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

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!