Take time to chill out and chew the fat
Things must have been bad. At my office, stuck in front of the computer, I started to fantasise about an old-fashioned sanatorium, where a kindly nurse in a starched uniform wheels you out in your Bath chair to snooze in the sun all day. I had had enough of hi-tech, constant demands and yearned for peace.
The closest I could find to this ideal was the Viva Mayr clinic in Austria. It is very much a medical clinic rather than a luxury spa: the staff wear white, there is no wi-fi and its detox programme is not for the faint-hearted.
A friend who had been before said to me: "You're mad. Really, I was very ill. I vomited for three days."
I was taken aback. I had read about the starvation diet, the colonic irrigation, the endless chewing. But it hadn't occurred to me that I might actually get sick. All the same, I was feeling bloated and strung out. And the flights were already booked.
On the drive from Ljubljana airport, I wolf down the emergency sandwich and Kit Kat I bought at London's Stansted airport, knowing this will be the last substantial food I'll get for a week.
The Viva Mayr Clinic is an attractive modern building beside beautiful Lake Wörth. Guest rooms are immaculate and stylish, and have huge picture windows. But you don't come here for the interiors. The Mayr diet was devised in the early 20th century by Dr Franz Mayr, who was passionate about the link between digestion and health. His original Mayr & More clinic is nearby. But that is truly hardcore: I heard that inmates get little more than stale bread and milk from one day to the next. I've opted for Mayr-lite: the Viva Mayr was started in 2004 by Dr Harald Stossier, head physician at the original Mayr clinic for 10 years, and his wife Christine, also a doctor. The idea was to provide the same "cure" but in a more palatable form: here the food, though meagre, will be delicious.
I've been instructed to prepare for my visit by quitting tea and coffee –the Mayr cure is tough enough without the additional burden of caffeine withdrawal. I've also been given four rules: chew as much as possible –Stossier recommends 30 to 40 times for each mouthful; eat nothing raw after 4pm – it's too much for the digestive system, which has already begun winding down; take at least 15 minutes of exercise a day; and eat more early in the day, reducing portion sizes as the day goes on (breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, dine like a pauper).
The dining room, when I enter, is whisper-quiet. All I can hear is chewing. The waitress presents me with a menu. Because it's my first night, I'm allowed to choose two supplements to the stale bread that is considered the main event. I choose three modest slices of turkey breast and some avocado.
On my way up to bed, I'm instructed to take a mug of water loaded with Epsom salts. This I'm to drink the next morning on an empty stomach. I've read enough about the place to know what will happen. Forgive me, but explosive diarrhoea is a guaranteed feature for the first few days. Fortunately, because you barely eat anything during your stay, the trouble is kept to a minimum – by the end of the week, there's simply nothing left inside you. Days start early, which is not really my thing. On top of that I have to get various timings right: rise at 6am, drink Epsom salts with an alkaline powder, wait at least half an hour until breakfast, hoping that you have enough time for it before the Epsom salts get you rushing to the loo and try to complete the gruesome morning evacuation before the first treatment starts, often at 7.30am.
On my first day, I am treated to a 30-minute private talk on chewing: you should chew until the food is liquid in your mouth, I'm told. I also have a vigorous stomach massage every day. This is often painful, as Stossier digs in to manipulate my intestines.
There is some spasticity in there, he says. And some blockages. But he decides, thank heavens, that I don't need colonic irrigation. After a few days, the massage becomes less uncomfortable. I think it's doing me some good, but my stomach has started making peculiar gurgling noises.
Paucity and dullness
My proper diet starts at lunch the following day. I'm pleasantly surprised by the delicious soup and vegetable dumpling, presented as if in the finest restaurant. But it's not
very big and I know this is really the only food I'm going to get for the rest of the day.
Supper is at 6pm and consists every night of stale spelt bread and vegetable broth (basically hot water tasting faintly of carrots). As the week progresses, I become desperate about the paucity and dullness of this fare.
It's amazing how long you can make it last. What with all the chewing, I manage nearly an hour. And after that? In the evening, the Viva Mayr is brain-numbingly boring. You are meant to rest, after all. I watch some bad German telly and read a trashy book (I've been advised not to take anything too complicated – you're far too faint to concentrate).
On the second day, things liven up with the arrival of a well-known fashion designer, who seems visibly upset about the tiny portions. He and his partner are soon joined by a chatty Kuwaiti in her early 30s, who says she has been at the clinic for five weeks. The three have extensive and enthusiastic conversations about weight loss and body image, which gives me something to think about while I chew. The Viva Mayr is a magnet for celebrities and the rich but there are plenty of "ordinary" people here too. Many people are down-to-earth middle-aged women enjoying a week of TLC.
But the Viva Mayr is expensive. It's not the room rates that push the cost up but the, often alarming, treatments – colonic irrigation, bloodletting, haematogenous oxidation therapy, nasal reflex therapy and intravenous infusions for various ailments. My advice is to question what you have been prescribed and cut it by a third.
That said, much is brilliant here. The diet, the chewing, the massages and the emphasis on drinking water all contribute to my feeling much better by the end. Strangely, despite living on 600 calories a day, I rarely feel hungry – evidence, if it was needed, that I routinely eat too much.
But the main benefit is rest. It is joyous being in a beautiful place where wi-fi is forbidden. I read books, lie by the lake in the sun, stare out of the window and allow myself to get bored. By day six I'm in the groove and don't want to go home.
The fashion designer loses kilos, I hear. But I lose little more than 250g. Disaster? The doctors say Viva Mayr is about health, not weight loss. And on my return several people mention how well I look – brighter-eyed and with clear skin.
Alas, keeping up the eating routine turns out to be almost impossible in the real world. Within three weeks I am back to my old habits: eating too much, too late and not chewing enough. But I will return next year, and perhaps next time the cure will stick. – © Guardian News & Media 2013
For more information visit viva-mayr.com