It’s mostly women who go to spas and retreats; but men are likely to enjoy the experience more. This is especially true at the famous FX Mayr clinic on the shores of the Wörthersee in southern Austria. The FX Mayr Gesundheitzentrum, to give it its full name, has for decades been the fat-loss secret of the great and the good. Both Michael Gove and Theresa May have been guests here, though not at the same time.
‘Taking the cure’ at the Mayr and similar establishments in this part of the world is a rather more rigorous affair than flopping down at one of those sybaritic hotel spas in the Far East where they specialise in seaweed wraps and facials. It also involves a degree of cultural adjustment to traditional Germanic or Central European norms. This is especially true in two areas: the overriding concern with digestive health, and the attitude to nudity. One can imagine that both might have offered challenges to Mr Gove and Mrs May.
The sign on the door in the basement spa area of the FX Mayr declares in both German and English that it is strictly forbidden (streng verboten!) to wear clothes in the sauna or steam room, in the interests of hygiene. The English lettering is rather larger. This is presumably because the staff have had to deal with the fallout from awkward encounters involving body-anxious Britons confronted by very naked and relaxed Germans and Italians. Apparently, Anglo-Saxons tend to get the etiquette wrong even when they are bravely trying to get into the swing of things, as it were: men in particular not realising when or how to wear a towel if walking in on, or walked in on, by a member of the opposite sex.
You might think that everybody would be equally shy about nudity at a clinic where many have come to lose weight. This is not the case, not least because, in my experience, there are plenty of people ‘taking the cure’ who are not only not fat, but look to be in rather good shape. There are probably fewer genuinely obese people here than you’d see on an average British high street. (Interestingly, when couples come, it’s almost always the man who is overweight.) Indeed some people look intimidatingly good naked: young Austrian brides perfecting themselves for the big day, Italian businessmen who could moonlight as porn stars, a beautiful Hollywood actress famous for her large feet.
The Wörthersee is the Hamptons of Austria, its crystal waters lapping against the summerhouses of the German-speaking upper crust. But the FX Mayr has long been something akin to a British colony. It often seemed as if two-thirds of the guests were English speakers.
Compared to the Viva Mayr, a flashier, much-publicised offshoot and rival a few miles down the lake, the FX Mayr is determinedly low-key and discreet. No one here tinkles with diamonds while dressed in a fluffy bathrobe. Yes, there are often brand names and titles among the clientele, and the odd guest who flies his private jet to the former Luftwaffe aerodrome at Klagenfurt, but you wouldn’t know that by the way they dress, talk or behave.
These are people who instinctively prefer the traditional chalet-style architecture of the Mayr, with its echoes of Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain, to the blandly modern and blingy aesthetic of the Viva. The FX Mayr is cosy, old-fashioned (though it has recently been refurbished) and just a little bit eccentric, like the best sort of British prep school.
And as with prep school, men do seem to enjoy the experience more than women. One reasons for this may be that for many of us the first consultation with a Mayr doctor offers a sense of relief so profound that it colours the entire experience. During this first meeting you discover that, contrary to what you might have heard, colonic irrigations are not a mandatory element of the standard Mayr ‘cure’. (One late-middle-aged friend of mine, on arriving at the FX Mayr and being greeted by the pretty female staff in their fetching dirndls, said he couldn’t decide which would be a more squirm–inducing prospect — a medically unnecessary enema at the hands of a fearsome Rosa Klebb type, or from a beautiful young woman who might be appalled by what she saw travelling out of him into a plastic tube.)
The relief all but blocks out the doc’s observations about your current health and fitness, and his or her barely disguised shock at your levels of coffee, sugar and alcohol consumption (‘Gott in Himmel!’).
Whatever rigours are then prescribed (abdominal massages, mineral baths, white-clad Carinthian girls folding hayflower compresses around your middle) inevitably sound easy. It helps that the Mayr isn’t keen on intense exercise while you’re on the fasting part of the cure. The youthful director, Herr Doktor Domenig — who comes to work in a kayak — recommends instead daily hikes, bike rides, stand-up paddle-boarding, yoga, and cycling in the pool.
The reason you don’t have to worry about tubes being inserted in your backside is that the emphasis here is on scouring your intestines from the other, arguably more natural direction. This is achieved effectively, even dramatically, by ingesting Epsom salts or magnesium salts every morning. After a day or two on the salts you discover precisely what your grandparents meant by the phrase ‘it goes through you like a dose of salts’. You also come to understand why there are so many loos at the Mayr — why you’re never more than a short sprint away from one.
The thorough, time-consuming and sometimes explosive effect of the salts on your organs of digestion and elimination is the reason why the Mayr clinic is for the most part not a romantic destination, nor a place that most couples should consider going to together — unless they occupy separate, perhaps even distant, rooms.
That said, you can bond with some of your fellow patients in the same way that backpackers, tropical travellers and soldiers do when struck down by the local dysentery. Detailed discussion of matters excretory is aided by the fact that many of the toilets at the Mayr are of that shallow-pan type traditional in central Europe, a design that allows those so inclined to examine the colour, shape and consistency of their stools.
Of course you don’t have to talk to anyone. Central European spas like the Mayr are socially peculiar spaces, neither hospitals nor hotels but something in between. While the locals tend to keep quietly to themselves, as if it would be frivolous to treat a cure like a holiday, Brits tend to behave as if they’re dealing with internment in Stalag Luft III by having a good laugh, not least at the hefty Germans who compete to get down to the beach to reserve the loungers in the naked bathing area.
In general, the people-watching at mealtimes (you do it to keep yourself entertained while chewing each precious forkful 35 times) confirms national stereotypes. There’s always a contingent of Russians, swathed in fluffy dressing gowns at every meal, who try unsuccessfully to browbeat or bribe the unflappable dining-room staff into bringing them second helpings. Usually there’s a chubby Gulf Arab family who keep to themselves (sometimes demanding a separate dining area ) and resist the rule forbidding phones and iPads at mealtimes. Inevitably there will be a wealthy South Asian lady who sneaks off in the mornings for coffee and in the evening for snacks and sweets, and then complains that she’s not losing any weight. The most annoying people tend to be English Sloanes: fine and fun if alone or in small numbers, but prone to braying and squawking if more than two arrive at the same time and choose to sit at the same table.
Another reason why men tend to become Mayr converts is that under its regime (a low-calorie, low-carb, ‘alkaline’ quasi-fast with only a small bowl of broth for dinner) men do tend to lose fat rather more quickly and dramatically than women. I lost half a stone in a week, and then another 10lb by keeping to the programme for the prescribed two weeks after returning. However bad the sugar cravings or the caffeine and alcohol withdrawal may feel for the first couple of days, looking at the scales and seeing the kilos drop away is remarkably cheering, though some of that uplift probably has something to with having disconnected from the world of work.
Then of course there is a gender ratio: there are always more women than men at the FX Mayr, though the gap is shrinking. If you are male and you show up for the early morning yoga sessions or the hikes around the lake past Mahler’s cottage, you’ll get plenty of friendly attention. And while the Mayr is no place for a romantic getaway, it is not entirely unsexy. This is because after several uncomfortable days of ‘detoxing’ physically and mentally, you suddenly start feeling very good indeed: energetic, lighter, healthier, younger, happy to be striding across the lakeside deck in your swimsuit — and so do the guests who arrived at the same time as you.
Once you’ve reached this stage, the surroundings of the institute seem to encourage friskiness: the scent of sun-baked cedarwood on languorous afternoons, the fragrant flowers in the gardens, the sunlight glinting on distant peaks, the startling turquoise of the lake. (One morning, swimming in the lake as the sun broke through the mist, I saw on the bank a beautiful topless girl brushing her long blonde hair like a mermaid or Rhinemaiden. I wondered if I were hallucinating from lack of nourishment, but she was real.)
Flirting, or more, with a fellow guest once you’re feeling the benefits of your detox is apparently such a common phenomenon that there’s even a peculiar word in German for the romantic or sexual interest you meet while taking a cure. It is Kurschatten, one of those terms like Schadenfreude that has no exact English equivalent (it literally means ‘spa shadow’) and doesn’t sound attractive. But if you’re fortunate enough to actually experience Kurschatten, you’re likely to appreciate it as the icing on the cake of your invigorating Mayr ‘kur’. Perhaps it’s a shame that Theresa May and Michael Gove didn’t take theirs at the same time.