What would the modern spa be without treatments that seem implausible, absurd even? Mud baths, hot stone treatments, even leeches offer therapeutic relief to those seeking relaxation and rejuvenation. Judging by the relatively limited menu of treatments on offer at spas, it is clear that discoveries of good new treatments are rare. So, when we heard tales of an obscure century-old spa tradition in a remote village in the Italian Alps we had to check it out.
The story goes like this: Like in many of the alpine regions of Europe, hay is cultivated during the summer months on the high meadows of “Seiser Alm” or “Alpe di Siusi”. This is a region that has at various times been German and Italian speaking, so it is customary to name places in both languages (far be it for us to break the rules). The hay is harvested and stored to keep the livestock fed and bedded for the winter.
It was the job of the “Senner” (shepherd) to take care of the animals on the meadows and to keep watch over the hay stores. A hut built on the meadow made do for both hay storage and accommodation for the Senner — before serving as feed for the cattle the hay served as a bed for the Senner. Senners were a notoriously healthy bunch and while the rest of the village was prone to normal winter sniffles, Senners seemed immune to them. At some point the connection was made between health and hay and an enterprising innkeeper set about recreating the hay-rich environment of the high-meadow hay hut in his inn. He called the new treatment a “Heu Bad”, which sounds just like the English translation, “Hay Bath”.
Soon those partaking of the Heu Bad reported some relief from ailments such as arthritis and rheumatism which they attributed to their time in the hay. Word spread of the medicinal effects and around 1890 a local physician, Dr. Josef Clara, spread word about the treatment around the town of Bolzano, in the valley below. The commercial endeavor took off as Bolzano’s elite headed up the Alps to take advantage of the hay bath’s therapeutic benefits.
Initially arranged in an ad-hoc manner, a Guesthouse (inn) would empty a room in their Gaststube (restaurant), fill it with fermenting hay, and arrange guests in the hay. An attendant kept watch, wiping the sweat away, waving the flies off, and keeping guests hydrated with their choice of white or red.
Even though the effects on one’s health were generally beneficial, the hygiene of the whole affair was not optimal. Over time the hay, shall we say, tended to develop a life of its own. So, around the 1960s and ’70s, the Hay Bath culture declined. Local government started to regulate the treatments. They could not be advertised as “medical” anymore, only “therapeutic” and people turned to more trendy ways of relaxing after a day of hiking.
The hay bath in Voels am Schlern is an original and traces its history back to the origins of the concept. Today it is overseen by fifth generation hay bath purveyor, David Kompatscher. It was David’s mom who really brought the hay bath treatments into the modern era by creating a system of temperature-controlled single-use fermented hay prepared fresh for each individual treatment. Her solution was ingenious, combining a temperature controlled water bed overlaid with heated and perfectly steeped hay into which the spa goer is submerged.
The kind of hay and where it is grown is critical to an effective treatment. To produce the best effect David has his grown literally on highest point of the high meadows, well free of pollution and pesticides. This is how he gets what’s referred to as “fat” hay. That means the natural diversity of grasses, herbs, and flowers is very high in oils. And it’s the oils that act as a carrier for all the hay’s natural goodness into your skin as you lie steeping in a hay bath.
We accompanied David on his obscure commute to the high meadows of the Alps where his hay field is located. It’s a half day journey each way, requiring a funicular ride, a long hike (we could also have taken a bus for that part), a second funicular and then a steep climb up to David’s field. The field’s owner/caretaker also operates a tiny restaurant at the site, in summer, for hikers passing by, so it’s an excellent reward for your effort.
Back down at Hotel Heubad we finish our day in the hay. Wrapped up in the 40 degree (Celsius) hay we lay steeping for an hour followed by another 30 minutes wrapped in linen sheets to help let the essential oils, natural fragrances, and tannins work their magic. It is a truly amazing feeling that leaves you completely spent. David suggests a seven- to ten-day program of treatments and sleep to gain the full relaxing benefit of the treatment. On our next trip through northern Italy we will definitely keep a few extra days open for a stay in Voels at Hotel Heubad.
Speaking of all things hay, Hotel Heubad also served hay soup (a dish we were also served at another hotel with a Michelin-starred restaurant, in an adjacent valley). We will be telling that story at a later date, but it was interesting to learn that hay is therapeutic in many forms!
With the treatment so heavily dependent on a local source of hay it is unlikely that you will find hay baths showing up at your local spa anytime soon. But being in the Alpine environment is part of the experience, so you really should go there for the full effect. If it is total relaxation you seek, this might be one of the best places on earth for you to find it.
For reservation and details about Hay bath treatments, or book a few nights at the hotel go to: www.hotelheubad.com
Photography and story by Daniela Stallinger
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