I am sitting in the warm spring sunshine overlooking snow-topped mountains and listening to birdsong while eating a simple lunch of rustic bread, local ham and cheese, salad and quince jelly. It’s an idyllic spot but there’s more to this pretty village than meets the eye. In Lanjaron in the Sierra Nevada, people live longer and more healthily than anywhere else in Spain and, some say, within all of Europe. So, what’s their secret?
Well, it’s partly the super-clean mountain air (we’re at over 2000ft elevation here) and the healthy Mediterranean diet. The locals, though, mostly put it down to the water. The water originates in the snowy peaks of the Sierra Nevada and travels through the heart of the mountains, collecting vital minerals on its way. This area was declared a Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO in 1986 so you can count on its water’s purity. The bottling factory for Lanjaron’s water was built in 1928 and it rapidly became the mineral water of choice for Spain. It still is. They don’t even have to carbonate it as it comes out of the ground naturally fizzy.
The beneficial effect of the waters was recognised long ago, but Lanjaron’s heyday was the 1930s when it was the place to go to escape the city heat and breathe more easily in the cooler mountains. In the grand hotels, there were politicians and divas, bullfighters and Spanish artists such as Lorca and Manuel de Falla. But Lanjaron and its water had found wider fame so such English intellectuals as Virginia Woolf and Bertrand Russell came along too. They all came to take the cure.
The cure itself is still much the same today as it was then and rests on drinking that very special water. Or waters. There are several springs and they come up in different parts of the region, all with surprisingly different characteristics and providing benefits for different organs of the body. Five of the waters are used for drinking, one for bathing, and you collect you daily quota from the grand spa entrance where the waters (carefully labelled) run all day long into marble troughs.
The waters are labelled because they are prescribed by a doctor depending on your condition. So, there are two Salud waters, I is slightly fizzy, II even fizzier and so full of iron it stains the pebbles beneath it a dark red. Both of these Salud waters are for the stomach and digestion. Then there’s San Vicente, good for the kidneys and weight loss with lots of minerals and a salty taste. Capilla is full of iron and good for anaemia and encouraging appetite. Capucina is regarded as the king of Lanjaron’s waters. It’s taken for the liver and comes out a cloudy yellow, but for me its saltiness made it pretty well undrinkable. Whichever water you’re prescribed you have to drink around a litre every day and the two Saluds are available in the restaurant of the spa’s hotel, too.
Beyond that lofty entrance hall to the spa, it all gets a lot less grand. This is health delivered on an almost industrial scale and people go either with specific ailments or as a prophylactic, taking the cure to prevent future illness, or simply to give the body a rest from all the bad habits it’s usually subjected to.
You can access the treatment rooms directly from the hotel. First, there’s a room where people sit in cubicles inhaling Salud water in the form of steam to clear the nose and throat. Then there are rows of tiny rooms, each with a bath that bubbles with brown water for 15 minutes to stimulate the circulation. Afterwards you walk across stones while freezing water hits your legs from all angles (this is repeated between each of the other treatments).
The Scottish douche stimulates circulation of blood and lymph. This is hilarious. You start with a shower that comes at you from all directions, while you slowly turn. After quarter of an hour or so of this, one of the therapists stands at the other end of the shower room, armed with a hose. She delivers pressurised mineral water at you at high velocity (there are some grab rails to hang on to) going from hot to cold (three times) while again you rotate and lift up your feet so she can get at the soles. This is done without a swimsuit so you then have to struggle to get back into your damp swimwear for the cold pebbles and the steam room. It all rounds off with a back massage, after which it’s back into your robe and a rest in the relaxation room or outside taking in that fine air.
When you take the cure, you do this every day as well as any other treatments you choose yourself or the doctor recommends. There’s quite a choice. There are hot mud packs, a flotarium, numerous massages and presotherapy where your legs are put into what look like Wallace’s Wrong Trousers and squeezed – it’s actually very good for water retention and “tired leg syndrome.” There are body wraps and facials, too, and Lanjaron has its own range of cosmetic products using the water and other local ingredients, so it does have its softer side!
The Hotel Balneario accesses the spa over an elevated walkway and, in the spa itself, you know your fellow guests by their olive green robes. In fact, most people taking the cure stay here and the restaurant follows through with a very healthy diet. It’s always a buffet, and everything is local and organic, so wonderful ham, cheese, honey, yoghurt, fruit and veg and eggs. They also give you a carafe of local wine along with your Salud water.
The rooms are simple but spacious with generous bathrooms and far-reaching views of the surrounding village and mountains. And that’s perhaps another part of the cure – there are great walks through the mountains and forests. There’s also plenty to see from visiting the extremely pretty old town (look out for Lorca’s poems next to the springs) to the honey museum and there are lots of fiestas from autumn chestnut festivals and bonfires to a rock festival at the end of August. And, if you’re there in June, there’s Lanjaron’s most famous Fiesta – San Juan. On 23 June from midnight till 1am you’ll find you can’t avoid the Water Run, when residents and visitors take to the streets to be doused in vast quantities of water.
You can’t get away from that water. Lanjaron may not be the most luxurious of spas but it is reflects a different view of health – one in the UK we have mostly lost. If you live in Spain, you can be “prescribed” a stay at Lanjaron by your GP because there’s a recognition that prevention is always better than cure. So, no, not the most sybaritic of spas, but one that means business. The business, it seems, of making you live forever.
For more information about Balneario de Lanjaron, visit www.hotelbalneariolanjaron.com.