23/10/12 – Leukerbad, where 40 is the magic age

Olden days Leukerbad, with track to the Gemmi pass winding up behind

Olden days Leukerbad, with track to the Gemmi pass winding up behind; picture from the thermal springs trail

Few ski towns are a pleasure to visit year-round. Examples are Zermatt and Chamonix, which have busy mountaineering scenes and famous peaks and glaciers that ‘grand tourists’ like to admire. Last month I went to another place I’d spend time in any month of the year – the Swiss resort of Leukerbad.

Just inside the German-speaking part of the Valais, it sits in a cliff-fringed bowl up a side-valley between the Rhone Valley towns Sierre and Visp. Two things feature strongly in its history – avalanches and thermal baths.

The Via Ferrata on the Gemmi. No thanks!

The Via Ferrata on the Gemmi. No thanks!

Avalanches persistently wrought destruction until someone thought to rebuild the town in a less exposed spot, in 1719, and put up protection walls (1829). Now they’re not an issue.

As to the baths, they’re mentioned in documents from the 14th century, but the Romans were onto them the previous millennium. In the 16th century a local bishop raised their profile when he took to conducting political and clerical business, semi-submerged, with European statesmen.

In 1556 public baths were built for the poor, and visitors to Leukerbad over the next centuries included Goethe, Mark Twain, Picasso and the writer James Baldwin – probably the first black man to come to the valley, in the 1950s (his essay, Stranger in the Village, recalls his time there).

The contents of Leukerbad's 40-year-old thermal spring water, as shown on a board on the thermal springs trail

The contents of Leukerbad’s 40-year-old thermal spring water, as shown on a board on the thermal springs trail

Every day 3.9 million litres of thermal water flows from springs all over town, feeding 30 thermal pools – four of which are public baths; the rest mostly in hotels.

When the water comes out, it’s about the same age as me.

It works like this. Rainwater sinks into the Torrent massif (2,300-3,000m) – where the ski area is, east of town – trickling, dripping and gushing through cracks in the rock down to 500m below sea level. En route it picks up minerals.

This graph on the thermal springs trail shows guest numbers increasing as more baths are built

This graph on the thermal springs trail shows guest numbers increasing as more baths are built

After being given a roasting while flowing around underground channels, it rises back up another route, seeing daylight again at 1,400m in Leukerbad, at a steaming maximum of 51 degrees centigrade, 40 years after it started life as a shower.

Avalanches, earthquakes, floods and landslides affect the rate of flow (900 litres a minute) – as does building activity, so locals need to take care they don’t dig up a source.

When doctors prescribed all-day bathing, patients dined on floating trays. Picture from the thermal springs trail

When doctors prescribed all-day bathing, patients dined on floating trays. Picture from the thermal springs trail

So what’s the point of sitting in it? The theory is that if you soak in the water, the minerals do you good – changing the balance of ions (according to the dictionary, a ‘gaseous particle’) in the skin; soothing rheumatoid and neurological complaints; and speeding up recovery after a trauma or accident (these are chemical effects).

Swimming in it while wearing fins, or doing something called ‘wet-vest aqua jogging’ (yes, really), are among the ‘training therapies’ used in rehabilitation (these are mechanical effects).

The warmth, for reasons easy to understand, is relaxing.

Switzerland's sources

Switzerland’s sources

Another chemical effect is a diuretic one – it helps you ‘go’. But beware actually drinking the stuff – apparently a few glasses might give you the runs.

Leukerbad expanded dramatically from the 1960s to the 1990s, when the number of overnight stays rose from 200,000 a year to more than 1.1m. During this period, when doctors prescribed a spell in Leukerbad for all sorts of ills, health insurers would pick up the bill not only for the treatment, but for hotel stays, meals and even wine, often for months at a time.

When insurance companies tightened up, paying just for the treatment, the tally dipped, and today there are just over 800,000 stays each year.

You can walk above the water as well as sit in it - this is the walkway in the Dala gorge

You can walk above the water as well as sit in it – this is the walkway in the Dala gorge

Doctors used to advise patients to spend the entire day submerged, and bathers would eat their meals on floating trays. This has been revived today as a bit of a gimmick in the form of things like champagne breakfasts in the water (other innovations include cinema nights).

The baths now range from the family-friendly Burgerbad (entry SF22/18/13 for adult/youth/child), the largest themal spa complex in the Alps, to the Rehabilitation Centre, which started life as the Institute for Paraplegics in 1962.

Each of the sources has a name

Each of the sources has a name

Today’s wisdom says you’re meant to go in for 20 minutes, followed by a spell in the relaxation room to let your body absorb the minerals before another ‘dose’. You can repeat this all day if you like.

I spent a relaxing couple of hours at the Alpentherme (SF23/18), both in the baths and in the ‘Valaisan sauna village’ (see etiquette for the sauna, here).

I was just as impressed by the rest of Leukerbad, which has a year-round population of 1,630, beds for all budgets – 6,900 in apartments and 1,500 in hotels – and 50 restaurants, including several within an easy mountain walk.

The town is spread across the hillside, with beautiful as well as bland buildings, a lovely, mostly pedestrian lane at its heart, lined with ancient chalets, and a cheerful, rushing stream.

Veg on view

Veg on view

In summer and autumn you can admire lovingly tended vegetable and flower gardens at every turn, which aren’t hidden behind hedges or fences like they are at home. There are festivals from music to literature to shepherding, and I was sorry to miss a weekend of Swiss ‘Laendlermusik’ by just a few hours.

There are walking paths galore, both from town and up on the Gemmi (a pass at the top of the cliffs to the west of town), in summer and winter. During my visit I followed the excellent and gentle marked ‘thermal springs trail’ from the centre of town, the highlight of which is a metal walkway bolted to the cliffs of a spectacular gorge. Lining the route are information boards with fascinating photos, diagrams and statistics about the baths, some with roaring waterfalls nearby.

Here's what I missed by a few hours

Here’s what I missed by a few hours

If you’re there for longer, there’s limitless walking, both summer and winter, including a path from the top of the new Gemmi cable car that goes all the way to Kandersteg. And the skiing? Well, it’s smallish and south-ish facing, a bit like Anzere, where I’ve spent a lot of my skiing life. I reckon I’ll be back to check it out and rebalance those ions again.

For more, see leukerbad.ch, and read this entertaining article by James Cove of Planet Ski, about his experience of a ‘Roman-Irish bath’ in Leukerbad, including pictures of the different baths.

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