Mountains of massage: The Austrian spa retreats that take their cue from Mother Nature
Saturday 25 June 2011
It's rare enough you meet someone who has invented a massage. To have them perform their treatment on you on a balmy afternoon in western Austria is something else indeed. But that's exactly what happened to me as I lay prostrate under the hands of Harald Kitz.
His massage focuses on releasing tension in the head, neck and shoulders. Harald noticed many of his patients suffered from pain in these areas and – clearly not one for false modesty – named his treatment Haki, a merging of his two names.
I was staying at the Bio-Hotel Stanglwirt, a charming, almost entirely wooden retreat (even the phones are made of the stuff) overlooked by a dramatic mountain backdrop in the Tirol. From its ornate wooden architecture to the dirndl-clad ladies on reception, it is every inch a traditional Austrian hotel. My room boasted a wood-burner, king-size bed and a balcony overlooking the majestic Wilder Kaiser mountain.
The stunning countryside, lakes and mountains certainly add appeal for a visitor keen on sensory indulgence, but it's the unique range of traditional treatments on offer – many using fresh herbs and plants from the surrounding mountains – that sets Austria apart.
As twinkling tunes filled the intimate treatment room, Harald began by wrapping his fingers around my spine. I let out a sheepish laugh and asked if my back was knotted. "Please do not talk to me any more," said Harald. "I am in full concentration of the mobility and energy of your body."
Whoops. Closing my eyes, I instead focused on how Harald engaged with my limbs, seeming to shake and stretch them, even pulling my fingers and snapping my toes. Stretching and relaxing are core values to the Haki way of life (the words "stretch and relax" even made the final logo for the treatment, which naturally Harald designed himself).
By the end, I was a convert: my body felt loose and tension-free, particularly in my neck, which Harald had identified as a "problem". With the treatment over, Harald gave me some last sage advice: "Get up and have a good life."
Keen to do what I was told, I was up at 7am the next morning to make my way to the Alpenresort Schwarz in Mieming, 90 minutes' drive to the west. Nature loomed large on the journey: mist covered the tops of the mountains; the fields were scattered with buttercups.
The spa at the Schwarz takes its cue from the power of nature – the herbs, resins and oils found in the Alps. Here, I was given an Alpine bath treatment in order to experience such potent wonders at work. Michael, my masseur, applied a cream that contained gentian oil to my back, arms, legs and chest before I lay down and was wrapped in several layers of what felt like greaseproof paper and foam polystyrene packaging.
Next he turned on the water bath below me and left me in the darkness, like a present waiting to be unwrapped. After a while my body – and my back in particular – started to tingle as if there was menthol in the concoction.
Once he came back to unwrap me, I got into the shower, noticing the cream's silky soft effects on my skin. But there was no time to relax; I was then taken to another room where a classic full-body massage awaited. The hot-cold frenzy of a few minutes before made the massage feel deeper and more intense.
I'd been looking forward to continuing my relaxation into the evening, so was surprised to discover the hotel had booked a local singing duo with dubious vocals for entertainment. While the crowd enjoyed the band, I got chatting with a guest called Martina who was visiting from the south Austrian region of Carinthia. She told me that Austrians perceive spas as a lifestyle necessity: "Austria has been a well-seasoned spa destination since Roman times," she said. "A spa break is part of our holiday schedule to escape everyday life and recover. I try to have as many as I can. I'm addicted."
It's easy to see why the Schwarz would appeal to a spa addict: it has a warm, cosy feel, with simple yet appealing architecture. It also has impressive grounds, with a vast garden, a 27-hole golf course and even a petting zoo, complete with llamas who presumably feel as at home in the Alps as the Andes.
The next morning I was back on the road, heading west, refreshed and ready to continue my spa odyssey. At the hillside town of Nassereith the road began to wind around the mountain, eventually peaking at 1,900m, where I caught sight of chairlifts hanging desolate and still, glistening in the morning sun. Later I passed another ski resort where a sign read: "Closed for business until November".
Thankfully, spa season never stops in Austria. The road descended into the town of Elbigenalp, flanked by the river Lech that meandered through green fields punctuated by farming huts and churches with red bands around their spires.
Next came Schoppernau, a ghost town on a Sunday morning except for a few solitary diners peering from the window seats of a nearby restaurant, before I arrived at my final stop.
The slick, stylish Hotel Post is in Bezau, a picturesque town tucked among the Bregenzerwald Forest in the western province of Vorarlberg. Having become enchanted by the Austrian mountains, I was now itching to climb one. Kanisfluh lies a 30-minute drive from the hotel and reaches a height of 2,044m. The climb was tough but rewarding and the summit offered spectacular views in all directions, with my hotel a mere dot among the lush blossoming fields of the Bregenzerache river valley.
At the top, I found myself standing next to another figure: a man made entirely of iron, dressed in a loincloth, his head covered with pebbles. The statue forms part of Antony Gormley's Horizon Field, an installation in the Vorarlberg Alps consisting of 100 life-size figures, which will remain in place until next April.
The next day, back at the hotel, I made my way to its Susanne Kaufmann spa for the Bregenz Forest ritual. It began with my being hit by a hot stamp consisting of local organic herbs, to stimulate the circulation in my body. The masseuse then started on the feet, tapping up my thighs, before massaging in warm herbal oils. She repeated the trick on my stomach, although with a rather more delicate touch once I told her I'd just eaten lunch.
These spa treatments had revealed some truly strange ways to spend my time but the end result left me feeling as if every muscle and piece of skin had been reborn. "Get up and have a good life?" The Austrian Alps are a grand place to start.
Travel essentials: Austrian spas
* The writer flew to Austria with British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com), which flies from Gatwick to Salzburg; returns start at £125.
* Salzburg is also served by Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com) from Stansted and Flybe (0871 700 2000; flybe.com) from Southampton.
* Bio-Hotel Stanglwirt, Going, Tirol (00 43 5358 2000; stanglwirt.com). Doubles start at €180, including breakfast.
* Alpenresort Schwarz, Obermieming (00 43 5264 52120; hotel-schwarz.com). Doubles start at €292, full board.
* Hotel Post, Bezau im Bregenzerwald (00 43 5514 22070; hotelpostbezau.com). Doubles start at €300, half board.
* Free spa use is included in these rates, but treatments cost extra.
* Austrian National Tourist Office: 0845 1011818; austria.info
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