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If cleanliness is next to godliness, then I was truly getting holier-than-thou. In the spa of the Hotel Schwarzbrunn, I had four pools to choose from, baptisms of glacier or spring water, and options of steam, infrared and bio saunas, alongside fellow disciples as naked as God intended.
In the big spa hotels of Switzerland and Austria, the act of bathing and relaxing has increasingly become a quasi-religious experience. Some offer soaring cathedral-like architecture, others ice-showers and snow-baths to fulfil a need for mortification. But the Schwarzbrunn, in the small village of Stans in the Austrian Tyrol, offers something more: the chance to combine a pampering spa break with a retreat at a mountain-top monastery. Getting from one to the other involves an ascent on foot through a fearsome river gorge.
From the outside, the Schwarzbrunn looks fairly typical of alpine hotels with wooden, flower-decked balconies and a sloping chalet-style roof. But inside it has a strange split personality, its front end being all traditional wood panels, leaded windows, gilding and curlicues, on to which has been bolted a back end of polished granite, brushed steel and hessian, in a brand-new 3,000 sq metre spa.
The highlight is the rooftop infinity pool, which has an inside section and then automatic sliding glass doors, which open as you approach to allow you to swim outside. Inside, lurking behind the sliding doors, was like being in a shark tank, ready to be let loose on one’s prey. But then the doors opened to let me glide out into an uplifting, sunlit landscape of mountains and pretty chalets.
So it was with mixed feelings that, when the allotted time came, I set off uphill away from the hotel and into those mountains. I felt a bit like Lot’s wife – that I shouldn’t give a backwards look. But the temptation was impossible to resist, and there was the spa building, looking like some kind of postmodern temple among the Tyrolean architecture, with the “shark tank” pool on top.
In the end, though, it was good that I was changing addresses; rather than being turned into a pillar of salt, too much of the Schwarzbrunn, with its pampering and copious food, would have turned me into a pudding. And besides, the Wolfsklamm gorge – the route up to the monastery, with a thundering cataract and a wooden walkway that clung perilously to sheer walls – quickly had my full attention. I half-expected to meet Gandalf around every corner, clutching a staff and proclaiming, “You shall not pass”, on the basis of my not achieving enough cleansing before my ascent.
After around an hour of climbing, the landscape opened up and the last part of the walk was through the stages of the cross, with the clifftop monastery of St Georgenberg rearing up dramatically overhead. The path zigzagged up the slope, then an ancient wooden bridge spanned the last chasm and I was across.
Although it has been on this rock in various forms since 950, the monastery doesn’t look or feel particularly ancient but that’s partly because it has been burnt down and rebuilt several times. That, combined with its inaccessibility, prompted the Benedictine community in the 18th century to build a new monastery, St Georgenberg-Fiecht, in the valley below. Today just one monk stays up on the rock, to keep the tradition going, a spiritual presence in the monastery church, which is full of marble and gold and is uncompromisingly grand and baroque despite its remote spot.
Not being a frequenter of monasteries, I hadn’t known what to expect but the guest house turned out to be a totally secular affair, catering mainly to the daily stream of pilgrim walkers, who want to sit on the clifftop terrace and celebrate their arrival with food and drink. Attending daily mass in the church, led by the solitary monk father Raphael, and with only half a dozen in the congregation, I was painfully aware that on the other side of the wall, some 30-odd so-called pilgrims were ignoring the miracle of the bread and the water, and instead going full steam ahead on the goulash and chips. I would have liked to ask Father Raphael what he thought about that but, as soon as the service was done, he disappeared back into the shadowy depths.
It was only at 5pm, when the restaurant doors closed and the diners and staff retreated down the hill, that the clifftop reverted to a more spiritual experience. I was the only overnight guest, in a simple en suite room with a view of mountains and a Bible on the table. Alone on the terrace with my book or my iPad, I had the company of the monastery cat and a visiting butterfly, and in the morning, a song thrush parked itself outside my window.
It was hard not to invest everything with religious significance. On my last evening, after a day of walking on the slopes of the Stanser Joch, I was sitting on the terrace when a thunderstorm of biblical proportions came clanging down the mountain range to sit above the monastery. It alternatively chuckled and growled, throwing down stair-rods of rain.
I suppose that to get the full impact I should really have abandoned my book and stood out in the downpour, arms spread out and head thrown back, just as they do in the movies. But it was impressive enough just sitting at my open window, watching the forest-clad mountains getting a thrashing. And besides, I think I was already clean enough.
Andrew Eames was a guest of Inghams (inghams.co.uk), which offers packages to spa hotels across the Alps. The Hotel Schwarzbrunn (schwarzbrunn.at) has double rooms from €206, full-board; the St Georgenberg clifftop monastery (wallfahrtsgasthaus-st-georgenberg.at) has doubles from €79, half-board
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