t’s early morning in Transylvania and the sun’s shining on a group of yogis making shapes on the wooden veranda at Akasha Wellness Retreat. With pine and beech-covered hills rolling to the horizon, snow-capped mountain peaks and a soundtrack of cow bells and cockerels, it’s an idyllic spot to salute the sun.
Romania may not be the first place that springs to mind for a yoga holiday: it doesn’t have the huge choice of popular destinations like Goa, Thailand, Ibiza or Portugal. But this new centre in the sleepy village of Pestera – in Piatra Craiului national park, a 2½-hour drive north of Bucharest – offers something a little different. Fields of conical haystacks and wonky wooden houses dot the landscape, horse-drawn carts wander the lanes and it feels as if the clock’s been rewound a few decades.
Akasha is the phonetic spelling of acaša, which means “at home” in Romanian, and this is a true family affair: a venture between daughter Irina, who runs the yoga, her mother Daniela and aunt Elena (a UK-based doctor who advises on nutrition). After years of living and working in London, they felt their homeland calling them back and are clearly passionate about providing memorable retreats, as well as showing people their country.
The nine-bedroom house has the warm vibe of a family home, and from the first night our diverse group (all women apart from one couple, with nationalities from American to German) falls into easy camaraderie. Digital detox is encouraged, so no one is on their phone. People chat instead (imagine!) or find a quiet corner in which to read.
I’ve joined a nutrition and yoga retreat – other options include a fun-sounding yoga and local wine tasting retreat – and besides twice-daily yoga and meditation, there are talks on plant-based eating and wellbeing, and cookery demonstrations. Nutritional therapist Daniela Exley (a Romanian who grew up in the UK, lives in Hastings and blogs at beetspulseandthyme.co.uk) shows us how to make nut milks and patés, and gives tips on improving our diets.
Akasha practises what it preaches, serving vegan meals that are gluten- and sugar-free, and made mostly of organic, seasonal local produce. It all sounds very worthy, but it’s not: mealtimes are fun and even non-veggies rave about the food, which is always colourful, plentiful and full of flavour, from buckwheat and beetroot breakfast pancakes to raw chocolate puddings (and there are three meals a day, so no one goes hungry).
The roster of resident yoga teachers changes regularly. I love Mariana Dragan’s hatha flow and yin, which is gentle yet deep (geared more towards beginners and intermediates). The sun shines enough for us to practise outside – even though it’s November. There’s regular meditation, too, and a powerful sound bath session one evening, where we lie fully clothed as the sound of the gongs wash over us (no getting wet required).
There’s also an outdoor hot tub, an infra-red sauna with a huge picture window overlooking the mountains, and treatments from herb-filled baths to reflexology and Swedish massage.
What really sets this place apart, though, is the surroundings. We wander up to the nearby “bat cave” (we only spy one clinging to the ceiling) and into the hills beyond; sheep trundle by, their bells tinkling; and a man on horseback waves and gives us directions we don’t understand. At the top of the hill, the Sunday service is in progress in a tiny church – its interior crammed with murals and old women dressed head-to-toe in black.
One afternoon I follow the river at the end of the garden through fairytale forests, passing isolated cottages and a man in a peak-cap chopping wood – all very Hansel and Gretel. There’s plenty more to do: longer mountain hikes, horse riding, visits to a bear sanctuary – and Bran Castle, of Dracula fame, is a 15-minute drive down steeply winding roads.
The castle is the country’s top tourist attraction, but still bewitching, with secret passages and tales of Vlad the Impaler and Queen Marie who once lived here (Bram Stoker himself actually never visited).
Retreats run for five nights, so there’s time to get out and explore without losing that chilled edge (though for the time-pressed, shorter stays are on offer too). On the penultimate day there’s a morning of silence – a way of deepening the digital detox, keeping the focus inwards and building on the sense of calm. It’s surprisingly easy to breakfast with other guests without talking and I pad around the retreat relishing the total peace.
I leave with the feeling I’d like to see this remarkable landscape in different seasons. Even in early winter – too soon for snow and too late for the russet brush of autumn – it’s strikingly beautiful. Forget Dracula; Transylvania is the perfect place to step off the world for a while and let nature, good food and gentle yoga get to work.
• The trip was provided by Akasha Wellness Retreat, which has three-night all-inclusive retreats from €497 or five nights from €698, flights extra. Akasha also runs retreats in Goa and Costa Rica, and 27-day yoga teacher training programmes. Flights were provided by Wizz Air, which flies to Bucharest from five UK airports from £18 one-way