A modern spa in Sparta turns to ancient philosophies of health that can simultaneously challenge and indulge.
Courtesy of Euphoria Retreat
Suspended in the center of a sphere, with light streaming through the air from an aperture in the dome above, and the songs of whales playing in the hemisphere below, I float on clear blue waters. Soon it will be time to pick up a snack specially designed to meet my body’s needs and relax in a chaise overlooking a verdant Greek valley. Stress is nowhere to be found.
While attending the “Spartan Spirit of Adventure,” a spa just outside the ancient Greek town of Sparta, it occurred to me that I had never heard anyone talk about visiting that ancient city. Athens, Crete, Santorini, sure, but never Sparta. As a historian, my first instinct was to seek an explanation in the work of Thucydides, whose account of the war between the Peloponnesians and the Athenians is one of the foundational historical texts. And sure enough, the answer was there–eerily anticipating my interest more than two millennia later. “Just suppose,” he writes “the city of Sparta was wiped out and all that was left were its shrines and the foundations of its buildings…future generations would find it hard to believe that its power matched up to its reputation.” This, Thucydides says, is because, unlike the urban Athenians, they “have no lavish shrines or public buildings, but instead live in village settlements in the traditional Greek manner.”
My destination, Euphoria Retreat, sits on the outskirts of the small town of Mystras, just a short jog from Sparta. There was, it turned out, quite a lot in the way of shrines and public buildings to see there—more on this later. But the Spartan Spirit of Adventure demands one’s full attention upon arrival.
It begins with an analysis of one’s metabolism and fitness through a variety of tests. Central to the process is the “Euphoria 3GL Methodos,” The 3 GLs are glucose, glutathione, and glycogen–a pinprick blood test gives values for the 3GLs, and a face mask breathing apparatus measures “respiratory equilibrium” which is defined as “the ratio of the volume of carbon dioxide produced to the volume of oxygen used.” These results then inform specific diet recommendations. My measurements were all in a good zone, so I was encouraged. Then comes the fitness assessment with a personal trainer.
I think there’s always a humbling aspect to this sort of thing, as your own abilities are assessed by a superfit specimen half your age. Like (I suspect) many home exercisers, I default to the exercises I like, rather than the ones I need most. I knew that I needed to work more on core strength and flexibility, and the assessment confirmed this emphatically. My Apple Watch has been flattering me.
Euphoria Retreat says that its approach (the “Methodos”) is based on a “blending of Ancient Greek and Chinese” processes, based on the “four or five elements” found in both traditions. Early on, guests taking the Spartan Spirit course are given a loose-leaf notebook with a more detailed background on the spa’s technique, as well as the schedule of activities. You can delve further into the philosophy–how each of the five “elements” is said to govern different organs in the body, how each element is linked to a season (the fifth season, in this case, is harvest time)–or you can simply take part in the various activities and allow the Methodos to unfold. (The Spartan Spirit program is one of many the spa offers, including ones that focus on yoga, detox, emotional well-being, weight management, etc.)
I tend to be pretty OK with modern, technologically intensive medicine, but the principles put forth in practice at Euphoria Retreat–exercise, recovery, balance, the Mediterranean diet, the value of meditation–are all pretty well established, and sensible. One more thing that is well established is the power of belief in helping any sort of therapy along–the placebo effect takes many forms. And so I entered wholeheartedly into the activities at Mystras, and was glad I did. The other guests I encountered were also pleased. They were a sophisticated and relaxed assortment of Western European executives, Athenian entrepreneurs, and a scattering of Americans, all attracted to the spa’s holistic wellness approach, its wide selection of programs, and its location.
The fitness assessment took place in one of the exercise rooms in the spa, which was lined with immaculate machines designed to work different muscle groups (an adjacent room features Pilates equipment). But when it came time for my first session with the trainer, we went outside to a waiting van, and were driven to a nearby public park, which was filled with stately but slightly careworn olive trees of venerable age. The only equipment was a TRX Suspension Trainer System–a pretty simple set of straps and handles, which was secured at head height around the trunk of one of the olive trees. The TRX system uses one’s body weight for resistance. Then we quickly got to work on muscle groups I had been ignoring, gradually increasing resistance not by adding weight but just by changing the angle at which I was positioning my body. My trainer greeted my labored efforts with enthusiasm and encouragement, and after 75 minutes I was well and truly worn out.
Sensibly, the next item on the schedule involved relaxation and recovery, AKA a 20-minute session in the “infrared sauna.” I somehow pictured this as a sort of infrared tanning bed, and was unsure what to expect–it turned out to be a regular sauna in which the rocks were heated by infrared heating elements. The dry heat helped unkink and relax my muscles (later that afternoon, a deep-tissue massage would help even more).
Part of the Euphoria philosophy is that one should eat five small meals, not three larger ones. Following the results of the 3GL assessment, they came up with two smaller meals to go with my program–a smoothie that was brought out at noon and placed in one of the relaxing rooms in the spa, and a container of snacks at 5:30 in the afternoon that featured dried fruit, cheese or yogurt, and thin rice crackers. Wine and other beverages are available at Gaia, but one is not automatically given a wine list, and I felt that abstinence was most in harmony with the Spartan Spirit.
My next training session was held the following day–again, not in the indoor gym but this time in an outdoor theater–it has the look of an ancient Greek theater but is of more modern date. This time the principal tools used were an elastic exercise band and a medicine ball. Again, about 75 minutes of workout left me totally spent and filled with resolve to be more diligent and systematic in my home exercise regimen.
I spent part of the afternoon at a lecture on the five elements–each week the spa prints a schedule of optional daily activities, which include talks on various topics, hikes, yoga sessions, group workouts (total body, aqua gym, trampoline, circuit training), “sound healing meditation,” and more.
The following day, I was due to join a group hike to Mystras Castle, and those who were interested were invited to an evening lecture by a local archaeologist to prepare us for what we would see. While there is disappointingly little to see of ancient Sparta, on the hillside above the Euphoria Retreat lies the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Mystras, an important city of the late Byzantine Empire. Founded in the middle of the 13th century by a Frankish prince, it soon fell to the Byzantines and remained a regional center under the Ottomans until it took part in a Greek revolt against Ottoman rule in 1770, when it was sacked and largely destroyed. Included in the remains are some well preserved religious edifices, including Byzantine frescoes in various states of preservation. Present-day Mystras sits below the ruins, at the foot of the hills.
Upon our return, my schedule had me headed to the “Euphoria Byzantine Hammam Ritual,” which I knew was to take place in a steam room. But that was about all I knew–that, and that one should wear a swimsuit. Long ago a friend introduced me to the joys of a good steambath–at the Russian & Turkish Baths in the East Village. So spending an hour in a steam room was fine by me. But the experience was so much more than that. After I lay down on the marble platform in the center of the room, the masseur first massaged me with oils, then exfoliated me with a salt rub and some mildly abrasive mittens. Then I was covered in a giant cloud of soap bubbles–the bubbles are made by dipping a sort of loosely woven pillowcase in soapy water, and then whirling it through the air by the open end. The air forces the soap through the fabric mesh, creating a cornucopia of bubbles. After luxuriating in this soapy halo for a bit one sits up and is rinsed with successively colder buckets of water. Leaving the steam room, I then elected to immerse myself a few times in a very cold water bath, dried off, and had a final rubdown. If you go to Euphoria Retreat, for whatever program, or no program at all, do experience this. I think I grinned nonstop for the next few hours.
Free time is an opportunity to explore. Right above the property is a forest with paths to hike on one’s own. (Aware of the danger of wildfires–all too familiar this summer in Greece–there are prodigious water pumps to protect the forest and the property, which opened in 2019). The spa building itself is full of wonders–the centerpiece is a spiral staircase, surrounding a light well that shines down on a pool of cold water. There are four levels to the structure, and the hillside topography makes for a different footprint on each level, which creates a sense of constant unfolding as one explores. There are a variety of special areas–yoga rooms, private rooms for massage, hot and tepid rooms, a salt room, and the “sphere pool.” This central pool area is ringed by shallower water where one can walk to various stations where water jets can be used to relax various parts of one’s body. For a change of pace, one can swim over to a sliding glass door and out into a rectangular outdoor pool, swim some laps in the sun, and then return to the peaceful atmosphere of the sphere. Under such circumstances, it’s easy to feel at peace.
By the end of my stay in this place of oxymoronic Spartan luxury, I was both relaxed and still a bit exhausted from my fitness regime, well-fed but feeling light and clear, and ready to come home with actionable plans for improving my own fitness. And if things don’t work out, I guess I’ll just have to go back.