by Elyn Aviva
I needed a break. Big time. I’d been doing too much for too long. Traveling. Writing. Doing. Coming up with projects, ideas. More doing. And doing some more. I loved it all, and I loved my husband, Gary, but I needed a break. Alone. And somewhere preferably in Spain, where we live.
I started scanning last-minute Internet offers. My idea was a comfortable little cabin in the woods; someone bringing me wholesome food; and occasionally taking short, shady strolls through verdant vegetation.
Suddenly a vision floated before my eyes. My Camino de Santiago pilgrim friend Judy Colaneri and her husband, Juan Carlos, own Fuentes de Lucia, a “boutique” hotel/retreat center in the mountains of northwestern Spain. They had been asking me to visit for years. I checked the website. It wasn’t an isolated cabin in the woods, but it looked like a charming place, located in a beautiful Asturian Natural Park.
A “dynamic yoga retreat” was scheduled for the week I wanted to be there. I wasn’t sure I was interested in “dynamic” or “yoga”—it’s been too many years since I sat on the floor or managed to mold into an asana—but the retreat part sounded good.
I emailed Judy and received an immediate reply. In fact, she wrote, she had already put my name on the door of Room #7. That’s auspicious, I thought. After all, according to the Bible, the Creatrix rested on the seventh day. And that’s just what I wanted to do.
After an interminable ten-hour train ride from the Mediterranean coast across the meseta of central Spain into the Cantabrian Mountains, a late-night taxi pickup, and I arrived at Fuentes de Lucia, nestling on the side of a hill in the Valley of Quirós. Just how steep the hill was I couldn’t see, since creamy fog filled the valley and hid the tops of peaks. Which was just as well since I really, really don’t like heights—a fact I had conveniently forgotten when I decided to go there on retreat.
I met Claire Johnson, the friendly, über-fit, über-attractive, ultra-marathon runner, certified Vinyasa yoga instructor. Soon a convivial international group of eager yoginis and yoginis-in-training arrived, and the weeklong dynamic yoga retreat swung into dynamic action.
Eager as always to give things a try, I participated in the first morning “kick-asana” class. But I soon realized that not only had I not brought the right yoga attire (stretch leggings, form-fitting tops)—I hadn’t brought the right body, either. Although Claire provided numerous alternative poses for my out-of-practice form, I soon felt stiff, sore, and tired.
I reminded myself I hadn’t come to Fuentes de Lucia to have a workout—I had come to have a retreat. So I excused myself from the daily classes, energetic mountain hikes (I don’t like heights, remember?), and organized excursions. I decided to take advantage of the fact that I didn’t have to do anything. I could just sit, relax, be served delicious homemade food….
Lounging in a chair on one of Fuentes de Lucia’s well-placed terraces, staring out at the low-lying mist drifting across the mountain peaks, would be enough, I thought. More than enough: it would be plenty.
But soon I realized that although I enjoyed the view of tiny hamlets and dark-green forests alternating with lighter-green fields on the steep hillside across the valley, and although I wasn’t doing anything, I still wasn’t on retreat. Yes, I had succeeded in “retreating from” people, projects, and plans—but I hadn’t succeeded yet in “retreating to” anything.
So I walked up the driveway, turned right on the country lane, and was soon following a narrow grassy trail through an ancient chestnut forest. How, I wondered, did those immense chestnut trees stay upright, perched between the path and the steeply downward-sloping hillside? Huge amputated giants, their large branches lopped off but sprouting shoots upward once again, their trunks hollowed and gaping, they still supported life. I patted one on its moss-covered side and found it surprisingly responsive.
I passed by a semi-clearing in which low, ruined stone-walled enclosures lay submerged under riotous ferns. Chestnut storage units, I was told later, they were once covered with tarps and branches. To the right of the path was a steep drop down to a white-flecked stream. Springs bubbled out of the hillside on my left, occasionally coating my path with water and turning it to squishy brown or black mud. Surprisingly red pebbles, the color of fallen autumn leaves, lay wet and glistening in the filtered sunlight.
The light was green under the overarching canopy of leaves. A luminous lime green that turned bright daylight into chartreuse shadow, as if I had stepped into a Technicolor wonderland. I heard a noise and, startled, looked up. A crow rose through the rustling branches, croaking “Craw Craw Craw!” as it flapped its night-dark wings into the sunlight high above.
The trail ended at three abandoned water mills. Stony and resolute, they stair-stepped out of the verdant foliage beside the tumbling mountain stream. Feathery brown weeds stuck up like feathers from their dull-orange tile roofs. Once this had been an active agricultural zone: chestnut gathering, water milling. Now it was ruined rock and stone, sawed-off tree-trunks. It demonstrated both nature’s endurance and humankind’s short attention span.
I sat on a moss-covered chunk of limestone and watched the water swirling into eddies, tumbling down the rocks, bursting into bubbles. Water compressed, shot out between constricting boulders, then lapped against well-polished stones in a quieting pool, tucked out of the way of the powerful current. Here the water glistened like silk. The intersecting ripples reminded me of Celtic knotwork.
Someone told me once that falling water only makes a noise when it hits a surface. As I watched the water fall I listened, surrounded by what first sounded like an undifferentiated roar but soon separated itself into sound-threads and melodies, some rough and harsh, others high pitched and delicate, some nearly continuous, others with a distinct ebb and flow.
A spider web suddenly appeared dangling between ferns and grasses, its edges flashing and twisting in the sunlight. The ferns shifted; the spider web abruptly vanished from my sight. As I watched, it shifted into and out of vision, appearing and disappearing in the dappling light.
The treetops swayed and creaked as they caught a distant breeze, and the shades of green shifted and changed as rapidly as a hand-turned kaleidoscope. A gnarled tree trunk turned into a misshapen gnomish face, and a Green Man, vines sprouting from his leafy mouth, watched me from a nearby bush.
I breathed in rhythm with the breath of leaves and trees, the catapulting water, the crawing crow. I was on retreat at last.
Elyn Aviva is a transformational traveler, writer, and fiber artist who lives in Girona, Spain. Her blog is www.powerfulplaces.info. She is co-author with her husband, Gary White, of “Powerful Places Guidebooks.” To learn more about her publications, go to www.powerfulplaces.com and www.pilgrimsprocess.com. To learn about Elyn’s fiber art, go to www.fiberalchemy.com.