Trusting your gut
Lake Wörthersee, Austria


It’s an odd kind of place to holiday. Where you barely wear shoes for a week. Where speaking is discouraged and phones verboten at mealtimes. Where handing the receptionist a jar of your own urine prompts a smile and a thank-you and not a phone call to the police. But then it’s not just a hotel. It’s much more than that. It’s a retreat, a cure, a way of life.

You see, turning 40 broke my brain. A lifelong fear of death had grown steadily worse, and when my father died of cancer, my fear metastasised into panic attacks and a constant background hum of dread and anxiety. I tried therapy and grew frustrated. I took exercise to a new level. I cut out alcohol for a year. I took up trail running, but couldn’t outrun the fear of what Larkin called ‘The sure extinction that we travel to… Not to be here, not to be anywhere’. I had it bad.

I landed on the idea of retreats as a means of taking time out from the rush of life. Some forced reflection. Through the extremity of these experiences – be they meditation, hallucinogens or caloric restriction – I hoped to unlock something. Spiritual enlightenment or at least relief.

I wanted to start with something classic. A retreat that harkened back to a time before modern medicine, when the sickly and the porcine were sent to take the mountain air and balance out the humours, albeit with an updated spin; less bloodletting, more blood testing.

The Mayr Method has been around for a hundred years, developed by Austrian gastroenterologist Dr Franz Xaver Mayr, whose big breakthrough was noting the link between his patients’ digestive systems and their overall health. This connection might seem obvious in the age of Gwyneth Paltrow and probiotic yoghurts, but it was quite the leap at the time.

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Over the years, the method has evolved to embrace modern practices. But at its core, it involves caloric restriction and conscious eating, complemented by a variety of detox treatments.

This Mayr retreat promises a battery of medical tests, followed by a personalised nutrition, detox and exercise regimen. The website shows smiling staff in starched white uniforms or lederhosen and chefs smiling over plates of healthy victuals, though you’d be a happy chef, too, if you were only cooking 400 calories per person.

As someone who came of age during internet scepticism’s heyday, I’m wary of some aspects of alternative medicine. But I come here an open book. A blank slate.

The Original FX Mayr is an historic house on a hill in Austria’s Wörthersee region, overlooking Lake Wörthersee. When I arrive, the sky is blue and the lake is still, bar the odd speedboat slicing a thin white wake across its surface. I’m told this is Austria’s answer to Lake Como. It feels like I’m breathing expensive air.

It takes a while to get oriented on my first morning. The place is a labyrinth of spacious suites, reading salons, doctors’ offices and treatment rooms. Initially, I twice try to let myself in to some other poor calorie-deprived guest’s residence.

When I finally locate my physician Dr Georg, he weighs me and asks about my eating habits in a precise, sibilant way that seems quintessentially Austrian. Just prior to this trip, feeling run down and stressed, I’d taken a blood test and found my testosterone had dropped.

“Don’t worry about the testosterone. Test it after you’ve taken the cure,” the doctor replies. 

When I get back to my room, my personalised timetable for the week is waiting for me. Six pages of tightly planned activities, including esoteric terms like ‘Kneipping’, ‘alkaline bath’ and ‘ICAROS machine’.

For me, a typical day at The Original FX Mayr goes something like this.

6am: wake up and drink Epsom salts, precipitating immediate explosive bowel movement. This is part of the cleansing process. Gut health is the name of the game here. I want to create a thriving community of bacteria in my gut, a microbial United Colours of Benetton living in peace and harmony.  But you’ve got to mow before you seed. Whatever is in there now needs to go.

6.30am: swish coconut oil in my mouth for five minutes. Apparently, this helps detoxify the body. I find it an oddly pleasant ritual. While doing this, I look in the mirror and marvel at the weight I’ve lost overnight. Over the course of the week I will shed five kilos. Waking up each morning is like watching one of those time-lapse videos where an obese person gets ripped over the course of a year.

7am: breakfast. The meal I go to bed early for, so it will come round quicker. It’s usually a small amount of goat yoghurt with a single blueberry and a buckwheat cracker. Once or twice I get an egg, for which I am pathetically, euphorically grateful.

8am–1pm: assorted treatments. I sauna. I get IV vitamin drips. I am embalmed in minerals on a water bed. I receive five different types of massage. There is cold exposure, oxygen training, yoga, aqua cycling. I have my lactate threshold and VO2 max (aerobic capacity) tested. Eva the trainer – a striking woman with long grey hair who looks as if she’s made out of steel cables and gazelles – watches me walk and then rebuilds my posture from the ground up. I am pampered and then broken, broken and then pampered.

1pm: lunch. This is the most substantial meal of the day and I think about it for 24 hours in advance. It’s usually soup, followed by a small piece of fish and some vegetables. As with all the meals, the goal is to eat it slowly and consciously. To hammer the point home, the nutritionist has guests take five minutes to eat a raisin.

3pm: hiking with Helga. Picture an Austrian hiking instructor called Helga. That’s her.  

4pm: down to the lake to swim and sunbathe. Sometimes you get a small serving of ‘ice cream’. It’s definitely not ice cream, but the guests queue for it anyway and are sometimes bold enough to wheedle an extra serving. A quite elderly couple see me bring the pedalo out one afternoon and ask to take it out themselves. Fearing for their safety, I help them in the back and give them a run round the lake myself. The next day, the man shuffles over to my sun lounger and asks sheepishly if I’m taking the pedalo out today. I become their pedalo driver. They’re very sweet.

5pm: ‘dinner’. In inverted commas, mind. This is, in fact, a zero-calorie broth, eaten slowly with a teaspoon. You might have heard of intermittent fasting, as it’s currently all the rage. In the Mayr Method, they call it ‘dinner cancelling’, which is a lot more glamorous, I feel. Like a knackered Joan Crawford on her fifth party invite of the week: ‘cancel, darling. Cancel.’

7pm: back to the lake to watch the sunset. Think about my life, everyone I’ve wronged. The predicament of man, etc.

9pm: to bed to dream of food.

By day two, I want to murder myself or someone else. The caffeine-withdrawal headaches are bad and by four in the afternoon, I’m too exhausted to do anything but lie on my bed and watch TV.  But I’ve been expecting that and by the third day a cloud lifts. I feel light and clear-headed. 

Hiking that afternoon, I fall into step with Veejay, an energetic, chatty guy in his sixties who has been coming here every spring for a decade. He shows me a picture of his father, a heavy, older man with sunken eyes and grey skin. But it’s not his father, it’s Veejay himself 10 years ago.

In fact, most of the people I meet are repeat visitors. One woman, a high-flyer at an American bank, comes every nine months and sets up three computer screens in her room so she can still work while she takes the cure.

General Manager Gabriella Schnitzler exudes a robust, schoolmarmish vitality, her two immaculately behaved terriers following closely at her heels. She tells me single female guests are the norm, though men have become more common in recent years. They have some couples, but she feels that the cure is a very personal thing and it makes sense to do it on your own.

I get to know some of these single travelling men. There’s a young guy here seeking to cure his IBS. He spends most of his time watching cricket on his phone. An Austrian man with no English has an affably long-suffering mien that tells me his wife sent him here. He makes frequent trips out to the street to chain-smoke ravenously.

Mostly, I keep to myself, though. I fall into a pleasant rhythm and begin to love it. Some days are a little too packed. For example, a hot alkaline detox bath followed by a sweaty damp stumble upstairs for an osteopathy session is a little much. But the session itself is fantastic. “This will hurt a little” – gently clicks something into place – “and now not so much.” And he’s right. I feel wonderful.

“It’s crazy that people ignore shoulder pain,” my osteopath says. “Why would you ignore it? Would you ignore emotional pain?”

“Yes, I would,” I say.

“Bad example,” he shrugs.

Christopher the life coach is fit and tanned with a black beard and shaggy black hair. His room overlooks the lake through a window that takes up the whole wall. He has a disarming plain-spokenness that melts any scepticism I have, and I find myself falling into easy conversation, getting deep about my dad as I gaze out of the window.

Maybe it’s the calorie restriction, the gentle tones of Christopher’s voice, the heat or the beautiful blue of the sky bleeding into the lake, but I find myself drifting back into old memories. Playing guitar in the pub with my dad 10 years ago on his 50th birthday. Watching old movies with him while he provided constant commentary.

Christopher is saying that death is just a change of state. We emerge from nature and towards the end of our lives we grow ready to return to it. He doesn’t offer the false consolation of a literal afterlife (Larkin on religion: ‘that vast, moth-eaten musical brocade created to pretend we never die’). I just hope that when the time comes, I’ll be ready. My dad was. He faced the end with remarkable calmness and dignity. For a fleeting moment in that room, I begin to think I can imagine it.

I sit on the jetty on my last morning, my feet dangling over the glistening water. Someone’s given me bread to feed the fish and I tear small chunks and toss them below. The three-screen banker woman appears behind me, and then the elderly couple I toured around on the pedalo. I hand them each pieces of bread. We all stand there contentedly feeding the fish.

“It’s the simple things, isn’t it?” I say, and we all laugh. It strikes me that of all the treatments, these quiet moments by the lake are the most rejuvenating.

My final stats come through. I’ve lost five kilos and all of my blood markers have improved. My brain says, “well, then it’s finished, right?” And so that night I stage a breakout. I get properly dressed for the first time that week, wait until the coast is clear and walk briskly out of reception. A golf club across the road looks promising and I rehearse a lie to get through reception, but the bar looks closed. So I walk until I find somewhere – a little sailing club on the lake – make for a table by the water and order a cheeseburger and a pint. But aside from this, there’s no crazy bounce-back. I come home determined to apply at least some of what I’ve learnt here.

As I write this, it’s three months since my week in Austria. I have kept the weight off, despite eating like a normal human being again. A blood test shows my testosterone levels have improved. I have maintained some of the habits I learnt. I put my fork down between mouthfuls and chew properly. I don’t eat in front of a screen. I can honestly say the trip improved my health for the better. As for whether that lasts… Well, it’s like they say in AA – the system works, if you work the system.

The anxiety still surfaces, but when it does, I remember the stillness I felt on the lake. Sometimes it works and, when it does, I feel far more than those five kilos lighter.

Photography by Simone Attisani, Daisy Finer and courtesy of The Original FX Mayr