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I was in Evian-les-Bains. "Is it your right hip you've strained?" the doctor asked. I nodded. There was nothing more wrong with my right hip than with any other part of me at the age of 65, but the day before I had been round to see the thermal baths. I had been shown the various kinds of spray to which the human carcass can be subjected, sideways, downwards, upwards, in showers, in fountains, in narrow jets, including one in which you are hosed through wire netting so as to be spared the full frenzy of the douche. There were massages under water and massages with currents of electricity shot through the water; there was a gymnasium, crowded like a fairground, with bicycles, rowboats, trapezes and electrically motivated saddles. Finally I was conducted into a kind of kitchen where a chef of sorts was stirring a caldron of hot, thick, charcoal-colored paste made from a dark gray powder that had been shipped in paper bags from Italy and mixed with water. This, I was informed, was a mud bath. "I've got to try that," I thought. That was why I was reporting a strained hip.
The doctor scribbled on a piece of paper and I was led into a cabin fitted with a narrow couch. While I changed into a warmed linen robe a couple of attendants brought in a wide canvas apron on which had been spread a thick layer of steaming mud. A thermometer projected from this goo. "Too hot," they told me. I gazed at the mess, gloatingly. How often as a schoolboy had I not longed to wallow in warm mud! At last I was bidden to lie down, an apron was folded round me and held tight with towels. A blanket was gathered under my neck. The mud clung to me. I luxuriated in its heat and wished that I had complained about my left hip too. Perhaps I would tomorrow. "Back in half an hour," the attendant said. I closed my eyes. I have rarely felt more at peace. The mud cooled slowly. It clung, it caressed, it soothed me. When I walked out into the casino gardens an hour later I felt five years younger. All over Europe, I thought, this is how footballers restore their exhausted muscles at the end of a hard season. I had clearly found the answer to one of the questions with which I had set out upon this trip. I had given myself a congenial assignment—to discover what part the spas play in the life of the modern sportsman and what part sport plays in the life of the modern spa.
I visited seven spas. Montecatini was the first on my list. I called upon the man in charge. "I can answer the first part of your question easily," he said, "and shortly. I have just written a paper on the subject. Sportsmen have two kinds of trouble that they come here to cure. First, there is the physical damage that they get from the particular sport they practice—the footballer's knees and muscles, the tennis elbow, the cyclist's buttocks, the cricketer's shoulder blades. These are occupational hazards; massage and mud baths take care of them. In addition, to maintain their strength, athletes often follow a deleterious diet. Footballers, for instance, eat too much meat and too many eggs. Their livers become congested, and that is why our waters, which are hot and saline and have a powerful purgative effect, are so popular with footballers. Those are the physical troubles that bring athletes here. But," he continued, "in addition to the special ailments related to the particular games they play, there is the mental strain imposed by continued exhaustion; a toxic condition of the blood becomes mixed with a psychic depression. This can be exceedingly debilitating. A number of Italian football clubs send their men here at least once a year simply to have them lead a steady, balanced life, away from publicity, newspaper reporters and criticism. They need good, simple food, sleep, relaxation." He paused. "To relax," he added, "is as important as the cure itself."
I was soon to discover that relaxation—the cure de détente, as the French say—is now the foremost objective of the spa, and the role of sport is becoming increasingly important in attaining this objective.
This is a new, postwar development. A hundred years ago the popularity of the spa coincided with the birth of international society. Major railways had begun operating, travel had become safe and easy, wars were fewer, brief and circumscribed, and for the first time in the history of the world it was possible for Russian dukes, American millionaires, French and Italian counts, British aristocrats and Balkan royalty to get to know each other, to meet "off parade" in fashionable playgrounds. Most of this assemblage was rich and idle, and all of it was self-indulgent. When Albert Edward, Prince of Wales was the first gentleman of Europe, his cronies, after a summer-long absorption of gargantuan banquets, would repair their distended livers in the spas. Marienbad and Homburg were the Victorian equivalent of the Roman vomitorium.
All that is over now; the days of gluttony are past, and the class that created that way of life is as extinct as the dodo. But the new privileged orders of our day—the bankers, the industrialists, the expense-account tycoons—have their own "self-inflicted wounds," their ulcers, their breakdowns, their nerve storms that are the products of the pressure under which they force themselves to live, wounds which they allay in the same places as the Victorians but in ways that are very different.
Their maladies are mental rather than physical, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that their physical condition has been determined by a mental state. In consequence, every care "is taken to insure their peace of mind. Italy is a noisy country, but in Montecatini between midnight and 7 in the morning and in the afternoon between 2 and 4 motorcycles are not allowed in the thermal area, Vittel is even more insistent on the need for quiet. No cars of any description are permitted at any time. The curists recline in soundproof cubicles, with cushions subtly arranged under their necks and elbows, while nurses whisper to them till they fall asleep. "It isn't hypnotism," the doctor tells me. "Hypnotism is a word one must avoid. But it is a kind of hypnotism all the same."
The Vittel cure lasts three weeks, 21 days having an arbitrary ritual significance in France. Marie Antoinette, so legend has it, was warned by her doctors against taking baths during her menstrual period, so Louis XVI ordained that the spas must manage to achieve their cures within three weeks. Evian has, however, broken with tradition in establishing a nine-day course for exhausted executives. It starts on a Saturday morning and ends on the following Monday week. "In nine days," one of the doctors told me, "a man should be able to recharge his batteries." Evian lies on Lake Geneva, and each cure includes two three-hour yacht trips on the lake during which complete silence is maintained while the patients read and sip the waters.
Two thousand years ago the Romans discovered the therapeutic properties of the waters, but apart altogether from their basic qualities, the routine of baths and massage contribute enormously to the curists' peace of mind.
In Vichy I took a two weeks' reducing diet. I did not particularly need to lose any weight, but as I was going straight from the spa to a French liner I felt that I should be able to enjoy more amply the excellences of la grande cuisine if I arrived on board underweight. So, with medical supervision, I put myself on a regimen essentially composed of thyroid, potassium and the local waters. In addition, I was massaged every morning—the douche de Vichy. Under a cascade of water two gladiators kneaded every inch of me, forcing my limbs into positions they had not occupied for 30 years. At first it was mildly painful, but within a week I was immune and flexible. After the massage they annointed me with eau de cologne, rubbing it in with a rough glove. I do not know how much their ministrations contributed to the eventual loss of seven and a quarter pounds—by no means a negligible drop for a small and relatively temperate man—that I achieved in spite of the daily consumption of the meat meals and a liter of red wine, but I do know how blissfully refreshed I felt as I walked back each morning to my hotel, my skin redolent and tingling.