Travel: Was I staying in Butlins or at a therapy centre?

Gareth Lloyd went for some Rest and Renewal in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada and actually quite enjoyed himself
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The Independent Travel
IAN sat straddled across me. His large hands, with their chipolata fingers, pressed me firmly to the floor. As he worked my back with citronella and almond oils we both panted and gasped; he with the effort of kneading and pummelling my back, and I because this 20 stone giant on top of me had reduced my lung capacity to that of a small and very frightened animal.

All around us other semi-clad couples were going through similar rhythmical motions and "oooohs" and "ahhhhs". This was my first real massage class in a week of Rest and Renewal at Cortijo Romero, an alternative holiday centre, set in the foothills of Spain's Sierra Nevada.

As my taxi had neared the centre for the first time I'd choked back a growing urge to call it all off. Visions of some wacky hippie commune where people spent their days getting out of their minds and spouting complete dross, filled my head. But what awaited me was more of a surprise than I could ever have imagined.

As I entered the communal dining area I was shocked. In the softly lit, whitewashed room cosy groups of ordinary looking people sat around tables decked out in kitsch red and white checked table cloths and chatted about run of the mill things such as work and past holidays, over glasses of thick red wine. There wasn't a pipe smoking beardy-weirdy, touchy-feely Earth Mother, or any kind of obvious nutter in sight.

After some brisk introductions and pleasantries I was shown to a comfortable room under the shadow of an ancient olive tree, overlooking a grassy lawn with a dribbling fountain. I was tired from the journey and soon drifted off into a deep sleep, lulled by the insistent croaks of mating frogs.

Early the next morning we all met up in the workshop, a room with whitewashed walls and a floor covered in fluffy cream coloured rugs. Sitting upon cushions in a large circle, it was my first opportunity to get a bit of a feel for the group. There were 22 of us, with ages ranging from twentysomething to sixtysomething, and women outnumbering men by about two to one.

The session began with the group leader, Nigel Shamash, telling us to: "Forget all the terrible stuff in your life - like what happened with your parents ...". I started to get nervous. We were then encouraged to say a few words about how we felt and what we'd like to get out of the week. After everyone had spoken it became pretty clear that most people were stressed-out professionals, looking for a little spiritual respite from their hectic routines in the rat race. With the exception of just two couples, everyone else was single, which I thought perhaps told another story.

In the dance workshop that followed we were encouraged to "let go", but managed to resist following Nigel's example of growling and moaning "to help release all those terrible tensions".

Next we formed a line in order of height, and had to massage the back of the person in front of us. I was a bit uncomfortable to find myself between two men (especially when the one I was massaging started moaning) but reminded myself that if I was to get anything out of the week I'd have to completely immerse myself and go with the flow. The day's session ended on a lighter note with Nigel leading a conga into the swimming pool.

The evening's entertainment began when Nigel appeared in the guise of an oversexed, guitar playing, Spanish waiter. Gently fuelled by wine and beer, there followed a good natured holiday camp sing-a-long, which included old favourites such as "La Bamba". After a couple of hours most people, including myself, had slipped away leaving the few remaining die-hards to party on. That night the croaking of the horny frogs was drowned out by "Sweet Molly Malone".

Soon after breakfast the next morning we set off on an excursion into the Alpujarras hills. Our first stop was Pampaneira, one of a handful of spectacularly situated white villages high in the Poqueira Gorge. The place is appealing for its general ambience rather than specific jaw dropping sights, so it didn't take long before everyone had gravitated towards the only bar that appeared to be open for morning coffee.

Next on the hit list was Capileira, the last of the villages, teetering on the edge of the gorge. From here we began a gentle and enjoyable afternoon walk along the Gorge, pausing only for a picnic, to collect fallen walnuts, and to marvel at the ever changing views of rural life along the way.

In the evening we split into small groups. I joined a saxophonist, a guitarist and a keyboard player in a low-key jamming and singing session around the fire. These gatherings could by no means be described as cliques, as anyone passing was welcome to join in the discussion or singing.

Most of the next day was free so I decided to relax by the pool. Other people played board games, slept, meditated or went to explore the nearby town of Orgiva. In the late afternoon I joined an informal qigong class in the gardens. Qigong is an ancient Chinese pseudo-science, which involves controlled body movements. We set off repeating eight movements which were supposed to balance out the qi energies and hence make us more centred and whole. After half-an-hour or so of this we did some yoga for beginners, deep relaxation (both of which induced a lot of farting) and chanted the names of Indian deities in mantra-like fashion.

It wasn't really heavy duty stuff but after dinner I made a conscious decision to rebel (which was perfectly acceptable) and joined some of the women from the centre, on a fun-filled mini-bender at a small bar in Orgiva.

This was the reason I arrived late for the start of the massage class the following morning and found myself paired with Big Ian, the only other person without a partner. I passed up on the now ritual evening singsong, and took my exhausted body to bed for an early night.

Early next morning I set out for Lanjaron, a town famed for its curative waters, but found that the place seemed to be having a permanent siesta. The only signs of life were the old and infirm patients from the spa who tottered around the town in track suits and trainers clutching their beakers of water.

In the spa building I came across a fountain sporting signs in several languages which warned: "Do not partake of the waters without a doctor's certificate".

To obtain one involved signing up for a course of treatment costing several hundred pounds. Not to be deterred I bought a bottle of the same mineral water for the equivalent of 30p from a shop across the road.

Feeling more rehydrated than rejuvenated, I caught a passing bus to Granada and collected my pre-booked ticket for the Alhambra, possibly the finest Moorish building in the world. Along with coach loads of tourists and hustling gypsy women trying to sell sprigs of lucky rosemary, I was undeterred by the cold, driving rain.

Unfortunately, my tour of this former Moorish palace was reduced to rapid sprints between sheltered areas where my guide book would add to my misery by reminding me to "admire the cool shade of thick walls and ornate ceilings ... and marvel at the way the sunlight is split into fine shafts by intricate lattice sandstone windows". I gave up, and ran off in the direction of the town for a fish feast in the Restaurant Seville.

I arrived back at Cortijo Romero in good time for another yoga and deep relaxation session followed by some co-therapy. In groups of three we took turns to say things that we liked about ourselves before our partners took a turn to mention any amazing qualities we may have over-looked. It was all good ego boosting stuff but felt a little forced.

By now almost everyone was completely at ease and prepared to open up and discuss some quite personal things to sympathetic and understanding ears. Deep discussions on things like life, philosophy and religion had, by now, become the norm. Indeed, I found myself eagerly seeking out John, a fellow Everton supporter, for a chat about our chances of avoiding relegation and which one us of despised Manchester United the most.

That evening we devised our own cabaret entertainment which was brilliantly compered by the dry-witted Mary. It was an evening that would never have worked at the start of the week but which turned out to be fantastic. Just about everyone was able to do something, whether it be comedy, tell an embarrassing story, sing a song or play an instrument. There was a tremendous warmth about the group that was beyond the ability of the wine to induce.

This communal spirit was most apparent in the group session the next day when we split into pairs and designed our partners a certificate of achievement.

Most took the form of a personal painting or collage. I was touched by how everyone spent the next couple of hours working intensely on a gift for a person who, just a week before, had been a complete stranger.

The group were then asked to come up with some positive words that described each individual's personality. As we worked our way through the group we quickly ran out of adjectives, and words such as "brave", "caring" and "honest", became cliches. Someone jokingly offered to find a thesaurus, but we struggled on.

The week felt like the cross between the up-market holiday camp and the therapy course in relaxation that it was meant to be. While most people would have done better to change their lifestyles for more permanent relief, this was beyond contemplation for the majority, who were set on careers that, for whatever reason, they would never change.

As Andy, a social worker and Cortijo Romero veteran told me: "What I like about the place is you can either meet and mix with like minded people or happily spend hours meditating alone in the gardens. Turn up for the sessions and open up or lie next to the pool. It's up to you. I've made some very close friends here."

Indeed, there was barely a dry eye in the house when our final session ended in the only way possible; a big emotional group hug, followed by plans for a reunion.

Cortijo Romero fact file

Cortijo Romero offers a range of week-long breaks including Rest & Renewal, Yoga & Personal Growth, Shiatsu, and Dance. Costs range from pounds 295-pounds 360 full-board. For an extra charge the centre can also arrange flights, transfers and insurance. For more details, contact: Cortijo Romero, Little Grove, Chesham, Bucks HP5 3QQ (tel: 01494 782 720; fax. 01494 776 066).

You can buy your own flights from as little as pounds 89 return through any high street travel agent, but remember to book well in advance if your trip coincides with school holidays.