With a year of pandemic uncertainty, one thing is for sure: When the world opens up, it'll be a time for healing. While in Greece, Fathom contributor Eleni Gage retreats to the cypress-covered mountains of Peloponnesus for Hellenic and Chinese therapies and a healthy dose of Byzantine art.
THE PELOPONNESE, Greece — When I travel, I like to I like to get things done: Immerse myself in a place and its culture — make sushi in Japan, build a Day of the Dead altar in Mexico — and learn things about the locale, definitely, and myself, ideally.
But given everything we’ve been living through during these pandemic times, when I had a few days off from work in the Peloponnese (a peninsula in the southern mainland of Greece), I just desperately wanted to relax without taking a flight or a ferry. I'd been hearing raves about Euphoria Retreat since it opened during the summer of 2018, but I tend to shy away from destination resorts, fearing getting lost in a place where you never leave the grounds or see anyone but fellow tourists.
Euphoria turned out to be anything but that. With just 45 guest rooms, it’s fairly intimate in size, and it pays homage to its surroundings in a way that makes it easy to imagine it has always been part of the landscape. Euphoria sits on the shoulder of the Peloponnesian village of Mystra, at the foot of Mt. Taygetus. You can walk down a cobbled road into the main square to pull up a chair under the plane trees for coffee, or drink a bottle of Mamos, the local Peloponnesian beer, and eat dolmades made by the café owner’s mother-in-law. Behind the retreat is a serene pine forest filled with hiking paths, and less than two kilometers away are the ruins of Mystra, a UNESCO World Heritage site of ruined Frankish, Venetian, and Byzantine castles and churches, and one still-inhabited convent.
The resort takes meticulous cues from that archaeological site — arched doorways, stone paths, and staff in tunic-like uniforms modeled on the ensembles found in Byzantine mosaics. But the philosophy behind the architecture of the spa itself, as well as the treatments within, takes a more global approach. The brainchild of Maria Efraimoglou, a Greek banker who studied holistic medicine while recovering from cancer in her twenties, Euphoria incorporates practices from ancient Greek and holistic Chinese medicine, both of which ascribe distinct energy channels to the human body. The showpiece — a multilevel spa built embedded in the mountain — offers guests the opportunity to ascend a circular staircase through the five elements, leaving behind unnecessary stress along the way.
“Humans are like onions,” the spa manager, told me. “We have many layers, and as we shed them, we get closer to our essence.”
The spa’s first level, 25 meters underground, is dedicated to the element of water, for new beginnings. Anastasia showed us the Kneipp water therapy well at the center of the complex, four stories beneath a skylight. The Bavarian hydro treatment involves walking in the interior circle of hot water followed by the cold pool that wraps around it, in order to boost the immune system. You’re meant to repeat the cycle at least three times, giving the treatment the vibe of a walking meditation. (This level is also home to the gym, which I had no interest in at all. Who needs modern workout equipment when there’s a Bavarian water well around the bend?)
The second level incorporates both water and wood, which represents growth and the making of strategic plans. There's an indoor pool with a sphere at its center, from which you can swim to the outdoor pool surrounded by trees. Swimming from the womb-like sphere to the outdoor pool is meant to replicate rebirth. But just sitting beside the pool looking at the forest, the mountainside, and the Byzantine churches in the background gave me a new perspective, inspiring me to shake off a bit of the anxiety of the present moment and think about new beginnings. Rounding out the water element on this floor is a vast Byzantine-style hammam, a Tepidarium, and a salt room with an entire wall of glowing Himalayan salt blocks (for purifying skin and soothing respiratory issues).
The third floor adds the active element of fire — where everything envisioned in water and planned in wood comes to life. That heat is generated in the indoor and outdoor treatment rooms, while an open-air amphitheater brings in earth to balance out the other elements. Earth is also showcased on the fourth floor, where an al fresco platform is home to the hot tub, yoga classes, and the starting point for hikes in the woods. Metal, found in the gongs in the yoga studio and meditation room, empowers us to let go of what no longer serves us.
As a multi-tasker, I geeked out on Euphora’s hybrid holistic philosophy. Chinese medicine plus hiking in the forest plus treatments I’d never considered before, like a Five Elements massage designed to boost the weakest element in my body (earth, as determined through a detailed questionnaire), and reiki-like energy work of the Sanctuary of the Mind treatment. And I felt there was so much more I could do. I wandered the Garden of the Elements and envisioned coming back to limber-up at a weeklong yoga and mindfulness retreat, and lose a few pounds by following a pre-set menu designed to fit my nutritional needs.
All the self-reflection and self-improvement could have gotten earnest to the point of parody. (“I had a revelation during my Sanctuary of the Mind treatment,” I announced to my husband as we walked in circles around the step well. “I want to work on being more kind and less nice.”)
But every time I was on the point of going blind from looking inward, something grabbed my attention, rooting me in my surroundings instead of just my own mind and body. The food was innovative but deeply local, from the breakfast saiti (a Peloponnesian crepe-like spinach pie) to the grilled sahani (a local cheese that’s like a cross between haloumi and provoleta and served with spicy tomato gelee) to the vibrant carrot and ginger soup with grilled prawns. The hiking paths made me feel I was miles-deep in a forest, not up the hill from one of Europe’s top spas.
One of our most transcendent mornings was spent off campus at the archaeological site of Mystra, exploring the Byzantine churches, castles, and cities built as early as the 13th century. The mountainside site rendered us breathless — by the uphill hike, by the icons discovered on the walls, and by almost tumbling after my hat when it was blown off my head into a ravine below the city walls. It was invigorating to be in a place where the past is so present. When I asked a black-robed nun how long the convent had been in existence, she said, “Nuns have lived here since 1855, after the destroyed city was rebuilt.”
I inquired how the city was destroyed, envisioning an earthquake or some other natural disaster. “Well,” she said. “Ibrahim came,” referring to the Ottoman general who burned the city in 1824 by his first name, as if he had just passed by yesterday.
The sense of history, energy, and possibility that permeates both Mystra and Euphoria itself seems to extend beyond the impressive Byzantine artifacts. In one of our yoga classes I mentioned to the teacher, Elisavet, that I had read that the area near Mystra was a tirtha, the Sanskrit name for a gateway between the physical world and the spiritual world. “You can feel that energy,” she agreed.
She went on to tell the story of a self-described philosopher in her nearby village who, over a decade ago, walked up the mountain, where he told people there was a gate to “another dimension,” and was never heard from again, vanishing into the surroundings much like the hat blown off my head at Mystra.
But vanishing while at Euphoria? If anything, the spiritual nature of the place and its surroundings are designed to make you feel more yourself. Still, I did feel the thrill of being in an entirely new place. It had familiar and enchanting elements — the village, the retreat, the historic site — but it was also its own entity, a combination of all three which I came to think of as the By-ZEN-tine Empire. While I normally travel to explore different cities and countries, staying at Euphoria felt like wandering through entire worlds — and offered a relaxing escape from this one when I needed it most.
At a Glance
The Vibe: By-ZEN-tine Bliss. The latest in pampering spa treatments served up in an historic setting.
Standout Detail: It's a tie between the spherical indoor/outdoor pool and the stunning setting at the foot of Mount Taygetus.
This Place Is Perfect For: History buffs, spa junkies, and romantics — note that children are NOT allowed. It's also great as the mountain part of a mar y montaña situation; pair it with a beach retreat on the Mani coastline, which is an hour away.
COVID-19 Protocol: As of winter 2021, Greece is on lockdown. The property reopens March 12.
What's in the Rooms: Views of the fir trees in the surrounding forest or the town just below, custom-made mattresses that seem to promote sleep, in-house spa products, luxe sheets that supposedly fight aging via olive oil worked into the fabric. (I didn't notice the oil, but I've never slept so well.)
On Site: Gaia restaurant serves haute versions of local specialties — think fluffy breakfast pancakes made of zea, the ancient supergrain. Guests who are on weight-loss plans are served a set menu, but the emphasis here is definitely more on "cuisine" and less on "spa" (and yes, wine is on offer). If you can tear yourself away from Gaia, you're free to wander into town for simpler meals at the cafes and tavernas around the main square.