From the green rolling hills and wild moors of Devon in England to the southernmost village on the Adriatic in Croatia, now that’s quite a journey. We caught up with Gillie Sutherland in new Croatian base this week to discover why she now calls Molunat home. “My journey to Molunat has been quite the adventure, to put it mildly,” said Gillie with a broad smile, clearly content in her new Konavle surroundings.
So how did you end up in the last village in Croatia?
I had travelled from Split, where I had run a yoga and sailing trip, and I took a ferry down to Dubrovnik to spend some time in Mlini before my next retreat in Cavtat. I camped for a week in Mlini and thought about where I might go next. I read an article about Molunat; I was intrigued that it was “ecologically preserved”, so I decided to go and check it out. I’m always looking for places that have a strong natural energy, for myself, and also to run retreats from. Within two days of being in Molunat, I felt different, in a good way. The smell of the wild herbs, that crystal clear water for wild swimming, and the lush vegetation in the hills behind – I was in love. I felt healthy and happy, and every time I left, I just wanted to come back. The UK was becoming less and less appealing by this time, and when I returned to Molunat in October, I knew I wanted to stay.
I want to make Molunat (and Konavle) a destination for health and wellbeing - Photo Mark Thomas
How was your journey from Devon to Molunat?
I’ve been running yoga retreats in Croatia for the last four years, on average bringing guests from the UK six times a year, and last year, I was so busy out here, I stopped going home between retreats. In December 2019, I went back to the UK, to sort out my affairs, and to vote. On December 13th it was sealed in my mind it was the right thing to do. I had a feeling that it was time to get out of the country. I had no faith in this new government. I had planned to come to Molunat in the Spring before the season began, but when the vet told me it may be more difficult to get my cat out of the country after 31st January (Brexit!), I realised it had to be sooner. I bought a car for less than £1000, just a little yellow Peugeot 107, I sold everything apart from what I needed to bring here, I worked relentlessly for a few weeks, and on January 24th 2020 (with just a week to spare), I set off from Devon with my cat and his shiny new EU passport. The challenge was that I’m not that keen on driving, it was the middle of winter, and to be honest, if I’d realised how hard it was going to be, I’m not sure I would have done it.
It took us two weeks, through France, across the Black Forest mountains into Germany, where I was snowed in for three days. Through the Austrian Alps, I nearly gave up, but we pushed on through to Slovenia and rested a few days in Ljubjana, a place I will never forget. I hooked up with a local yoga place there, got my strength back and realised I could do it.
Including Bosnia, we went through six countries to get here, but when I drove down the Adriatic highway and over the iconic bridge into Dubrovnik, I cried with relief
My cat had been the master of Zen throughout the journey, and I had to use every yoga technique I had ever learned, as well as adopting a few new practices like praying and trusting in my lucky Ljubjana dragon. Now we are here, myself and my cat are happier than ever. As they say, you must climb the mountain to get the view!
Yoga clearly plays a big part in your life. How did you start?
Yoga has been a lifelong calling for me, I started studying when I was 18, as I embarked on healing my broken spine. I went on to do a degree in Physical Education, and it was here I came across mind/body medicine. I studied everything there was to know about the body and about healing, and this learning continues today. As well as doing yoga training in the UK, I studied and lived in India for a year, and for the past 10 years, I have been running “retreats” - week-long breaks where people can immerse themselves in their own wellbeing, and kickstart a new healthy lifestyle. I find this so rewarding, as I literally see people come alive throughout the week. I have a business which still runs back at home, assisted by other teachers, called Flow Yoga Devon, and I run wellbeing events at Powderham Castle in Devon, as well as a venture called Yoga On The Beach, which ran on Exmouth beach and supports various local charities. I’m now long enough in the tooth, at 47, and with many years of practising under my belt, to train other teachers, and part of my aim here in Croatia is to help other teachers run their own retreats here and perhaps train someone local to help me. For the past seven years, I have written a weekly column in the Devon newspaper, The Express and Echo, and although they know I’m here based in Croatia now, they have kept me on, as apparently people like to hear about my new adventures!
Yoga in Molunat - Photo Mark Thomas
How have you survived Covid-19 lock down in Croatia, or rather in the wilds of Molunat?
Every day, I consider myself blessed to be here in Croatia. When I arrived here in February, I had no idea we were about to be hit by a global pandemic, and yet, not once have I regretted being here. In fact, it has made me want to stay for good. Molunat, in particular, has been the best place I could have spent this time. There is a strong sense of community here, and people seem to pull together in a crisis.
In contrast to the UK, where people were panic-buying toilet paper, here the only rush was to get out on the boats - panic-fishing!
Everyone was out on the water, or out in the gardens, making sure they were stocked up with the sensible stuff. Life is quite simple here and that’s what I love about it. People have a respect for nature and the peace and tranquillity suits me down to the ground. I have still been able to do my yoga outside, take walks, swim in the sea every day and get the food I need to survive. This is all I need, and for this I am grateful. In fact, each night, when I sit out on my roof terrace, I look across the bay and up to the stars and I say “thank you”.
How has your business been affected by the shutdown and travel ban? Are you hopeful that the end of the season will be busy?
This had been the most difficult part for me; it was a case of “adjusting my sails” and trying to keep the faith that there was a reason I was here and that it would all work out. My plan had been to run yoga holidays throughout the season and this was the main part of my business and my original reason for coming here. I had intended to return to the UK every 3 months to do some work but that’s just not feasible at the moment. There is a saying: “God laughs when we make plans”, and I had these words in my head as I realised the implications of CO-VID 19 and all that meant for me. I realised that I had to cancel at least the first three of my scheduled retreats, that people would not be coming out here from the UK and I also realised that I would not be returning to the UK in the foreseeable future. I knew that I would have to change course, and this was challenging at first, as I feared my business may not survive, and I had no idea what to do. This was when my yoga came in handy. I knew that if I just kept my head, did what I could to keep myself in a healthy and positive state, the path would appear. It helped that I found a kindred spirit and partner-in-crime, James, who is also from the UK and a lover of nature and the wild. He came to stay with me during lockdown and I think our shared sense of humour and love of the area carried us through it all with relative ease. There was much dancing on the terrace at sunset, my favourite pastime here!
God laughs when we make plans - Photo Mark Thomas
The more time I spent in Molunat, the more it became clear what I could achieve. All my students back in the UK had been following my journey, and my new life here, so I took my classes online. I offered donation-based yoga via YouTube and Facebook Live (it was needed more than ever at this point!), and offered courses to help people handle the stress and anxiety of lockdown and self-isolation. This kept me going, and I am lucky to have had such loyal and understanding students whilst I got to grips with new technology like Zoom, as well as Wi-Fi going down on a regular basis here! I also started to see the potential in the area, not just for me, but for the community. Molunat, like much of Croatia, has been hit hard by all of this, but I feel there is also huge potential here for Wellness Tourism. It’s a growing trend, and I predict a real boom post-Covid 19. My philosophy is that “the closer you are to nature, the healthier you are”, and being ecologically preserved, Molunat is ideal for this.
I’ve never felt so healthy before as I feel here, and it’s because of its location, the healing power of the sea, and that it’s such a stress-free way of living
I could never understand why the seasons were so short here. I was here until December last year, and it was still warm, and I would have thought it still a fantastic holiday destination even then. The locals thought I was mad but I was swimming in the sea all through winter. Eventually I started to re-think things.
I want to make Molunat (and Konavle) a destination for health and wellbeing, and I want to appeal to tourists from further afield than just the UK. At the moment, the UK is one of the unlikeliest countries to come here on holiday, I have no desire whatsoever to go back there right now, and there’s no way I’m going to sit here twiddling my thumbs waiting for something to change. I have this time as a gift, and I want to put it to good use. Of the guests that were due this year, most are re-booking for next year, but a few are hopeful for the end of the season. I’ve decided to “let go”. I have no control over what is happening back in the UK, except for continuing to try to share some of my energy from here by offering what I can online. In the past week, as restrictions lifted, I started teaching yoga classes here in Molunat, which I am offering for free to the locals. It feels like giving something back to a community that have welcomed me here, but I hope it also helps put Molunat on the map as a destination for those seeking rest and recuperation post-pandemic. With the help of a couple of friends here, I am building a website promoting health and wellbeing in the area, to help attract tourists here, not just for the summer months. It has given me a real sense of purpose, and I feel luckier than most to be here in Croatia.
How safe have you felt in Konavle? Especially as the first case of Covid-19 was in Konavle.
I’ve felt incredibly safe here. I have not at any point felt scared by the virus itself. I did not think I was immune to it, of course and I was careful to follow the guidelines, but I wasn’t scared. I knew I was in the best place I could be for it, and I was mindful to keep myself as healthy as I could. For me, I thought I’d overcome worse in my life than this, even if I got the virus and I also knew that fear has a negative impact on the immune system, so I thought to myself “control the controllables”, and I tried to stay as positive as I could.
I've fel incredibly safe here - Photo Mark Thomas
In your opinion how has Croatia handled the pandemic?
I have been extremely impressed by how Croatia has handled the pandemic. Largely because I think the messages were clear, decisive action was taken early on, and the public were respectful of the guidelines.
I can’t help but compare how Croatia has handled it with the UK’s response. Clarity of message is so important throughout a crisis, as is strong leadership
I am dismayed by the British government, and its handling of everything. It was an outrageous show of arrogance to not take the virus seriously, and to delay so much on lockdown measures or getting the right equipment. The numbers speak for themselves. Not only did Croatia have a low rate of cases, but more importantly, the percentage of people who died against number of cases was also incredibly low compared to other countries. This was down to strong leadership, and for this reason, I think Croatia has done a great job.
Have you been doing Yoga everyday through the lock-down? And is Molunat a good location for Yoga?
Not for the first time, yoga has been my saviour. It has helped me manage my emotions throughout this time, and yes, I do it every day. Throughout lockdown, it was more important than ever. It is my morning ritual, and to do it outside now is such a treat. I’ve even hung my aerial yoga hammock up on my roof terrace so I can hang upside down each day. This helps decompress the spine, get my energy flowing, and give me a new perspective on things! Which is just what I needed throughout lockdown. One of the reasons I chose to come to Molunat was how perfect it is for yoga. Many people think that yoga is about being bendy and making funny shapes. It is actually all about “prana” or “energy”. The aim is raising our vibrational frequency and returning to a state of harmony and balance with our environment. Essentially, aligning ourselves with nature. It is really the same concept that Nikola Tesla (a Croatian!) discovered.
“If you want to understand the Universe, think in terms of energy, vibration and frequency”.
We are electrical beings, there is an electric current in us, and around us. In nature, the frequency is high. When we are healthy, our vibrational frequency is high, but it is low when we become stressed, ill or grumpy. Spending time in nature helps us raise our frequency, our “prana”, and therefore we have a greater sense of wellbeing. This is what yoga is really about, so being close to nature and in particular the energy of the sea, is incredible for our health, and thanks to Tesla, we can now prove it.
When the tourists return I guess you will be busy, especially as Yoga is a good form of exercise and relaxation. have you seen any upturn in bookings? And where do your guests mainly come from?
Yes, I think it is going to get very busy for me this season, in particular with tourists who are coming from places they’ve really felt locked up. I’m not sure about the UK, but I think there will be other European countries coming here for a big dose of wellbeing! I’ve most certainly seen a rise in the number of people turning to practices like yoga and meditation to help them cope through these times.
People want to come on holiday to do something more than just lie on a beach
They’ve had enough time all cooped up, they want to get out and make the most of things again. I think we will see an increase this year in the number of people looking for activities and adventures, as well as health and wellbeing, as people have been reminded how precious and potentially short life can be.
My website is www.behappyfit.co.uk but I have a new website launching here in a couple of weeks www.lovemolunat.com , which I created with James Manning and local web designer Emilio Primić during the Coronavirus, to help promote Molunat as a destination for health and wellbeing.