For centuries royalty have been coming to South Tyrol for wellness. Long before the five star hotels and spas, the saunas and the thermal baths, they came for the clean air, the mild temperature, and three hundred days per year of sunshine.
The Austrian empress Sissi, known for being one of the most beautiful women in the world, would often come here to escape. In Vienna she was forced to live a privileged life, one where she couldn’t even raise her own children or practice sports.
But Sissi was a free spirit, a wild woman. She loved riding horses, hiking in the mountains, and doing gymnastics. Only when she crossed the Alps from Innsbruck could she actually express herself. She came to South Tyrol for the freedom she found in the mountains.
Today, nestled between the Dolomites and the Alpine Glaciers, South Tyrol is technically in Italy. However until the First World War, it was still part of Austria. The result of this (con)fusion is a culture that feels one part of Alpine, one part Mediterranean.
The hillside is covered in grape vines and bathed in sunshine, decorated with Alpine cabins beneath snow-covered mountains. Remote mountain huts at ski resorts dish out five star Austrian Italian fusion cuisine, from apple strudel and schnitzel to semolina gnocchi and tiramisu.
Locals speak both German and Italian, though Italians will tell you it’s not Italian and Germans will tell you it’s not German. Businesses operate with German organization while people live the Bella Vita.
South Tyrol enjoys a culture all its own.
Italy or Austria, one thing hasn’t changed: South Tyrol is still a world famous destination for wellness.
By the time I reached South Tyrol, after overworking, hardly sleeping, contracting a virus in Germany, and partying in Austria, I was hardly the poster child for health.
Among other things, over the last two months in Europe I let my previous ideas about health go out the window. Where I once did cleanses, preached about super greens, and refused to consume grains or processed sugar, I decided to work on a different kind of health on this trip: flexibility and open mindedness.
Admittedly it wasn’t going so well. I wondered how the Austrians and Germans were so skinny and energetic, while I felt bloated and weighed down by booze and bread. I wondered how to take care of myself, when I spent every free moment answering emails and posting on social media. I wondered how to practice yoga and rest, when I had completely forgotten how to relax.
So like Sissi did centuries ago, I looked to the Mediterranean mountains of South Tyrol to show me the way.
Sweating in the Haybath
I began in the tiny town of Fie, which overlooked a valley and sat under the impressive Dolomites. Hundreds of years ago, farmers cutting hay in this region of the Dolomites would sleep overnight on the bales. In the morning, despite working in the field the previous day, they had no pain.
Eventually they realized their relief came from the special healing properties in the hay. To share the healing benefits with others, they made hot tubs filled with hay, and invited people to come and take a soak. In the process, South Tyrol became famous for hay bathing.
To experience hay bathing in the new millennium, I went to Hotel Heubad, where modern, and much more hygienic, hay bathing was born.
Completely naked, I climbed onto a massage table layered with damp hay. The therapist piled mounds of the hay on top of me, before lowering the table’s surface into a hot water bath. It was about as comfortable as you might imagine, feeling incapacitated in a hot water bath covered in itchy, wet hay.
I began to sweat, my face a canvas for droplets of perspiration. And through the discomfort, I began to feel myself letting go. I drifted in and out of consciousness, having visions of both the white knight and the dark horse who seemed to follow me since I arrived in Europe.
After about twenty minutes the therapist returned. I felt extremely relieved to get out of the hay and the heat. With the oils from the hay still on my body, she brought me to a cool room where I lay on a bed wrapped in a blanket to rest. She suggested I stay for half an hour, but I drifted into a deep sleep and didn’t wake until an hour later. Drifting out of the spa, I felt as if every layer of my being had relaxed. When I returned to my room and looked in the mirror, my skin glowed like a newborn baby.
Sunbathing in Thermal Pools
The next morning I went to Merano to visit the famous thermal baths, Terme Merano. As early as the fifteen hundreds, Austrian royalty and celebrities like Franz Kafka and Richard Strauss, came to Merano to enjoy the sunshine and mild climate. A few hundred years later, the first cold water sanatorium opened, along with steam baths, vinotherapy treatments (where pulp from wine grapes is rubbed on the skin), and mud mask treatments. Merano officially became known as a spa town. It wasn’t until after the First World War, when South Tyrol became part of Italy, that the special radioactive water on the mountain St Vigilo was discovered.
Today the thermal baths in Merano, Terme Merano, sit in the glass atrium and outdoor gardens of a beautiful, modern health center. Guests bathe in more than twenty different thermal pools with proven health benefits, particularly for those with respiratory diseases. Zumba classes, Finnish saunas, and holistic medical treatments are all on the menu.
Like the sauna in Finland, the thermal baths in Merano are integral to the local culture. Many community residents come at least once per week to use the facilities and soak in the pools. Coming from a culture that undervalues self-care, it’s always inspiring when I see people taking yummy moments for themselves.
In a bikini for the first time since Costa Rica, I walked outside and dipped into one of the heated pools. The day before I had been skiing in a snowstorm in the Alps, a short drive away, and here I was sun tanning outside. Sitting beneath the snow-capped mountains, being massaged by water jets, I couldn’t help but think, “This is the life.” Perhaps I was ready for Spring after all.
Resting in a Mountain Hideaway
In the evening, I arrived at my final stop in South Tyrol, Vigiljoch, the source of the thermal water in Merano. From the small town of Lana, I stepped into the cable car and ascended above the valley. When the doors opened, I found myself back in the snow and the silence that accompanied it.
I checked into the Vigilus Mountain Resort, a five star hotel in the mountains with no cars and scarce civilization. The contemporary architecture was impeccable, but what really struck me was the peace I felt in my surroundings.
I often find that high-end hotels fabricate an experience in an attempt to protect people from the discomfort of reality. It can feel empty and devoid of life. However at Vigilus, I felt the energy of the nature surrounding the resort, within the resort. I felt like I had entered a temple, a cathedral, a yoga studio, or any space that conveys the words, “I am here to hold you.”
I imagined that some people must struggle when they come here. Those accustomed to city life and constant stimulation might be terrified by the boredom they experience in the silence. It reminded me of the first time I went to Costa Rica, how scary it was being in that beach shack without Internet or television or shopping or a million other distractions. It reminded me how healing it was when I surrendered.
When I woke up that morning, I watched the sunrise over the mountains from my bed. Feeling rested for the first time in a long time, I finally remembered the key to wellness.
Like the farmers alleviating their joint pain with hay from the Dolomites, the people of Merano improving circulation with thermal water from the mountains, and the staff at Vigilus Mountain Resort living quietly in the woods, I needed only to look to the nature that surrounded me.
Spa treatments, fancy hotels, vacations, delicious meals, winter sports, and even yoga, while nice, while wonderful, are not in fact what heals us. They’re simply bridges that guide us back to what does.
I remembered that nature would always heal me, because it would always show me my way to the source. The source of relaxation. The source of healing. The source of life. The source of everything.
Thank you to the South Tyrol tourism board for sponsoring my stay, to Hotel Heubad for the kind hospitality and transformational hay bath, to Terme Merano for showing me the Bella Vita, and Vigilus Mountain Resort for helping me relax enough to remember where I come from.