PRIYA GANAPATHY visits the medieval spa town of Bad Ragaz, riding in horse-carriages past quaint Swiss villages and alpine meadows, a setting that inspired the literary character Heidi
Zurich from the skies was a muddle of green tree clumps and brown gabled rooftops broken by tall clock towers and a river running through. I landed not to explore this global hub of finance and banking but to romp in the hills where ‘Heidi’ roamed. Boarding the 7.43am train to Bad Ragaz, a spa village frequented by the rich and famous since Baroque times, I was treated to Switzerland’s many moods gliding across my window.
The steep craggy mountains possessed a frightening beauty that suddenly slipped into childlike innocence in its rolling meadows and valleys where curious cows wore tinkling bells and ducks floated along the shimmery lakes of Zurichsee and Walensee. Now and then, a waterfall slithered down like a white snake in the misty grey landscape as sailboats bobbed gently by the pier. In this dream state, wispy ribbons of clouds cut low across hills and swept past rambling barns and a tumble of wooden chalets festooned with fiery blooms in baskets and ivy riddled walls.
The train soon pulled into Bad Ragaz station, set in the foothills of the Pizol Mountains in the Canton of St Gallen. The Rhine Valley spa town presented a sublime welcome – its encircling lofty peaks were dusted by the season’s first snowfall while the town was wet and aglow after a sun shower. Home to only about 7000 people, the historic town totes an 800-year old legacy of healing in its soothing thermal waters.
It is believed that the hot springs emerging from the cavernous tracts of Tamina Gorge were discovered in 13th century by two hunters from the Benedictine Abbey in the Pfӓfers mountains. The abbots decided to tap its curative powers and built the earliest bathhouse at the source, accessible only by strapping and lowering people using ropes. Pilgrims flocked in, willing to risk everything for their health and well-being; some were left there for an entire week to heal!
The trend gained momentum after noted physician Paracelsus von Hohenheim validated the purity of the waters in 1535. Since then, Tamina’s 36.5˚C waters have healed czars and commoners alike. It wasn’t until the Grand Resort Bad Ragaz was built in the 1840s that Bad Ragaz gained recognition as a spa destination. Little did the abbots realize how they seeded the concept of modern spa tourism. Even the invalid little Clara in Johanna Spyri’s children’s classic “Heidi” published in 1881, came to these waters to cure her paralysis.
Last year marked the 175th anniversary of channelling the Tamina waters to the Grand Resort Bad Ragaz where guests enjoy its abundant curative powers on tap or in its waterfalls, pools, saunas and steam chambers. Knitting its heritage, luxe modernity and hi-tech medical facilities seamlessly, its two hotels Grand Hotel Quellenhoff & Spa Suites and Grand Hotel Hoff Ragaz draw the elite with world-class health and well-being treatments.
The resort was walkable from the station but we hopped into our van, not wanting to lug our bags all the way. It was a bright day that seemed perfect for a tour of the sprawling resort and its premises, which extends over 500 acres into the valley. Unlike other spa towns, the resort was really the core identity of the place as the town grew around it. Yet, with no formidable walls, it melted seamlessly into the town in a welcoming embrace. Perhaps the very nature of its design and the promise of its founders to be open to the public, make it unique. While large spaces are open to public, certain zones are exclusively meant for guests, ensuring complete privacy.
Our host Kathrin Boerger-Bechtold said that in the old days, those who knew the value of therapeutic waters, hazarded an arduous journey to take advantage of this ‘blue gold’. Outside, the valley glittered in the sunshine and the encircling mountaintops wore a snowy marbled texture. The resort’s media manager Martin Leiter ushered us towards a fantastic luncheon of seafood, cheesy delights, fine desserts and great wine. Of the eight restaurants, the Michelin-starred Abestube had been recently relaunched as ‘Igniv’, Swiss chef Andreas Caminada’s gourmet nook!
A few hours of rest and we were ready for supper at Zollstube, the traditional Swiss restaurant with all-wood interior, antler lamps and hunting trophies. We huddled together for excellent Zurich-style veal and hay soup (yes, a delicious concoction made with hay!) Inspired by the décor, I ordered game meat – sautéed deer escalopes, yellow mushrooms, red cabbage and Brussel sprouts.
Another special offering from restaurant manager and ace sommelier Sondra Klutz, was the aptly named Quelle 36.5 (quelle means spring water). Dressed in a red, black and white dirndl (traditional Swiss dress), Sondra told us how this in-house craft beer was created using Tamina thermal water! Dessert was a delicious glass of Toblerone mousse and marinated strawberries.
The next morning, after an aqua fit lesson and a low-cal Cuisine Equilibreé menu – a 3-course 600-calorie meal, we strolled to the town square to board the sunny Schluchtenbus to the famed Tamina Gorge. Like other fabulous discoveries by monks – from champagne to coffee – Tamina’s hot water springs too were discovered in 1240 by Benedictine monks. The narrow road leading to the historic gorge is accessible by foot, bus or horse-drawn carriages. No other vehicle is permitted here, so many prefer to walk up.
“I’m Heidi from Heidiland”, our storyteller guide introduced herself, adding that it really was her Christian name, a common choice of parents in these parts! She narrated Tamina’s history as we trod down the 450 m tunnel to the fountainhead with the thundering waters of the Tamina River roaring in our ears.
We entered the Altes Bad Pfӓfers (old thermal spa), a Baroque building built between 1704-1716 to see how things were done for nearly two centuries. It was a virtual museum with old relics and even a baroque kitchen that once served 500 guests. Today, it also houses an excellent restaurant and has a small renovated chapel with ancient wall tracery, dedicated to St Maria Magdalena, patron saint of the sick.
Heidi whispered conspiratorially, “The monks carried the paralyzed people all the way through the rocky crevasses and finally lowered the patients down using ropes to a platform from where they again carried them through a natural tunnel right up to the spring itself, where they left them for days in the water. Nice and cosy, all the time at 36.5 degrees! That was the basic cure. The monks even brought food and wine from the cultivated blue burgundy vineyards in neighbouring Malans.”
The journey was deeply mystical for it reminded us of how grim things would have been in the past with poor access to this remote locale. We walked along the sunless pathway past jagged rock faces swept into the thundering soundscape of water that tumbled into a stream below, before reaching the site where it all began – the sacred grotto of Tamina behind a sheet of glass, bubbling and gurgling out 7000 litres of thermal water per minute. After a quick visit to the museum, we hiked back to the resort along the narrow road.
Channelling the waters from a spring deep in a grotto, the resort was a grand aqua haven comprising the colonnaded Helenabad, the Sportbad and open Garden pool besides the public Tamina Therme, replete with an outdoor rocky waterfall and panoramic views of snowy peaks. Carrying forward the vision of its founding architect Bernhard Simon, the place retains much of its historic architecture but reinvents its ambience and infrastructure to complement modern demands of luxury. In-house designer boutiques, two golf courses, a casino, ski safaris, outdoor activities, Harley Davidson bikes and low-slung sports cars to zip around the countryside besides a dog-friendly code; all add up to its lavish appeal.
It was tough to tear ourselves away from the relaxing massages, luxuriating soaks and sumptuous meals but the carefree Alpine hills which inspired the book “Heidi” beckoned us to Maienfeld for a true taste of Heidiland. En route, we stopped at a local flea market and the Fromm vineyard in Malans to try the signature Pinot Noir with Francesco Benvenuto, the resort’s passionate Italian sommelier. However, the guided tour with founder Georg Fromm, regarded among Switzerland’s finest wine makers, was a bonus. We clip-clopped in a quaint horse-carriage down the narrow lanes of Grison canton past vineyards, torkels (wine bars), wooden chalets and meadows where herds of cows gawked with odd curiosity before we reached Heididorf.
It was a return to innocence as scenes from “Heidi”, the book I won in a school elocution contest came flashing back. We trudged up to Heidihaus, the 19th century homestead regarded as Heidi’s original house, a souvenir shop and a museum replete with statues, models and props that brought the book to life… Just a little further down was Switzerland’s smallest post office, perfect to mail a ‘Wish You Were Here’ postcard to the world.
Getting there: Swiss Air flies direct from Mumbai and Delhi to Zurich (8 hr 55 min). A train from Zurich Airport to Zurich HB connects to Chur via Bad Ragaz, a 1½ hour journey.
Stay: Grand Resort Bad Ragaz www.resortragaz.ch/en.html
For more info, visit www.myswitzerland.com
Author: Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared on 11 Sep 2016 in Sunday Herald, the weekend supplement of Deccan Herald newspaper.