Yoga Nidra. Classes are around 2 hours each and usually take place around 9-11am (post meditation and an immune boosting lemon, ginger, honey and turmeric drink) and after dinner.
Zen Rocks creator Vivi Letsou is an Anusara certified yoga therapist. The depth of her anatomical understanding is a huge draw to yoga teachers the world over, and is also of immediate use to anyone wanting to improve their alignment. Sessions focus on a body part; say the feet – “the roots of the body” – or the many complexities of the shoulder joint. As Vivi says, “good alignment is good therapy, and good therapy is good alignment.”
Zen Rocks offers several kinds of meditation including the simple Viloma Pranayama which expands the breath and lung capacity through gentle holds, and Nadi Shodhana or Alternate Nostril Breathing. Expect an introduction to Zen Buddhism meditation too – both seated and walking. Meditation is usually conducted first thing in the morning and classes last around 45 minutes, depending on the teacher.
All Zen Rocks retreats are mindful retreats; Zen Mindfulness Meditation is part and parcel of the daily programme and guests are encouraged to exercise mindfulness across all activities during their stay – whether that’s conserving water in the shower or taking only what is needed during mealtimes. There are also specific mindfulness retreats throughout the year. Look out for Vivi Letsou’s Refresh and Renew Retreat (where the day starts and ends with a mindfulness meditation), the Zen Retreat with two San Francisco based Zen priests, and the Yoga and Mindful Eating/Plant Based Diet Retreat.
Treatments include Reflexology, Deep Tissue Massage, and Shiatsu. Don’t miss the Thai Yoga Massage with Betty Papadopoulou – akin to being rolled on the ocean waves, it will leave you feeling positively beatific. An Ayurvedic doctor is available for consultation and massage on request. Treatments take place in your bedroom or in the yoga shala and usually last one hour plus.
Abundant bushes of rosemary, thyme and oregano scent a gentle stroll around the grounds. Feast your eyes on the gnarled bark of olive trees and the clay pot red earth, sit at the feet of a stone Buddha, or cozy down on a sun lounger to better gaze at the white washed walls and terracotta roofs of distant villages. Borrow a bike or head out on foot towards the mountains or walk the 6 kilometres to the tiny secluded beach on the other side of the bay.
The nearest big beaches are Kitries (10 minutes drive) and Kardamyli (30 minutes). Both are stone and pebble. A further 10-minute drive brings you to the long sandy beaches of Stoupa (the town that inspired the setting of Nikolas Kazantzakis’s Zorba the Greek), and it’s another 10 minutes to the beach at St. Nicholas. The Zen Rocks minivan offers daily rides to the beach.
Free time is normally between 12 and 6pm, when you can if you wish venture out for some culture. Kardamyli, mentioned in the Illiad, is home to a medieval castle and beautiful church, as well as offering plenty retail therapy – clothes, jewellery, olive oil and earthenware. Tuck into coffee and homemade cherry cheesecake at the waterfront Aquarella. Take a boat trip through the heavenly Caves of Diros – ‘Nature’s Cathedral” – for stalactites and stalagmites (1 hour 40 mins drive), or visit the site of ancient Messene – a UNESCO world heritage site (1 hour 10 mins). Car hire is recommended for these trips, and can be arranged by Zen Rocks.
Zen Rocks asks that guests try to disconnect during their stay. There is currently (May 2019) no internet access at Zen Rocks but it is coming soon (expected July 2019). It will be in a designated area for a fixed period of time in the morning and evening. Currently personal phones work intermittently on higher ground but, if you need a reliable service, you may need to visit the local town’s internet cafe 10 minutes drive away, or the city of Kalamata (the Zen Rocks minivan offers daily rides).
Healthy nutrition consultations are always available on request with the Zen Rocks registered nutritional therapist Maria Rigopoulou (MSc, DipION, mBANT, CNHC). Maria also specialises in Functional Medicine and Nutrigenomics. Ayurvedic nutrition consultations are available during specified retreats.
Zen Rocks offers dedicated Pilates retreats and Pilates teacher training weeks. Private and public Pilates classes are also available on request. Bicycling, mountain trekking, beach walks and water sports (including canoeing) are also available.
The two villas have three bedrooms each – two twins and one triple – and a shared modern kitchen, complete with herbal teas and coffee. Each bedroom has an ensuite bathroom with waterfall shower and natural toiletries made by O-Live (specialists in Cretan olive oil infused self-care products), and each has a veranda or balcony with sunbeds. We nicknamed the upstairs bedroom at the second villa the Honeymoon Suite – for the large terrace and sunset views.
The villa bedrooms feel very zen – the olive and brown bed linen is earthy and calming, elegantly offset by local, nature-inspired art, exposed stone walls and polished concrete and tile floors. Sliding floor to ceiling doors frame your view of sacred olive trees, an ancient symbol of peace and friendship. In the distance, the majestic sea fills the horizon.
The Nikolas House, next to the yoga shala, has two dorm rooms upstairs – sleeping 4 each, and one shared bathroom with 2 showers, 2 toilets and a kitchenette. There is a double bedroom downstairs with small ensuite bathroom. These rooms are more modest than the villas but have a beautifully simple Zen monastery vibe; featuring olive bed linen, hand carved stools, bunk bed ladders that look like a stairway to heaven, and exposed stone work.
There is a further bedroom and bathroom in development at the centre of the retreat – currently used by Vivi and Eraj, it is to be redeveloped for guests.
Other spaces to be: Sit on your terrace, lie on your sun lounger, take a walk in the gardens, head out of the retreat in the direction of the mountains or the beach – there are plenty of ways to be alone here.
Don’t expect your white trainers to look box fresh at the end of the week – the red earth can stain your shoes. Hire a car so you can explore the local beaches, villages, natural and historical attractions. Fly into Kalamata – just 40 minutes drive to Zen Rocks. Have a coffee at one of the many nearby beachside restaurants and enjoy a walk around the old town and the market. Don’t miss Baharen Kalamais for spices, nuts and ground coffee, Misses for traditional Greek biscuits and Rolla for a Greek Mama lunch. Or fly to Athens and visit Avocado (Eraj’s restaurant) and NYSY Studios (Vivi’s yoga and BASI Pilates centre) – before heading down the freeway by car or bus (journey time 3 hours to Zen Rocks). If you don’t want to get a taxi from the airport, get a local bus from Kalamata to the village of Stavropirgio and Zen Rocks will pick you up (by arrangement).
When to Go
As Vivi says, “Mani has four seasons and depending on what you like, you come then.” There is no snow in winter but it does get cold and it does rain. April is a changeable month – sometimes 14 degrees and sometimes 28. It’s much cooler than the islands in summer, and much less crowded too – in late July and August it’s an oasis away from the baying hordes of island hopping holidaymakers.
Meals are usually served outdoors at a long wooden table surrounded by olive trees. A fire pit beckons on colder nights and, on colder days, food is served in one of the two villa kitchens. There are plans afoot for a dedicated last-word-in-chilled-out-living café, complete with glass walls, and both indoor and outdoor lounge seating.
Brunch is a luxurious affair; rye rusks melting under the weight of tomatoes, capers and salty Feta, a delicious porridge made with ginger, cardamom, dry fruit and seeds, baskets of toast and a tray of sweet and savoury spreads, spices and local honey. Coffee and eggs are available on request, and there’s a bottomless pot of herbal tea. Vegetarian with vegan leanings, dinner is plant-based – yogurt stained pink by luscious beetroot, zingy salads, and plentiful pulses and beans of infinite variety. Cake and fruit is served mid afternoon – watch out for the raw carrot cake. Yom yom!
Alcohol is reserved for the last supper when, if you’re lucky, you will get a large slice of raw chocolate cake – courtesy of co-founder Eraj’s Athens restaurant – Avocado.
Zen Rocks employs only local people and makes every effort to source only local food produce. Materials are also local wherever possible – the walls are made with local stone and a local family of furniture makers are responsible for the beautiful hand carved stools, benches and bed heads. All organic waste is composted, it’s plastic free where possible, and guests are invited to conserve water. Bathroom products are natural, the bed linen is organic cotton and the mattresses are made with coconut fibre.
Zen Rocks Mani, Kallianeika, Mani Peninsula, 24016 Greece
Transfer time: 40 minutes