How Far Would You Travel for Wellness?
Writer Curtis Gillespie headed to the Swiss Alps to take in some of the legendary spas all in the name of, you know, science. Here’s how he managed to survive a week of getting better.
As I lie trapped under many tons of Swiss granite, it occurs to me that sometimes you have to submit yourself to the external power of the natural world in order to find the deepest internal reflections. Slivers of natural light pry into the grotto I find myself in. A slow, sputtery trickle of water is falling into a pool somewhere behind me. My breathing is deep and normal, but every other part of me seems paralyzed, almost anesthetized, as if I’ve taken a non-lethal viper bite. Most striking is the sensation that I am not just trapped by the stone but have literally become part of it, my body a slab of rock pressed flat into the mountainside. I guess you could say I feel like schist.
All of which gives me ample time to reflect upon what has brought me here. The Swiss don’t do everything, but what they do they tend to do exceedingly well—chocolate, skiing, engineering, banking, watches, hotels. And spas.
They’ve been refining the art of wellness for centuries, in so many ways, maximizing what it means to be human. Worn out from the holy trinity of a sports injury/hectic work schedule/children at university, I felt in need of a little maximizing, so I set myself the Ulyssean task of sampling three of the country’s most renowned temples of healing in search of the perfect, or at least rejuvenated, me.
My first stop is the spa at Zurich’s famed Dolder Grand Hotel, a complicated interaction of numerous hot and cold pools all leading to a unisex indoor pool, which itself opens out onto an outdoor hot pool on a terrace that overlooks the city. If you lean over the edge a bit, you can see the Bentleys and Aston Martins littering the grand circular entranceway. It’s like being on the set of a Bond movie without, sadly, foxy European double agents attempting to pry my secrets from me.
Every other element of the hotel is just as outrageously over the top; some suites span multiple floors, with private entrances and internal elevators. If you have a spare few minutes—or few weeks—check out the hotel’s vast modern art collection, examples of which come at you around every corner, from the giant Andy Warhol canvas above the check-in desk to the Keith Haring sculpture in the garden. It’s all there: Joan Miró, Damien Hirst, Henry Moore, Gerhard Richter. The visuals nearly detract from my spa time, though, luckily, sweating feverishly while collapsed on a chair in a fog of disorientation is something that both steam baths and modern art bring out in me.
Down a level in Warhols (there are none at all, if you can believe it) but up a level in seriousness, is Grand Resort Bad Ragaz. Located in the eponymous village in eastern Switzerland. It’s an old-school classy resort that takes both its history and raison d’être from the nearby thermal waters. The springs at Tamina Gorge were discovered by monks 800 years ago and have been a draw ever since. They first lowered “patients” (then thought to be suffering their ailments due to spiritual shortcomings) down the gorge by rope and pulley, then over the years built ramps and paths from the upper areas. And it is literally just up the road from the resort. One minute you’re curled up like a cat in luxury’s lap, and after a 12-minute bus ride up the gorge you’re hiking through the caverns of a prehistoric natural phenomenon.
The spa is both old world and new world, with the main water pools housed in a kind of 18th-century hall. The newer, smaller pools—featuring the cold and hot pools—are more modern, and the nearby steams and saunas are “clothing optional,” which, as the resort manager says to me, is “very European.” This is all well and good, and I am not uncomfortable in the spa, but it does take some getting used to at dinnertime; sausage and dumplings look different on your plate when you’re sitting beside the elderly couple you saw starkers a couple of hours earlier.
But by far the most arresting marriage of healing waters, history and architectural genius in Switzerland, and perhaps anywhere, is the Therme Vals in the tiny mountain hamlet of the same name. The village and therme (hot spring) hold a special place in Swiss minds and hearts for more than one reason. To begin with, the village itself is an outrageously picturesque clutch of chalets that appear to have tumbled higgledy-piggledy into the stream-riven floor of a valley so steep, it’s like an axe cut it into the earth.
But it’s the spa and the hotel attached to it that truly give Vals its renown. For starters, it is a rather unusual commingling of a hyper-chic resort with a medical institution. There’s a hospital feel to the main building’s exteriors, with their square utilitarian lines and aggressive functionality, but the main hotel has now been converted into high-concept rooms designed by well-known architects. The rooms conjure up the feeling of being in a swanky recovery unit: they are almost laughably small—mine doesn’t have enough space for a desk or a television—yet are impeccably appointed with burnished woods, a Tivoli radio and Aesop toiletries. I’ve never been confined to a rehab unit or a sanatorium, but if this is what it’s like, I’d be willing to be ill for a spell.
Yet it’s inside the therme where the lack of fun really begins. Don’t take that the wrong way. It’s rejuvenating and relaxing, but the overarching point of being there is to have precisely nothing happen. This is easily achieved, which is what leads me to the buried-under-stone hypnagogic state I alluded to off the top. The interior of the therme at Vals is a blocky square masterpiece maze of stone and water created by Swiss architect Peter Zumthor, a legend in architectural circles (his minimalist designs earned him the Pritzker Prize, the Nobel of architecture, in 2009). Using the local Valser quartzite, a stone known for its dark grey heft and flecked austere beauty, he fashioned an intricate series of hidden spaces around two main pools, one inside and one outside. The giant slabs of quartzite are stacked like cards in a deck to generate nothing but flat surfaces and 90-degree angles. There isn’t a rounded edge to be found, which contributes to the severity of the space, though it remains a contemplative and compressed severity. Simply put, there is little else to consider but your own relationship to the landscape and its elements. It’s a most peculiar feeling, one made real by the physical sensations found in each space, from the fire pool (42°C) to the ice pool (14°C) to the sound pool (a dark echo chamber), all of which lead you to the outdoor pool and its massive opening into the mountainous space of the valley below and above and around you.
The fact that it’s hard to describe with language is part of the point; Zumthor himself rarely writes about his designs, believing they must be physically experienced to be understood (if understanding is even the point). Being on-site, you can see why he feels this way. Experiencing the staggering weight, density and indifference of the natural world through the therme makes me feel something new. We have all heard it said that when stress and anxiety dissipate, it’s like having a great load lifted off your shoulders: you feel light and unburdened. But in some ways I feel precisely the opposite at the therme. Instead of feeling like stress is evaporating from my body, it feels as if it is being squeezed out of me like juice from an orange. The sense of dead-weight inert relaxation is so molecularly deep, it is like I am able to fully breathe and relax and cogitate while a hundred feet under water. When I “wake up” and am able to move, my body feels as if it has all the structural integrity of an abandoned set of bagpipes.
Yet everything that follows—wine, food, breathing, sleep—seems to carry a heightened awareness. So that’s what food is supposed to taste like. I rise the next morning after nine hours of dreamless, dead, unmoving sleep, not exuberant or even renewed, but simply intensely aware and present. Such is the delirium of the magic mountains, the sense that you are both free and trapped, with no choice but to do nothing and observe how your mind, body and soul respond. Maximized. I could have lain on that slab at Therme Vals for a month. Maybe I did. Maybe it was only an afternoon. Time is beside the point.