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food / travel

Walk, Fast, Heal: Finding The Meaning Of Life In The Austrian Alps

The Kneipp spa-hotels in Austrian offer wellness holidays with a difference: the resorts are run by an order of nuns and base their holistic treatments on a tradition founded 100 years ago by a Roman Catholic priest.

Austrian mountains
Austrian mountains
Rita Schulze

"You're a different person when you finish than from when you start," says Sister Emmanuela Reichl of the Via Nova pilgrimage. And she's not just referring to the fact that you'll have blistered feet, sunburn and dirty clothes.

This spiritual leader of the Kneipp spa-hotel in the northern, Upper Austrian Aspach region is a certified pilgrim companion. Twice a year, she takes a group of 12 on the European pilgrimage of Via Nova between Austria and Bavaria in Germany. The pilgrimage does not have a destination, but the journey itself is a destination in itself. The pilgrims are there to break out of the daily rat race, to cope with tragedies, to search for the meaning of life. It's a uniquely new age version of Christian healing.

Every evening, the hikers stay at one of the Kneipp spa-hotels along the route, where they can enjoy a healthy meal, relax in the pool, or take in a mud or hay flower full body wrap. Sister Emmanuela, 44, is the youngest of the Sisters of Mount Caramel, who administer "traditional European medicine" at the spa. Underlying the treatment is a very holistic approach to healing.

Most people around the world have heard of exotic therapies such as Ayurveda or traditional Chinese medicine, but few know that Europe also has a centuries-old, medicinal tradition that focuses on the interplay of mind, body and soul.

It is no wonder, since natural medicine was demonized by the Christian Church as a pagan practice, and its representatives were persecuted as Christianity spread throughout Europe. Medical schools set themselves apart from this "old" medicine, whose methods had not been tested scientifically. But good health and healing requires more than just technology, and recently, there has been a resurgence in these traditional holistic methods.

In Upper Austria, it all began more than a century ago with Emma Freund, a young girl from Vienna. She contracted pulmonary tuberculosis, which at the time amounted to a death sentence. However, in 1890 she went to Bad Wörishofen, in what has since become the German region of Bavaria, to seek treatment from Father Sebastian Kneipp. Amazingly, she was completely healed.

As a way of demonstrating her gratitude, she joined the Order of the Sisters of Mary as Sister Raphaela to bring health education to the people. Since 1911, the Sisters of Mary have been operating three spas according to hydrotherapeutic tradition in Upper Austria.

This involves far more than just a stroll through icy water. Alongside water therapy - 80 percent of the baths and showers are warm - the method employs medicinal herbs, nutrition, exercise, and a balanced lifestyle - all of these make up the "five pillars' of healing.

Sister Emmanuela helps patients to find order in their lives by talking with them in the cosy sitting area by a pond in the garden. From here, guests overlook a maze, which reminds them that they will not find direct routes to their destinations in life. They learn that they may occasionally go astray, repent, and need to find a new orientation.

The hedges that border the paths of the maze are very low, so that anyone not up to the task of finishing it can find his way out quickly. The medicinal herbs used in the spa's teas, tinctures and ointments also grow in the garden. The majority are psychoactive plants - not prohibited substances, of course, but rather subtle mood enhancers. Yellow-flowered agrimony plants grow throughout the garden, showing guests how to "find real inner peace through harmony."

Although the rooms at the Aspach spa-hotel are simply furnished, and the dining room has little more charm than a canteen, the doctors, therapists, cooks and service staff - both the secular and the spiritual - more than make up for it with their friendly nature. Moreover, guests are not there for a luxurious spa trip - rather, they are there to heal.

The Kneipp spa-hotel at Bad Kreuzen, close to the River Danube, boasts one of the largest Kneipp gardens in Austria, which gives guests ample room to wander and exercise. The Sisters at the establishment in Bad Mühllacken pride themselves on their enormous herb collection. Amongst the many herbs in the garden grows a stevia shrub, regarded as a miracle plant: 300 times sweeter than sugar, with none of the calories. The perfect sweetener for one of the many herbal teas are available at the bar in the hotel.

In addition to their medicinal plants, the Sisters of Bad Mühllacken are devoted to nutrition, fasting, and maintaining a proper pH balance. But water and exercise are also important: a few steps behind the spa, a small spring ripples through a romantic wooded ravine. The water, which comes from the Bruno-source, has been used for medicinal purposes since 1364. Its discovery laid the foundation for the spa industry in Bad Mühllacken.

The community of the Sisters of Mary of Carmel was founded in 1861, and thus 2011 marks not only the 100th anniversary of the Kneipp tradition, but also the 150th anniversary for the sisters. All three spa hotels will celebrate Kneipp-day on May 15, and visitors to Bad Kreuzen can attend workshops on traditional European medicine throughout the year.

For those who can't decide on just one option, there's one package that covers it all: "Pilgrimage - fasting - silence: Explore the Kneipp tradition on foot." Accompanied by Sister Emmanuela, this walking tour will take you to all three sites of the Sisters of Mary - you will definitely be a different person when you finish.

Read the original article in German

Photo - Hardo Muller

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