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.
Riki was the founder of a naturopathic and hydropathic healing regimen, a form of alternative medicine that avoided pharmaceuticals, and instead relied on the four elements of nature – sun, water, air and earth – 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.
“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.