Justine Tyerman discovers the delights of the Lower Engadine Valley in Switzerland . . . including a Matterhorn of a very different kind.
The 'Matterhorn' was smaller, lower and a different shape from what I expected it be — in fact, it was not even a mountain. But to the residents of the Lower Engadine Valley in Switzerland, the chapel-like white building and the ancient mineral springs therein are just as treasured and mystical as the iconic peak near Zermatt.
They are justifiably proud of their 'Matterhorn' although it is yet to be discovered by the modern world.
They are also proud of the ancient origins of their mineral springs – the strongest in Europe - which date back to 1369 when the fountains of the Inn Valley were first mentioned. However, the existence of the springs, which well up from deep within the earth where two tectonic plates collide, was probably known long before that in Roman times.
Bathing in mineral springs became popular in Switzerland from the 15th century when the Swiss physician Paracelsus began expounding their therapeutic properties, and from the 16th century, the drinking of mineral waters for their health benefits became fashionable.
The water was believed to strengthen the immune system, support blood circulation and breathing, help with kidney, stomach and skin problems and aid body movement.
In 1842, a small hotel was built in the valley to cater for the growing number of people coming to drink the water, and in 1864, the first spa hotel, the Kurhaus Tarasp, was built.
Such was the popularity of the therapies, a special drinking hall, the Trinkhalle Büvetta Tarasp, was opened in 1887 on the banks of the River Inn near the alpine village of Scuol.
The building has been closed to the public since 2006 due to a rock fall but Philipp from the local tourism office is hopeful that it will soon be restored and reopened. The local people regard it as their 'Matterhorn' - the foundation, the heart and the key to their tourism industry.
It's an impressive, elongated building, right on the banks of the Inn River, with a chapel-like dome featuring stained glass windows. People would drink from one of three fountains as prescribed by the spa physicians of the day, Dr Eduard Killias and Dr J. Leva. The water is still bubbling up vigorously today.
I drank from the Lucius fountain, one of the strongest mineral waters in Europe. It had such a powerful taste I could only manage a sip or two but the early spa patrons drank large quantities of it.
The water, high in magnesium, calcium, iron, sulphate, niacin and many other minerals, spends up to 25 years seeping through the 3000 metre-high alps before it comes to the surface in 20 locations within a 4-5km area along the Inn Valley.
Historical photographs show large numbers of fashionably-dressed people promenading up and down the long hall in between their doses of water. They used to meet at the Büvetta twice a day and it became a highly-social occasion. Musicians provided entertainment and the hall was lined with stalls to help patrons pass the time.
It was a thriving tourism hot spot back then. The water was even bottled and shipped around the world.
However, during the 1950s and 1960s, people lost interest in the therapeutic benefits of mineral waters, preferring to take the latest pharmaceutical drugs for their ailments. But since the 1990s, there has been a strong resurgence in interest due to the trend towards wellness and healthy living.
In response, the Engadin Bad Scuol opened in 1993 offering extensive spa facilities 365 days a year. Four hotels in Scuol have direct, free access to the spa which is fed by pure mineral water. The spa has six indoor and outdoor pools with massage jets, bubbles, waterfalls and a 'lazy river', as well as a salt pool, sunbathing area and a relaxation room where a log fire provides a cosy atmosphere in the cooler months.
There's nothing better at the end of an energetic day hiking, biking, climbing, rafting or skiing than to relax with a massage and sauna, and immerse yourself in warm bubbly water.
It was a delicious sensation being swept around by the lazy river current at the outdoor pool and then floating on a sea of bubbles, mesmerised by the splendour of the mountains, the clarity of the air and the sun setting in a kaleidoscope of golds and reds.
The Engadin Bad Scuol also houses Switzerland's first Roman-Irish baths which combine the beneficial effects of two European bathing traditions. The ancient Romans believed in the therapeutic properties of steam baths at various temperatures while the Irish placed their faith in hot, dry air. Nineteenth century bathing culture combined these two styles in a single ritual which guests can experience in Scuol.
The entrance to the Roman-Irish baths came as a complete surprise. A waterfall wall slid back to reveal the stunning facilities where guests can indulge in a four-hour, 15-step routine involving a body scrub, massage, and steam, bubble and cold baths to relax and detoxify the body, stimulate the circulation, strengthen the immune system and refresh the spirit. Wellness treatments include honey massage, lymphatic drainage and hay flower wrap.
The baths take only two at a time so guests can enjoy the ultimate private spa experience. The ritual ends in a relaxation room where guests are wrapped snugly in a warm blanket and can drift and dream while gazing at the breath-taking beauty of the Lower Engadine Dolomites.
In order to provide a holistic medicine approach, the region's health care providers have combined under one umbrella 'Center da sandà Engiadina Bassa' (Health Center Unterengadin) to offer an extensive range of alternative medicine therapies, hospital facilities, care for the elderly and rehabilitation services.
When the historic Büvetta Tarasp drinking hall is restored as a tourist and wellness attraction, the region will have its longed-for 'Matterhorn'. I just hope that does not signal an end to the tranquillity of this beautiful valley and its delightful, low-key, laid-back lifestyle.