BAD TARASP, Switzerland — A scene from the 13th Century: A look of terror marks the man's face. Slowly descending Tamina Gorge, he clings to ropes encircling a basket in which he descends.
Around him in the near darkness tumbles a ferocious waterfall. Waiting on a slippery, jutting ledge deep within the cavern are two men, arms raised to catch the basket and guide it to a safe landing.
The reason for this bizarre scene: a bubbling, soothing, 101-degree thermal pool prized by the Swiss for its curative properties.
Here in eastern Switzerland, a few miles from Liechtenstein, this was the way medieval seekers of better health sought the recuperative powers thought to be in the waters of the spa. People have been restoring themselves--or at least they think they have--by these waters for centuries.
They're More Accessible
In more recent times increased accessibility of the hot spring has brought pleasure and solace to the users more readily. Over the centuries the Swiss progressed from basket to pathway to underground pipes transferring the precious water (losing a few degrees of heat in the process) to the popular resort of Bad Ragaz in the valley.
Spas represent a culture that is centuries old, but to Europeans a holiday that improves the health makes perfect sense. For Americans, it is a pleasure sadly neglected and all but abandoned for newer and more active adventures.
My experience with Swiss and Austrian spas has an admittedly narcissistic framework, with no opposition at all to finding the elusive Fountain of Youth. It began in Montreaux, on the shores of Lake Geneva, where celebrities all came looking for the same thing. Each took a treatment of organic stimulation compounded by one Professor Niehans, the ingredients in his treatment a secret.
There are several clinics in Montreaux from which to choose: I went through Biotonus in the Hotel Excelsior. That hotel is on the lake near the famous Chillon Castle, summer residence of the departed Comte de Savoie, who made this area a fashionable destination for the well-heeled in the Middle Ages.
The Teams Take Charge
"You are tired, overworked, worn out . . ." reads a Paris medical journal, Special Sante, in recommending Biotonus. "From the moment you arrive, you are taken complete charge of by a medical, paramedical and hotel team . . ."
From the injection of fresh placenta cells to the most sophisticated medical and beauty treatments, one is exhorted to stick with the team for 10 days to prepare for the prize of eternal youth. But, being the fragile creatures that humans are, it's hoped that they will continue to need help from time to time, preferably on a yearly basis.
For active, hardy individuals, there's the large resort town of Crans Montana on the sunny side of the Rhone Valley, about a two-hour drive from Geneva. One can dance the night away in posh clubs or ski the World Cup downhill slope of Plaine Morte glacier by day.
Dissipation, overweight, too much alcohol, leg cramps have all claimed to be erased in the Hotel Golf clinic that treats "any ringing bell of emergency" with herbs. Indeed, just a stroll through the hotel lobby is a seductive advertisement of the curative properties of basil, thyme and dill. Here is fitness with a gourmet flourish.
A fine beginning to any health regimen is to take the Bernina Express train from Geneva over the Alps to St. Moritz, which is a spa as well as a ski resort. It's a spectacular trip, a ride of such beauty for 90 miles that the eyes become fatigued from a refusal to blink and miss a single moment.
Not Very Expensive
The jet-setters are at St. Moritz all right, but so are a lot of other people, and except for the two-month period known as The Season, it is not as expensive as one may think. For instance, a 40-minute massage at the spa costs only $15.
With an emphasis on bathing, the St. Moritz spa recommends soaking in swampy forest peat, dipping in sulphur-smelling mineral water, wrapping in moist herbs, and finally prancing in ice water. I tried the last item, called the Kneipp therapy, where one high-steps through water just a hair short of frozen. Inhaling deeply comes automatically. Socks and shoes go back on the feet without drying them first. Immediately the body is warm and tingling. Best of all, the sensation can be recalled days later, resulting in almost the same sense of revitalization.
I traveled on to Lenk, out of the mountains and in a quiet valley below Gstaad. This spa is perfect for stalking your moods, for pondering the inner self in a club-like atmosphere where bridge games and checkers are afternoon pastimes as guests take time out for tea and sweets.
It's the place to go walking with an umbrella in the rain forest practically next door, a seemingly enchanted forest of winding paths and racing streams under giant pine trees. It's the place to fall in love or out of it, to appreciate the local people with their homespun entertainment. One comes to Lenk to unwind.