Justine Tyerman learns about the history of the healing waters at the world-renowned five-star Grand Resort Bad Ragaz, dines with the lead medical consultant of the Swiss Olympic team and a world expert in aesthetic dermatology and laser therapy, and revisits her favourite childhood story.
A horse-drawn carriage ride to the source of an ancient mineral spring bubbling up deep inside a wild, rocky Swiss mountain appealed to the romantic in me — despite the torrential rain. And stories of invalids being winched in baskets 40m down a cliff face to soak in the healing waters over 700 years ago excited my imagination ever further.
These brave, hardy souls who spent seven to 12 days and nights immersed in pools hewn in the rocks became the first 'spa patrons' of Altes Bad Pfӓfers (Old Pfӓfers Spa) near the town of Bad Ragaz in Eastern Switzerland.
The story of the spring's discovery is also intriguing. In 1242 two hunters from the Benedictine monastery in Pfäfers came upon warm water gushing from rocks in the Tamina Gorge. The monks at the nearby monastery believed the thermal waters to have healing properties and as news of the spring spread, pilgrims came from far and wide in search of a cure for their ailments.
In the mid-1300s, wooden bathing houses were built in the gorge and in 1535, the eminent natural scientist and philosopher Paracelsus documented the therapeutic effects of the water. He found it was low in mineral content and had the same temperature as the human body - 36.5°C. Paracelsus advised his patients to bathe for up to 12 hours a day believing that the toxins in their bodies would come out through the softened skin. He became known as the world's first spa physician and launched the age of spa tourism.
In 1630, the spring was channelled out of the gorge to bathing houses and in 1716, Switzerland's earliest baroque bathhouse was built below the Benedictine monastery. Accommodating up to 500 guests, in its heyday, Russian nobility and the rich and famous came to take the waters there.
The monastery was closed in 1838 and in 1840, a four-kilometre pipe was constructed to carry the precious "Blue Gold" to Bad Ragaz heralding the rise of the town to international fame. Today, the spa facilities at The Grand Resort Bad Ragaz cover a vast 12,800 square metres, making it one of the largest in Europe. The legendary spring water feeds all the resort's pools, and all the taps at the Spa Suites.
Having trotted 50-minutes up the gorge in my covered carriage, with sheer cliffs towering 70 metres above us and the swollen river raging alongside, I disembarked at Altes Bad Pfӓfers, patted the pair of stoic horses whose coats were steaming in the chilly autumn rain and entered a narrow gash in the mountain. I followed my guide along a 450m pathway above a thunderous torrent to a grotto where the spring bubbles up from deep within the earth. It's an astonishing sight, centuries after its discovery, to see the water still flowing vigorously at a rate of seven to 10 million litres a day, the most abundant spring in Europe. The gorge is artificially lit and there are safety railings to keep you from plummeting into the river below but hundreds of years ago, it would have been a fearfully treacherous expedition to reach the source of the spring.
The only natural light was and still is a shaft of sunshine at midday. The relentless rain added to the drama of the experience transforming the cliff faces above us into a waterfall. With my Fiordland-tested waterproof jacket and sturdy Swiss umbrella, I stayed relatively dry but the pilgrims of yesteryear would have been drenched in such conditions. Looking up, I tried to visualise the baskets being gingerly lowered down the slim split in the earth bearing the frail and infirm - desperation for a cure must have overcome their terror.
Emerging from the gloom, I took refuge from the rain inside Altes Bad Pfäfers. The extensively-restored buildings house fascinating monastery, bath and spa museums, a memorial to Paracelsus and some of the original baths. The lovely neo-gothic chapel and former kitchen with its massive black ovens that once catered for up to 300 guests are also open to the public. After a delicious lunch at the Altes Bad Pfäfers restaurant watched over by Paracelsus and other luminaries, I returned to the five-star Grand Resort Bad Ragaz in a more sedate fashion, courtesy of a coach.
Back in my luxurious suite I slipped into my white robe and slippers and wandered down a hall lined with glamorous boutiques to the beautiful 19th century Helena pool at the 36.5° Wellbeing and Thermal Spa. As I immersed myself in the warm water, the "Blue Gold", I thought of its source, the spring bubbling away deep in the gorge, and the courage and fortitude those early "spa patrons" possessed. How effortless it is these days to partake of the healing waters and seek expert medical treatment, especially here at Switzerland's Grand Resort Bad Ragaz, Europe's leading wellbeing and medical health resort.
Within a few paces, I can consult more than 70 doctors and therapists in the specialised fields of rheumatology, orthopaedics, mental health, dermatology, aesthetic and plastic surgery, dentistry and implantology, gynaecology and fertility, ophthalmology, complementary medicine and an inpatient clinic for musculoskeletal and oncological rehabilitation all under one roof at the resort's internationally-renowned Medical Health Centre.
And while having treatment, I can relax and enjoy life in five-star luxury hotels - the Grand Hotel Quellenhof and Spa Suites, the Grand Hotel Hof Ragaz and the historic Palais Hotel. The resort has seven restaurants, two golf courses, a casino and the extensive 36.5° Wellbeing and Thermal Spa and public Tamina Therme Spa. A family spa is due to open in April 2018 and the Grand Hotel Quellenhof will be entirely renovated next year for its 150th anniversary.
The rooms and suites, from classical elegance to historic, and princely to ultra-modern, are sumptuous. The pièce de résistance is the Penthouse Floor, which stretches over 600 square metres and offers a breath-taking 360° panoramic view of Bad Ragaz and the alps.
The Presidential, Imperial and Royal Suites are also lavishly-appointed. My luxurious balcony suite had a glorious view of the village and mountains, and there were always little treats waiting for me on my pillow.
The cuisine was also exceptional, especially the fresh zingy Asian flavours of the Namun Restaurant where I dined with one of the resort's specialists, the debonair Dr Christian Hoppe, MD, a high performance health coach.
He kept me well-entertained all evening with his enlightening views on holistic health and wellbeing. His energy and enthusiasm were infectious.
Christian has been treating elite athletes, including the Swiss Olympic team for many years, and he was also the head coach in three victorious campaigns in the Race Across America, the toughest endurance test in the world.
However, his expertise is not limited to top sportsmen and women. It's also available to guests at The Grand Resort Bad Ragaz. Christian designs individually-tailored programmes to enable patients to achieve their ideal level of health. He calls this "the steady state" where one's physiological parameters are in balance.
"A combination of regular exercise, a proper diet and personal stress management will get you there," says Christian who applies comprehensive medical diagnostics to analyse a person's status quo before enlisting a team of experts in stress management, exercise, nutrition and the Swiss secrets of "ageing well".
He treats guests who want to enhance their performance in various areas, and those suffering from stress, burn-out, depression or dissatisfaction in life, seeking weight loss or ways to look and feel younger.
Being a woman of "a certain age", I was particularly interested in the recently-introduced Ragazer Anti-Ageing Stay Young programme.
"We can't stop the ageing process, but we can help to slow it down," says Christian. The four-day programme starts with a consultation which addresses the patient's medical history and includes major laboratory tests, evaluation of the cardiovascular system, measurement of muscle tone and body fat, as well as an anti-ageing infusion.
"The programme is a sustainable tool that could potentially extend a participant's life span. In personal discussions with our nutritionist and myself, guests learn and understand which habits and behaviours can have a negative impact on their life expectancies."
I also dined with the delightful Dr Brigitte Bollinger at the resort's superb Mediterranean Olives d'Or Restaurant. A world expert in aesthetic dermatology and laser therapy, Brigitte is much in demand. Among her specialities are micro-needling, Botox, biodegradable fillers, and laser treatments to rejuvenate the skin, remove hair, treat scars, acne, spider veins, blood vessels, rosacea, age and pigment spots, and tighten and lift the skin.
Brigitte also performs hair transplants and skin cancer treatments. I was fascinated to hear her talk about injecting stem cells harvested from the patients' own body into the face, an increasingly-popular procedure.
I visited Brigitte at her clinic next day and inspected her many treatment rooms and state-of-the-art laser and micro-needling-radio frequency equipment. I can assure you, all things are possible and there's no shortage of patients lining up for her services. I imagine they go home attributing their miraculously-rejuvenated appearance to the phenomenal healing powers of the water.
I found just being there in the heart of the Swiss Alps amid green pastures, snow-capped peaks and tall church spires, re-energised me and lifted my spirits. The region is called 'Heidiland' where Johanna Spyri was inspired to write her famous Heidi stories, my childhood favourites. I picked up a book at the resort and got lost in the magic of the story all over again. No wonder Heidi fell in love with the place. Even the air tastes sweet here. And learning about the region's fascinating history and visiting the source of the legendary spring, the original raison d'être of the resort, added depth and meaning to the experience. I wonder what the huntsmen, the monks, Paracelsus and his patients would make of the place today?