Amid the fantastical domed architecture of the Rogner Bad Blumau, Oliver Bennett enjoys thermal pools, gets covered in warm hay and lies naked in the sun
Spas: they’re an Austrian thing. In the country there are Bads of all stripes. There’s the Mayr Clinic on Lake Worthersee, where you chew stale spelt and engage with your lower intestine. There’s the space-age fancy of Tyrol’s Aqua Dome; a gold mine-turned-radon spa called Gasteiner Heilstollen; and the stately spa town of Bad Ischl, from where Franz Josef commanded the Hapsburg Empire in the summer heat.
Few, however, are as fantastical as the Rogner Bad Blumau, in the green hills of Styria, southern Austria. It’s a bizarre apparition of multicoloured domes, bulging pillars, golden mosaic trees pressed into walls, wobbly skylines and windows sprayed willy-nilly across curved facades. As I gazed at it, I felt a certain deja vu. Ah yes: this was a 3D version of those postcards fashionable in the 1970s, by late Austrian architect and artist Friedensreich Hundertwasser.
Painter, architect and eco-philosopher Hundertwasser, who died 11 years ago, established a kind of eccentric hippy-meets-Klimt signature style, which enjoys an enormous following. His chef d’oeuvre, the Kunst Haus in Vienna, is a major tourist attraction. As far as his design for Bad Blumau is concerned, those higgledy-piggledy corridors and curved floors were part of his schmeer, on the arguable basis that there are no flat floors in nature, and grass roofs take you closer to God.
OK, I hear you scoff. But as soon as I walked into the spa – which looks like Portmeirion redesigned by Gaudi, touched up by the Brothers Grimm and finished off by a toddler – I started to feel the eco-love. Bad Blumau was utterly different to the carbolic efficiencies of normal health spas, and once I had checked in and put a little smart watch on my wrist, I found myself getting into the Hundertwasser zone. It was like walking into a prog-rock album cover.
I padded down to the pool in towelling dressing gown and (of course) Birkenstocks, and flumped through the various pools – a partly covered aquatic labyrinth passing through themed grottos and past fountains. I clocked an impressive age range of people: oldies, youngsters, families.
A heaving Jacuzzi fleshpot in the middle indicated that this was the part that was ‘friekorps’ only – that is, naked – and I ended up in a nearby field, where oiled Austrians basked like seals around a central meteorite-like rock. No mimsy Brit-prudery here, I thought, as I took the September sun and tried to remain un-selfconscious.
The next day, it was time to try a therapy. This was tough, as the menu is as extensive as it is at your local curry house, with dozens of mind, body and spirit activities available, from sound meditation to elderberry wraps and a Indian Vedic Astrologer. I eschewed reincarnation therapy and the colonic nozzle, opting instead to lie naked on a waterbed while a fraulein strewed me in straw. She left me cooking in the thermal hay, then woke me up with a massage and a gulp of the spa water which tasted, like all spa water, of ancient eggs.
But by the third day in Bad Blumau I wanted to see real towns and villages, and was frankly, gasping for a straight line. Styria, sometimes given the sobriquet the ‘Tuscany of Austria’, proved to be an unexpected pleasure for the stomach as well as the eye.
Austria is not renowned for its healthy food: schnitzels and sachertorte washed down with sweet wine. But in the Bad Blumau restaurant I had seen them all scarfing down a viscous black liquid, which turned out to be kürbiskernol, pumpkin-seed oil. It’s a Styrian speciality and – hear this, gents of a certain age – supposedly good for the prostate gland. I started double-dosing my salads, also enjoying lashings of the revelatory Styrian light red wine called Schilcher.
One afternoon I drove to the Styrian capital, Graz, through this region of green, fertile hills and small towns, where storks nested on onion-domed churches, and where almost all homesteads sold pumpkins, arranged in gloriously autumnal dark greens, burnt umbers and ochres. There are about 60 pumpkin-oil mills here, all with their own special bottles and labels. At the Kaiser-Josef-Platz market in Graz, I found this tarry delicacy along with wines, jams and herbs, as plentiful and impressive as any provincial French market. As I browsed, one farmer opened a bottle of kürbiskernol and stuck it under my nose, like a Victorian murderer stalking a victim with chloroform. A kind of nasal spa, perhaps.