Germany Holidays: cold shower, anyone?

Health tourism is growing at a phenomenal pace, and nowhere more so than Germany

Germany is the world’s leading health tourism destination after the US, and the Wellness industry here is growing by 9 percent a year. But ‘Wellness’ is usually taken to imply spa tourism – just making people feel better about life: giving them a nice massage, and a warm fragrant room to lie in, with soothing music. It’s like a gentle pat on the back. German Wellness is a lot more than that.

It can come in many distinctive forms. At the luxury end, there’s therapeutic fasting (pay a fortune to eat nothing) at places like the uber luxurious Buchinger Wilhelmi  by Lake Constance. Or else there’s upmarket ayurvedic therapy, for example in the Parkschloesschen by the Mosel river.

And then there are the more unusual local cures such as Felke, the application of ‘curative loam’ (posh word for earth) either in compresses or by the bathful; the mud-bath cure, as practiced at Bad Hindelang’s Prinz Luitpold hotel, good for rheumatism and back, muscle and joint problems; and the Radon gas cure, which involves sitting in a radon tunnel or even a mine, supposedly good for arthritis and various respiratory problems.

The big ones: Kneipp and Schroth

But there are a couple of big name cures that Germans used to be able to get on prescription, although this rarely happens any more. Kneipp is headquartered in Bad Wörishofen, a town dedicated almost entirely to therapy, about 80km west of Munich. Here clients – patients, holidaymakers, call them what you will – spend their days wading in cold water; putting their elbows in cold water, and having attendants hose them down, from thighs down to ankles, in alternate doses of hot and cold.

The key tenets of the philosophy are that our bodies exist in a world of water, heat, light, food, plants and earth, and our physiologies strive to be self-regulating to maintain a position in that world that is neither too hot or too cold, too hungry or too thirsty etc, etc. Things start to go wrong when we can no longer get back to that default position, that happy medium, either through illness or accident or bad lifestyle. So the treatments of Kneipp are intended to stimulate the system to encourage it to revert to centre by itself. And the application of cold water is the main instrument for that stimulation.

The cure is particularly intended for nervous disorders, high and low blood pressure and conditions like asthma and osteoarthritis, the sort of chronic stuff that clogs up a doctor’s waiting room and is hard to get rid of. It requires a fairly lengthy stay in places like the Sebastineum Kneipp hotel-cum-sanatorium in order to be effective; three to four weeks, suggests the resident doctor.

Meanwhile Schroth’s capital is the Alpine resort of Oberstaufen, tucked in by mountains in Germany’s Allgäu region, a two hour drive southwest of Munich. It is a pretty place; all window boxes and wall frescos, and lots of healthy-looking people who come here to hurl themselves at the hills on bikes and in boots.

Amongst them are other less healthy-looking people who spend their days being woken at 4am and wrapped in clammy sheets and hot water bottles.  The idea of the wrapping is to take your body at its lowest temperature – as it is at 4am – and drop that temperature a bit with the cold sheets to stimulate it to go into overdrive and thereby bring the heat up; amongst other things, this strengthens the immune system.

Schroth also focuses on very disciplined combinations of diet, activity and massage, and attracts customers who have high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes, and as a rule they come for two or maybe three weeks of doctor-controlled cures to stay in specialist hotels like the Lindner Parkhotel and Spa.

All of these treatments will sound a bit eccentric to an outsider, but many Germans swear by the likes of Kneipp and Schroth, and this is a nation which doesn’t often get things wrong.

Looking for more? See other destinations in Southern Germany

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