There is a definite trend currently to pursue relentlessly the authentic health systems of the East – Indian Ayurveda, Chinese and Thai traditional medicines – and forget that we have one of our own. In the UK, you’d be hard pressed to find the traditional European method of health care, based on cleansing the system in a variety of ways, including fasting. In a number of central European countries, though, it is alive and well.
At Smarjeske Toplice in Slovenia, it all starts with the thermal water. The hot springs bubble up at a temperature of 32C, rich in magnesium, calcium and other minerals. And I do mean bubble – it’s full of carbon dioxide, so when it’s put in a bottle for drinking it’s got a natural fizz. This water is reputed to be good for cardiovascular disease, recovering from injury and generally detoxing (magnesium has an invigorating effect on the digestive system…). So this place was a clinic long before it was a spa and the clinic itself is still there for locals coming for specific treatments. If you’re here on a spa break you use it for a medical examination before you start.
If you think this sounds serious, you’d be right. At this spa, your programme is designed around your medical assessment. There are a number of programmes for everyone from athletes recovering from injury to people who want to lose a bit (or a lot) of weight. I decided, though, to go hard core – the detox fast. I would have six days of juice, herbal tea, clear vegetable broth and plenty of serious exercise (along with some nice treatments so I could feel just a little bit pampered). Fasting is central to traditional European “cures” and the underlying idea is that juices stimulate the body to detox more quickly than drinking only water. In the meantime, your internal organs have a period of R&R and you drink a lot of water to flush everything through the system as speedily as possible.
I arrived on a Sunday after a very early start, so it was nice to have a rather lovely Thai aroma-massage that helped overcome the misery of sitting in a tiny seat on the plane, albeit for only an hour and a half – Ljubljana is closer than you think. Back in the room, I read the hotel’s policy – 10pm to 6am is classified as “night rest” and I understood why when I read my programme. No lie-ins here. My first full day would start at 7.10 with “blood draw”. My heart sinks – I’m terrified of blood tests.
Later that first evening, on my way to my first juices – all vegetable-based in the evening – I pass the bar with groups of happy drinkers and the tempting aromas of the coffee shop. Never mind all that toxic stuff, I thought, it’s carrot and radish juice for me…
When I wake up next morning, oddly enough, I’m not feeling hungry. Perhaps it’s the gallons of local magnesium-rich Donat mineral water I seem to be drinking? The blood test is surprisingly pain free (though I think my panic raised my cholesterol?). Then I’m off for more juices followed by body composition analysis – muscles OK, not enough water, could lose a bit of fat. I have a resting ECG test then later a doctor does another ECG test while I exercise on a bike and decides what my heart rate should be when I exercise on the programme for the rest of the week.
Next up is the nutritionist, Janja, and I tell her I’ve already started on the juices. She suggests I try some local Donat water warmed up – one litre before bedtime quickens up the excretion of toxins (I’m putting it politely but you get the idea) and contains 1000mg of magnesium. I will lose weight, she promises, but because juices have no protein and I don’t want to lose muscle on the fast only fat, I should try whey. She adds it to my plan and tells me to take it after exercise with some orange juice. (It turns out to be a rather grey liquid that I never manage to acquire a taste for.) Janja meanwhile will see me in a couple of days and we can decide if I want to continue on the fast. Lots of people only do it for a day or two, she says, and then transfer to the weight-loss programme. It’s understandable. Fasting sometimes has some less than pleasant side-effects, most notably headaches and skin outbreaks, not to mention hunger, and it can be a bit of a challenge…
All this and it’s still only mid-morning on my first day and that means it’s time for my first fitness class – water aerobics. There are a series of pools (also used for hydrotherapy) including an indoor/outdoor one from which steam rises in the February air. The thermal water is not only warm it’s incredibly buoyant so just how do you get to stand on your float? I spend the week wrestling with the thing – it always gets the better of me.
In the afternoon, I head for the spa and the first treatments on my programme. Salt peeling stimulates the circulation and the lymphatic system and smooths the skin. The fango liver wrap feels like a hot water bottle but has mineral-rich mud that stimulates the metabolism and, of course, the liver to do all the more detoxing. The “breathing exercises” on my programme turn out to be a combination of yoga breathing and relaxation so I’m feeling very calm by the time I get to my evening juice (cabbage, celery, carrot and ginger tonight). Walking through the bar to my room, the waltz music played there by a silver-haired violinist seems to give me itchy feet. Can fasting be fun?
I wake up feeling really well, polish off most of my huge pot of detox tea and find my skin is looking good. I feel ever so slightly lighter. Today is my first real activity day as yesterday had been mostly tests. Bernarda, my fitness trainer, checks the results and recommendations of the doctor to set my ideal heart rate and monitors me closely. So I do rowing for 20 minutes, treadmill with hand weights for another 20, then I alternate between strengthening exercises, first on a mat then using TRX straps on the wall. After an hour of cardio, I join her Pilates class then it’s water aerobics, followed by Nordic walking after lunch (vegetable broth and carrot and apple juice). So if you thought fasting required lots of rest, you’d be way off the mark. All this activity keeps my mind off food though, to be honest, I haven’t so far felt the slightest bit hungry.
And perhaps all those juices are working. Waiting for my therapeutic massage later, two fellow guests note that I look quite different. After two days? I’m thrilled. The masseur, Matic, shakes me by the hand – a young man with a grip of iron. In fact, while he’s very thorough and firm – particularly around my joints and my back because this is a therapeutic massage, not a sweet smelling floaty one – it’s surprisingly relaxing. And it does smell pretty sweet as he uses warm almond oil with orange essence. I come out slick with oil and serene.
Other treatments are scattered through the programme – massage baths, skin brushing, aromatherapy. One, Beautytek, is less than traditional, perhaps, but very effective. It works, I was told by my therapist Urska, by sending
mild pulsating electrical waves through your chosen area of the body with probes and rollers. They trigger the release of hormones and open up the lymphatic system so toxins can be eliminated. The result is skin that is firmer and tightened and it can be used on the body or the face. I can vouch for the results.
The next day is the classic down day of the fast and I wake feeling my energy has dipped and I’m light headed, even a bit dizzy and there’s a trace of a headache. I see Janja, the nutritionist, again who gives me an extra juice, recommends a honey and lemon drink and asks if I want to change programme. I decide I’d rather carry on – I want to get the most out of this. And, by the time I get back from the Nordic walking, I feel much better. The fresh air and natural surroundings have done the trick. Even though it’s only February, the wild flowers (crocus, snowdrops, primroses) are all out on the grassy banks and in the woods. It’s very mild and there’s a real feeling of spring in the air. My headache and dizziness have vanished.
When I wake the next morning, I’m full of energy and almost skip down the stairs to breakfast – I’ve given up the lift. Today it’s carrot, apple and ginger, plus a second juice of blood orange. Not only has the dizziness gone, I’m feeling decidedly positive about the whole business of fasting – I could go on with this forever (I know I can’t but it’s a good feeling). I’m not alone. Another fasting guest tells me she has never felt so care free.
There is one thing that has me slightly worried. It’s the hydro-spa. Hidden behind the pools are a series of saunas, steam rooms, pools and Jacuzzis along with relaxation rooms, with silver birth trunks among the loungers. They’re the only trunks around. Swimming costumes are forbidden and, while you are given a sheet to wear, nobody else bothers. Later during my Beautytek treatment, I tell Urska about the British modesty problem – she clearly finds it hilarious.
As the week goes on, I feel better and better. Fasting brings so many things: clarity of mind, energy (counter-intuitively), you slow down and your senses are heightened. You take time to consider and reflect especially on what is immediately around you. I marvelled at the wild flowers when out walking, the stark beauty of the bare February trees, the tastes in the juices, the feeling of stretch in the Pilates class. I was aware of such a stillness developing inside me, meditation in the breathing and yoga classes became far easier than usual (butterfly brain turned off). There are other benefits. Weight loss, obviously. But my skin became super-soft, lines disappeared, my eyes were brighter.
You can certainly find more luxuriously sybaritic spas. But if you want one that really works? This is it. My results on Saturday morning said everything. Since I’d had my tests on Monday morning. I’d lost over 5lb of body fat but increased my muscle by 1lb at the same time. There was over 2% more water in my body. I felt entirely different – something you can’t say about many spas. It’s a promise often made but rarely kept. Here, though, you really do feel like a new person.
So the European traditional cure is, I believe, just as good as anything other cultures can offer. It’s not for slackers, admittedly, but if you want to make a real investment in your health and well-being, I couldn’t recommend anywhere more highly.
Terme Krka offer several hotels and wellness destinations across Slovenia. For more information, including details off wellness programmes and offers, visit www.terme-smarjeske.si.