‘Must be your lucky morning, ladies,’ the Southern ticket inspector unctuously announced. ‘I’m going to take an executive decision and upgrade you two to first class.’ My daughter India and I peered down the deserted second-class carriage and beamed with gratitude. It was 4 a.m. and Victoria Station was virtually empty except for a few half-cut passengers wending their way home. ‘A gentleman has deposited the remains of his dinner in the second coach,’ he explained, puffed-up with self-importance. ‘And I don’t think you girls look like the sort that would appreciate the gesture.’
‘You never know,’ muttered India ominously. ‘If we’re going to stay somewhere where we don’t get given enough food, I just might.’ She was busy downing her second full-fat Coke of the morning and obviously having second thoughts about the wisdom of accompanying her decrepit mother to a health clinic in the Italian Dolomites.
I was harbouring quite a few doubts myself, having once spent an isolated week in the early 1980s under house arrest at Champneys — not an experience I felt needed to be repeated. My resolve held firm for over 20 years until I met a woman at a dinner party who saw me wince with pain as I reached across the table for some salt.
‘You need a week at Henri Chenot,’ she whispered. ‘It’s a life-changer.’ Her throwaway comment was like an epiphany. At that very moment I decided I was ready for anything — bar religion — that promised to change my life. For the last six months I’d been feeling burnt out, stressed and was adrenaline-bopping from one double espresso to the next. After being in continuous pain with a shoulder injury, my body seemed to have short-circuited, carbo-loaded and forgotten how to sleep properly. I’d tried medicine, physiotherapy and acupuncture (all to no lasting effect) and I just longed to feel human again.
Henri Chenot operates his clinic from the ultra-chic Palace Merano Hotel in the South Tyrol and is a Biontologist. Biontology is a science Chenot himself originated. He contends that a week at his clinic addresses the changes that take place in the body as it ages, and the treatments holistically improve, slow down, revitalise and rejuvenate you, and that if you invest in life you give space to health. ‘It’s like giving yourself the equivalent of a human MOT,’ my new best friend explained vaguely. ‘Trust me.’
Normally I get intensely irritated by mantras such as ‘invest in life’, yet I was intrigued by the website’s claim that if I devoted just one week to my wellbeing, Chenot would give me back my vital energy. A detoxification followed by a retoxification sounded like a win-win recipe.
On arrival I realised that this was going to be no ordinary spa experience. Our room was opulent, apricot-coloured and the curtains were silk-swagged. There was cable TV and two ashtrays on the coffee-table. The view was breathtaking — snow-capped mountains above and the Passirio river thundering through the city below. The marbled reception area was filled with Italian, French and German spa-goers, all of whom were enviably trilingual.
Merano is one of those deeply confusing areas of Italy that was Austrian until 1918, so German is still the chosen language. As I can only speak a sprinkling of schoolgirl French, communication was a problem with the therapists, all of whom spoke fractured English. Having filled in copious questionnaires dealing with medical and emotional history, both India and I decided not to fight the system — to just ‘go with the flow’. We were both put on a Biolight (comically pronounced ‘BO light’) diet which was delicious — über-healthy yet doll-sized portions of food — given daily hydrotherapy baths, mud wraps, hosing-downs, cupping treatments, massages, a mystifying Scientology-type session which consisted of holding metal rods in order to measure one’s energy and a life-counselling session where I was solemnly told I needed to let more ‘hen-ergy’ into my life, take magnesium, have ‘me time’ and learn to dance. I think I may well have missed something in the translation, yet at the end of the week I’d lost 6lb and felt fantastic. India was too young, too thin and too healthy to reap any long-term benefits apart, I suppose, from spending ‘us time’ with her mother, but since returning I’ve included protein with every meal, avoided wheat and slept like a baby. I’ve yet to take up the Tango but my ‘hen-ergy’ levels are still high. Result.