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An Austrian Resort: Spa yes, but is it Art?

WHEN THE PRE-OPENING BROCHURE FOR AN AUSTRIAN SPA designed by the avant-garde artist Hundertwasser arrived in my office two years ago, I was instantly obsessed. I adore Hundertwasser's spastic, colorful paintings almost as much as the apartment building he designed in Vienna-- a psychedelic sight with billowing terraces, windows randomly scattered across jutting walls, and trees growing on grassy roofs. It's like Gaudí on acid.

The construction site for the Rogner-Bad Blumau spa was open to the public, so after a hiking trip in the Austrian Alps, I dragged my friend Tammy to the tiny town of Blumau, an hour's drive south of Vienna.

We were astounded. One second we were passing through a minuscule village with dirt roads; the next, we were staring at wacky spiraling towers and curvaceous buildings sprouting from a cow field. It had much the same look as Hundertwasser's apartment building. A hyperenthusiastic guide showed us around, explaining what was to come-- the world's largest inhabitable work of art-- and raving about the number of energy lines that converged there. Nonbelievers of such New Age notions, Tammy and I were nonetheless intrigued. We vowed to return.

AS LUCK WOULD HAVE IT, TAMMY HAD MOVED to Indonesia by the time the 271-room spa opened last summer. That left my other favorite travel buddy: my mother.

"It reminds me of the sanatorium in One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest," Mom whispered as we sat down to dinner the first night. "Instead of curing you, this place makes you insane."

I guess curved walls paved in bright tiles, undulating floors and ceilings, and bulging columns straight out of Fantasia weren't my mother's idea of relaxing design. A huge plate of Wiener schnitzel and a mug of beer wasn't her idea of spa cuisine, either. Eating healthy at this spa, we found, means "organic" brews and heavy food made from "natural" ingredients-- calories and fat are not an issue.

Mom was also peeved that we couldn't read any of the spa literature. Neither of us knows German, and I hadn't thought to ask if English-speakers were accommodated. I tried to translate the services available: acupuncture, reincarnation therapy, blood cleansing.

This was not looking good.

Panicked that I might be held responsible for dragging Mom on a miserable trip, I suggested a post-dinner dip in the outdoor thermal pool, which forms the center of the entire spa. On a brisk November night we floated under a jet-black sky loaded with stars. The steam from the pool curled around our faces. After 20 minutes, we were warm and thoroughly relaxed.

"I take back the sanatorium comment," Mom said as we settled into our room. "This place might not be so bad."

I WOKE TO THE SOUND OF A CAMERA CLICKING. It was my mother, taking pictures through our oddly shaped yellow-framed window. "You've got to see this sunrise," she said. "And mist's rising off the field."

We wandered down to the spa area in our terry robes. I felt a bit self-conscious, especially in my hotel-provided slippers, which must have been a size 11-- men's-- but everyone wears a robe during the day. We found an English-speaking employee willing to take us around and explain the program. He secured an English copy of the services brochure, and we were stunned to find that I had translated blood cleansing correctly. It's part of a rarely used medical treatment that has been available for years in Austria. Pass.

This place didn't look like your typical spa, so it made sense that many of the treatments were a tad offbeat. Mom started with a detoxifying wrap in R¸gen chalk from northern Germany. I wanted the hay wrap, with mulch harvested from a local farm, but Mom pointed out that my hay fever could be a problem. The therapist agreed. I opted for the Aphrodite bath, with saffron, honey, and fresh mare's milk. Both wraps were so luxe they put us to sleep for more than an hour, each in our own serene room.

Since we were staying only two days-- Rogner-Bad Blumau is popular as a weekend getaway-- I wanted to squeeze in as much as possible. But the therapists were strict about the principle behind the spa: relaxation. They recommend that you limit treatments to two or three a day, and lounge in or beside the thermal pool between them.

The scene by the indoor section of the pool was like something out of Thomas Mann's Magic Mountain. Austrians from all walks of life, whether old, young, skinny, or fat, were crashed on striped chaise longues, as if basking in the sun. They slept and slept and slept. While we waited for our afternoon massages, we soaked in the steamy outdoor pool, again loving the contrast between the crisp autumn air and the hot water.

I realized Mom was getting hooked on the place when she convinced me to visit the nude sauna. I thought walking around in your terry robe was bad. This was the worst: sitting next to your mother au naturel, with naked people nonchalantly sprawled next to you. The minty aromatherapy sauna was refreshing, but I couldn't wait to get out. Nearby, people stood at a bar drinking huge glasses of sheep's milk, which is a restorative, after sweating in the sauna (some wore robes; others were still in the buff). This was a cultural barrier I just couldn't breach.

Not knowing what to expect, we signed up for an after-dinner session of qi gong meditation. The leader threw in a few English phrases to help us along. It was basically yoga and tai chi, with a few imitations of bear grunts (at least that's what we thought he was asking for).

I tried to get a session of "ice-facing," but they were all booked (it's best to schedule treatments before arrival). I still have no idea what is actually done to your face, but the therapist said it involved a machine. (A Zamboni?Scary.)

We saved the most interesting treatment for our last morning. Wolfgang Kölbl, the holistic doctor who runs the spa program, believes that music is the path to your inner self; he's created a therapy called Healing Melodies. You lie on a xylophone bed and Kölbl places bells over your heart, your stomach, your third eye. He then composes a symphony to match your psychic energy (don't laugh, even though Mom and I did). My energy that day must have been positive. It wasn't Nirvana, mind you, but I was enveloped by some of the most uplifting sounds I've ever heard.

That afternoon we floated back to Vienna for our flight home. Mom wasn't thrilled when she learned of my plans to include her in my article, but I think she liked the place. Actually, I know she did-- she bought a book on Hundertwasser's architecture and hung a postcard from the spa on her refrigerator door.

ROGNER-BAD BLUMAU, Blumau; 43-3383/51000, fax 43-3383/5100-9100; doubles from $170, including breakfast and use of the thermal pool and sauna facilities (treatments are extra).

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