Wellness Buzz: Hives and Healing in the Andalusian Hills

One writer finds balance among the bees at a luxury Andalusian farm stay offering an up-close and personal encounter with the local pollinators

My friend works as a winemaker at Finca La Donaira, an organic farm high up in the mountains of the Andalusian Serranía de Ronda. She's tempted me to join her with the words "natural wine", "natural pool", "baby donkeys" and "bees". Without further consideration, I head to the airport, booked on a flight to Málaga. From there, it's a two-hour drive along dusty highways and through lush valleys to the whitewashed farmhouse.

Finca La Donaira sits discreetly among vineyards and olive groves. It's a landscape of sounds: meadows filled with crickets; the trickle of water down by the emerald-green springwater pool luring me down for a post-flight splash. From the outside, the traditional farmhouse could be any other farm stay, but its interiors, elegantly curated by the owner, Manfred Bodner, skip to a different beat. It isn't characteristically Spanish, save for its dark stone walls and floors. Colourful, seminal books on psychedelia and wellbeing fill towering shelves and tabletops; art deco furniture pops against rustic walls. There's a grand piano, and one-off artworks dotted throughout. The nine bedrooms found inside - and outside - the main farmhouse are airy. Built from natural materials, they house bronzed roll-top tubs, statement sculptures and an array of paintings. I'm staying in a yurt that boasts a double basin and a vast, circular bath. As I unpack, the clicking and humming of insects outside fills the space.

Finca La Donaria Farmhouse
Finca La Donaria, Bedroom

Finca La Donaira through the vines, left, and one of the airy bedrooms. | Photo credit: Clara Lozano

The place is steeped in the richness of its surroundings: one floor-to-ceiling window in the dining room makes for a living painting of the still mountainscape. The open kitchen teems with pickled things, eggs that have been laid that morning and an abundance of fresh greens. My childhood memories of Spam and chips on the Costa del Sol are a distant memory. It buzzes, but with serenity. It reminds me of somewhere.

Another world

In 1973, Spanish film director Victor Erice released his magical realism debut, a movie about a dynamic young child living in French-occupied Spain. Carefully navigating the censorship rules of the time, the filmmaker crafted a masterpiece of modern cinema that captured the quiet self-sufficiency of Spanish rural life and the bewitching sensation of long, hot summers through a child's eyes. Produced when Spain still lived under Franco's regime, it was also a portrait of the strains of life within a ruptured societal system.

The Spirit of the Beehive depicted a six-year-old drawing jarring parallels between her reality and her imagined worlds. At the centre of the child's world was the hum of the unknown; at the centre of her father's world, his beehives. At La Donaira, out of my kopfkino and in modern-day Spain (the spectre of hard living and autocratic European leaders not so distant from Erice's 70s masterpiece), I'm about to enter a similar hive-like state of mind as I climb into a bee bed.

Hazy Hills of La Donaira
A Bee Bed

Hazy hills, left, and the bee bed. | Photo credit: Clara Lozano & Anna-Maria Indra

These coffin-like wooden chambers, located among the farm's trees, allow you to be encompassed by the bees without the chance of a sting. Positioned above two hives, a single layer of wood is all that separates you from the insects. Inside, it's dark and it hums.

Lying there, entombed, is strangely nice. You're encouraged to meditate. Practitioners report that the sensation brings about balance and inner harmony; it requires a level of submission. "The experience is humbling. It helps one to come closer to nature and these beautiful creatures," La Donaira's wellness manager, Paula, tells me. It's a little like being in a sensory-deprivation tank.

Benefits of the bee beds include eliminating body tension and enhancing sleeping cycles. I see it as a sort of body scan, similar to sound baths. I was aware of my vibrations, just as I was aware of those of the bees. I'm with them for less than an hour, but time disappears and twists while I'm inside. Paula also leads aerial yoga on a terrace with landscape panoramic views, and ecstatic dance classes. Then, there's shinrin-yoku, Andalusia-style. The property's resident donkey healer leads the forest-bathing sessions in the cooler months. Wellness at La Donaira is nature-led.

La Donaira, Eco Retreat
La Donaira, Bench Corner

The farmhouse living area, left, and a tranquil seating spot. | Photo credit: Clara Lozano

In the medicinal garden

Having started out with 20 hives, the property has now added a further two. Seven of them are housed inside trees, 12 within traditional hives and three within the bee beds. The beekeeping is simple, with minimal intervention - an attempt to solve colony-collapse issues and improve the ecological outlook of the landscape. Most of the honey is left to the bees, and no pollen or royal jelly is removed in order to strengthen the colonies. Success has been helped by the estate's organic gardening ethos.

Ballerina-turned-medical horticulturalist Gigi (and brother of La Donaira's founder, Manfred) keeps the gardens healthy. Some pathways lead to blossoming flowers and orchards, others to cacti, herb gardens and vegetable patches, and another to a 700-year-old oak tree. Much of the goodness grown finds its way to the kitchen, where menus feature guinea fowl and lamb, goose terrine, goat's ricotta, steamed vegetables and raw salads with fresh peppery herbs. As we wander, Gigi snaps off the leaves and flowers of everything from aloe vera to chilli and mint, listing to me the healing powers of each.

La Donaira, Dining Area
La Donaira, Dinner

The dining area, left, and a snapshot of the food. | Photo credit: Clara Lozano

Later, I visit the spa, a dark granite oasis, positively onsen-like, with saunas and a plunge pool, rainforest showers and a swimming pool offering valley views. As dusk turns to nightfall, I wash away the soil, sweat and fluff from a packed day at the farm in preparation for my last dinner.

That night, we're offered the chance to look through a giant telescope. I gaze up at the constellations, spotting Jupiter and Saturn. The North Star burns brightly. La Donaira has its own manifesto, available on its website, which I'd read earlier. One bit in particular jumped out: "We are in a social crisis, an economic crisis and a spiritual crisis. We are halfway through the life of the sun. Eventually, beyond the drunken delight of human conquest and progress, lies a sacred opportunity - to become heroes, to become the custodians and storytellers of an otherwise silent universe." Looking at the stars above, those words running through my head, I feel like the little child in Erice's movie.

Discover More
On the Grapevine: Uncorking England's Wine Industry