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A refreshing outdoor foot bath

A refreshing outdoor foot bath

A refreshing outdoor foot bath

Father Kneipp, who made an outstanding contribution to the health of people all over the world, would have been 200 years old in 2020. His legacy also includes health clubs in the Bregenzerwald, the importance of which young people are now recognising.

Just behind the football pitch in Andelsbuch, there is a Kneipp stepping pool full of icy water fed from the spring of the Brühl grotto. Here in this peaceful environment, a farmer’s wife cools her feet, an office worker relaxes on lunch break, and a local resident braves the icy water and cold pebbles as part of his daily routine. This odd, and for some people a bit painful, practice is still just as effective as it was when the priest Sebastian Kneipp recognised the healing powers of water, exercise, medicinal herbs, lifestyle and diet. Kneipp is regarded as the founder of modern natural healing methods and, according to the New York Times, is one of the three most famous Germans of his time after Bismarck and the German Kaiser.

“Saufe wöllet se alle, aber sterben will keiner” (Everybody wants to drink, but nobody wants to die)

When Sebastian Kneipp was born in 1821 in the Allgäu region of Germany, people had very little idea about health. Children drank coffee and schnapps, women forced their bodies into corsets, and a kilo of meat was considered to be as nourishing as a kilo of flour. Listlessness, aching joints and hair loss were just a few of the more harmless side effects. More serious still: Faeces ended up in the drinking water, murderous epidemics swept through the country, and the average life expectancy was half of what it is today. It was around this time that the loud and passionate priest Sebastian Kneipp appeared on the scene in his brown cassock. He was famous for giving fervent speeches and confronting people with pithy statements that are still valid to this day.

A deep dive into the icy waters: a revelation

During Kneipp’s theology studies, he was weak and suffered from a lung disease that had been diagnosed as incurable. One day, in the monastery library, he came across a hundred-year-old book about the healing power of water. Following the book’s advice, he bathed in the ice cold waters of the Danube river, thereby healing first himself and later others. He also installed watering devices in the monastery. From his mother, he had learned the power of herbs. Later, people from Germany, Austria, America and Russia would come to him in search of healing. His major work on healthy living was translated into 14 languages. Fan mail came from Philadelphia and St. Petersburg and somehow reached its destination despite being rather vaguely addressed: “Sebastian Kneipp, Germany.” Pharmacists accused him of being a quack, but even they had to later concede. The “Kneipp case” even went as far as Rome following accusations that he was a bad priest. Years later, the Pope appointed him Secret Papal Chamberlain. During his lifetime, an international association of doctors who worked according to his philosophy was formed and a journal was published. Sebastian Kneipp died in Wörishofen in 1897.

Today, Kneipp’s cures are more relevant than ever…

Sylvia Jagschitz, chairwoman of the Vorarlberg regional association, which comprises 39 local clubs, twelve of which are in the Bregenzerwald region, is a firm believer. In Alberschwende, she heads the Kneipp Active Club, a group of people who enjoy being active and dancing. Every quarter they meet at the Kneipp “Z’Nüner,” a snack event at the parsonage and listen to a short lecture on a health-based topic. After all, the Kneipp philosophy is not about self-optimisation, perfectionism, performance or ascetic renunciation, but about exercise and healthy eating. Balance is the key. To alleviate initial symptoms, a shower, increasingly hot or cold foot or arm baths, neck compresses, vinegar patches, herbal teas or baths are all worthwhile approaches. “Unfortunately, water treatments, although scientifically researched and medically supported, have gone a little out of fashion,” says Jagschitz and notes that in some communities it is difficult to find new recruits for the club. This is, however, not the case just few villages away in Andelsbuch.

Young people are breathing fresh air into the Kneipp clubs

Daniela Berlinger co-chairs the Kneipp club in Andelsbuch with Magdalena Metzler. Both are in their mid-thirties and enthusiastic about their club. “We have new ideas and many young members, whom we recruit through our gymnastics, yoga and Pilates courses.” Daniela took over her position from her aunt, Roswitha Wirth, who is in her mid-sixties and is the lead gymnast. No one makes you sweat like she does. With her husband, the former mayor Anton Wirth, and on the initiative of Anton Pfanner, the construction of a new Kneipp area was proposed along with the new construction of a sports field. Great financial support came from the municipality, but above all from the company Steinwerk Andelsbuch and Werner Schedler, who sponsored all the stone work, the original stone table and the stone stool. In addition, there were also many volunteers. Every ten days Roswitha and Anton Wirth clean the Kneipp stepping pool. They do so because keeping it in good conditions is important. On the water’s edge, small tablets adorn the lawn: Red clover (oestrogenic, diuretic, cramp-relieving), strawberry leaves (blood-cleansing, purifying), cinquefoil (wound-healing, fever-reducing), in addition to meadowsweet, lady’s mantle, ground ivy, dandelion, thyme, ribwort, valerian.

The little informational cards were made by Isabella Felder, a pharmacist and a recent addition to the team. Perhaps Kneipp’s 200th birthday is an apt occasion to recognise that we live as he intended – in harmony with nature and the soul. There are many good reasons to keep a cool head, especially in the hot summer at all the natural springs with which this region is blessed, at the Kneipp stepping pool, at the enchanting little mill in Bezau, at the barefoot path in Bizau, and at home in every tub.

Author: Irmgard Kramer
Issue: Bregenzerwald Travel Magazine – Summer 2021