The azure, 144-hectare Lake Bled darted in and out of sight as I followed a narrow track leading up to the top of Mala Osojnica, a steep hill in the Julian Alps in north-west Slovenia. The sun was tucked away under the horizon just beyond the mountains and the outline of a 17th-Century steeple rose from teardrop-shaped Bled Island in the lake’s centre below.
My goal was to greet the first rays of sun from the viewpoint at the hill’s summit.
Birds chirped in anticipation of dawn, a light breeze set in, and from the forest below, I could hear people making their way along the path I had just left behind – the same one used by health tourists who came to the town of Bled from across Europe more than 150 years ago, thanks to Swiss healer Arnold Rikli.
Rikli was the founder of a naturopathic and hydropathic healing regimen, a form of alternative medicine that avoided pharmaceuticals, and instead relied on three of the four elements of nature – sun, water and air – for treating illness. And from 1855 until the first decade of the 21st Century, thousands of affluent Europeans flocked to his Natural Healing Institution on the banks of the lake, causing Bled to blossom from a small town in the Austrian Empire to a premier health destination. Development of railway lines around Bled in the 1870s brought even more people to the area.
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“Rikli was not only a pioneer in natural healing, but also started organised spa and health tourism in Bled. He was a real marketing man,” said Vojko Zavodnik, author of Retracing the Footsteps of Arnold Rikli. Rikli’s mission was to offer urban dwellers, suffering the effects of pollution and daily stress in rapidly industrialising cities, a mix of nature and good health.
While popular media has etched the image of wealthy Europeans taking sojourns in lavish country homes into our collective memory, Bled, however, was a holiday destination of a different kind. Europeans travelled here from far away to seek a spartan way of living. But why?
“It was the combination of everything: Bled’s pleasant weather, the walking trails around the Julian Alps, panoramic views, and of course Rikli’s methods,” explained Dr Zvonka Zupanič-Slavec, who heads the University of Ljubljana’s Institute for the History of Medicine. “He proved that hydrotherapy, heliotherapy and climate therapy, alongside minimal diet and physical activities, can heal people.” In other words, these therapies involved the use of warm and cold water, sunlight and the climate (preferably mountain air) for preventive and curative purposes.
Rikli’s motto, referring to three out of the four elements, seems simple: “Water is good, Air is better but Light is the best of all.”
He offered guests accommodation in ‘light-and-air’ huts, structures with wooden walls on three sides and a curtain on the fourth facing the lake, for residents to enjoy the view, and modest vegetarian food such as rye bread, milk, fruits and legumes to detox and regulate blood flow. Alcohol and smoking were prohibited, and those who were caught violating the rules were discharged.
The therapy regimen began at dawn and lasted until evening. Men wore cotton shirts and shorts while women donned sleeveless knee-length dresses as they set out barefoot for treks around Bled. Health conditions and gender determined the duration, incline and length of the walks; short walks along meadows lasted 30 minutes, and longer ones lasting for up to four hours included treks from Bled to Straža, a gentle ski slope, and to Mala Osojnica, where I was heading.
People were willing to pay in gold
After a short breakfast outdoors, the patients then underwent ‘climate therapy’ involving gymnastics and other physical exercises in the fresh alpine air; heliotherapy, a type of (nearly naked) sunbathing on wooden platforms around the lake; and hydrotherapy, a series of steam, cold and warm baths to detox the body by improving blood circulation. Resting was crucial too, and patients were prescribed eight hours of sleep each night. Social activities filled the evenings and ranged from sailing a pletna (a traditional boat) on the lake, playing tennis, cycling or listening to music.
This all came at a cost though. According to Zavodnik, most patients stayed for a month, and invoices from the time show that a month’s stay was initially priced from ₤12-15 and increased every year, a relatively hefty price tag considering that in 1880s England, an average worker's salary was only £20-30 per year. “In a way, he was basically offering glamorous camping or ‘glamping’, which is such a fashionable thing today,” Zavodnik said. “Some testimonials show that people were willing to pay in gold!”
Some parts of Rikli’s treatments were based on practices propounded by Bavarian priest Sebastian Kneipp, widely known as one of the forefathers of naturopathy, and German hydropath Carl Munde. Rikli was by inspired these natural healing methods, an alternative to modern medicine, which sprung up in German-speaking countries in the 19th Century. However, Rikli was able to popularise natural healing by giving it his unique spin.
When Rikli was young, naturopathy and hydropathy weren’t popular. His first encounter with hydropathy, at the age of 19, was when he was travelling across Southern Europe touring his father’s dyeing factories and came across a book by Munde in his uncle’s library in Ajdovščina, Slovenia. When he briefly fell ill shortly afterwards, inspired by Munde, he began experimenting with treatments on himself by going on long walks in the sun, taking hot and cold showers and eating vegetarian food.
In the 1840s, at a dyeing factory in Seebach, Austria, that Rikli established, he ‘prescribed’ such treatments to his workers, who were frequently ill due to the chemicals in the dyeing and yarning processes. The treatments began yielding positive results, and the word about the ‘nature doctor’ spread. By the mid-1850s, he gave up his dyeing business and moved to Bled, which he found to be the perfect spot for natural healing treatments as it was relatively untouched and had a combination of easy and difficult trails to suit a variety of patients.
Initially, Rikli was distrusted by locals, who found the treatments an affront. After all, his patients were scantily dressed in contrast with the modest sartorial choices of the time, women walked freely in nature and everyone took more baths than was conventional. But after Slovenians saw the profit Rikli was making through the benefits of their landscape, many took a leaf out of Rikli’s book, with innkeepers in town offering their own light-and-air huts at more affordable rates.
And while he was dismissed as a charlatan by many doctors, his patients saw otherwise and kept coming back to him. One patient wrote on a postcard: “A thousand thanks for your letter... I feel much better.”
In her paper on relevance of Arnold Rikli's methods, Zupanič-Slavec writes that Rikli claimed to heal anaemia, migraine, neurosis, hysteria, menstrual dysfunction, womb infections, haemorrhoids, paralysis, dermatoses and sexual dysfunctions of different sorts. The idea was to treat the body and mind as a whole, and not the sum total of different organs.
Eventually, Rikli’s methods became influential across the world, and at the height of his career, he had practices in Bled, Trieste, Florence and Meran. In her book on South Indian naturopathy, Eva Jansen writes how Mahatma Gandhi, who promoted and experimented with naturopathic practices all his life, was one of Rikli’s 20th-Century followers. In Europe, Rikli’s influence is evident with the birth of Lebensreform, a 20th-Century movement focused on back-to-nature lifestyles with raw and organic food, nudism and alternative medicine. According to Zavodnik, the founders of the Utopian commune Monte Verita in Switzerland, born in the early 20th Century out of Lebensreform, came to Bled for Rikli’s treatments.
After Rikli’s death in 1906, however, his legacy all but vanished. While one of his sons took over, the alternative therapy tourist boom in Slovenia faded due to the war and lack of interest from travellers.
Water is good, Air is better but Light is the best of all
Nevertheless, Rikli’s philosophy is making a comeback. In the century since his death, naturopathic retreats have re-popularised and have increased exponentially. Generally speaking, alternative healing therapies are a big business and are growing each year, expected to generate worldwide revenues of $210.81 billion by 2026, according to Grand View Research.
“It seems logical today as we have scientific evidence to support the practices he suggested. But it was revolutionary back then,” said Zupanič-Slavec. She added that research now shows that sunlight is crucial for Vitamin D generation; melatonin regulates the sleep cycle, making regular sleeping patterns crucial for good health; and physical activity and being in nature release serotonin and thus keep us psychophysically fit.
In the past few years, Bled has been reclaiming the naturopath’s legacy as it brands itself as a culture and heritage destination in a stunning natural setting for those seeking refuge from their stressful lives. Last year, the Sava Group’s Rikli Balance Hotel (formerly Hotel Golf) started offering four-star accommodation inspired by Rikli’s life, and, according to Zavodnik, some local spas have included elements of Rikli’s treatments on their spa menus.
The Bled Cultural Institute has created a one-room exhibition on him at Bled Castle, perched atop a 130m cliff, and Rikli Walks have been organised every July for the last 21 years. In the future, Zupanič-Slavec hopes that the roofless remains of his home, the Rikli Villa, a short walk from the castle, will be restored before the 200th anniversary of his birth in 2023.
Barely 500m from the Hotel Rikli Balance, Straža, a gently sloping hill with one of the simpler paths Rikli prescribed, reveals signs of the 21st Century in the form of a zip line, a viewpoint for tourists, a photo booth with a larger-than-life wooden frame and amusement-park activities. However, at the top of the hill, there’s a monument to Rikli, with his portrait etched on a granite pillar; a small acknowledgement considering how he influenced modern lifestyles.
From the viewpoint atop Mala Osojnica, I could see the morning mist rise above the fields. As I stood there soaking in the morning sunshine, a gentle breeze cooled my body, which was fully worked up after 45 minutes of trekking. With just the sound of rustling of leaves for company, I felt a sense of calm as I watched the lush green meadows and alpine forests contrast with the blue lake and the orange sky.
When I hiked down, swimsuit-clad people with sun-kissed bodies dipped their feet in the lake’s water, likely completely unaware of the long way I’ve travelled to fully appreciate the benefits of the simple pleasures that nature has to offer.
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