Palace of Pampering

Henri Chenot’s quirky little mountain spa was a secret refuge of the well-healed. Now oligarchs and emirs are checking in.

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The town of Merano, 2004. Photo by Newscom.

Palace of Pampering

Henri Chenot’s quirky little mountain spa was a secret refuge of the well-healed. Now oligarchs and emirs are checking in.

The strange truth about any retreat or spa where you are pummeled, dunked in water, wrapped in mud, baked in seaweed, and forced to eat lettuce is that your soul is required to accompany your body. You have to completely believe in something, surrender to a guiding principle behind the treatments, the magic hands of your masseuse, the genius of your guru. You are asked to be vulnerable, and to have faith.

But vulnerability is no use in business, and faith is a touchy subject. The really important people need their own spas of infinite and complex remoteness, where no one can catch them looking vulnerable in a bathrobe—or gullible at a lecture on blood types and nutrition. Henri Chenot, an acupuncturist and intuitive diagnostician, has been treating the rich for more than 30 years in the remote Italian province of Alto Adige, which is also Südtirol—the part of Austria that was annexed by Italy in 1919 and where every Italian word comes with a German one. Chenot was born in Catalonia, Spain, and raised in France; in 1980 he started treating people in a tiny mountain village called Solda, or Sulden, and soon moved to the small valley town Merano, or Meran. Here, his Palace Merano-Espace Henri Chenot spa is on Via Cavour Strasse. It is a place between two worlds.

It was in 1996, when I was the editor in chief of Paris Vogue, that I first went to Chenot. I was mourning the death of my mother and exhausted by fashion. Tom Ford’s public relations director at Gucci, Cristina Malgara, made the phone call that got me in. Chenot was discovered by the Missonis and Carla Fendi, and his spa was the secret of the Italian fashion industry, one shared only with Princess Caroline of Monaco and Luciano Pavarotti.

At that point, the spa took up only a small part of the Palace hotel. The rest of it was occupied by Germanic hikers who wore badger brushes in their hats, had booming voices, and ate lots of pork in the formal dining room. It was disconcerting to sit naked under a robe in the bar sipping herbal tea surrounded by tall men in leather shorts downing hard liquor and smoking cigars. Now everyone wears robes all day long, there is no alcohol anywhere, and smokers still own part of the terrace.

In the basement spa, an elegant blonde named Sigrid juggled appointments for treatments. On my initial visit, the first thing I had to do was hold a pair of metal rods so that an electric current could identify where my energy was blocked. A printout showed the schema of a body, with the energy paths identified in Rasta colors: Green was flowing, yellow was not so good, and red was a traffic jam. The first time I held the rods in my hands, I thought of the tin cans used in Scientology—either to weigh the soul or talk to aliens, I have never really known—and wondered just how crazy this Chenot was and whether I had booked myself into a very expensive cult. I told myself that since I had only been admitted thanks to Gucci, the spa could not possibly be a sect. Later, when a young man performed electronic acupuncture on me—sending a current along my meridians without breaking my skin—I began to understand that this was Chinese medicine without pain. When I failed to cheer up, Chenot summoned me to his office and confided, “I don’t do this for everybody.” He laid me down on a table and shoved long needles into my sternum. This was Chinese medicine with pain.

I was then passed on to Patti, the masseuse whom Malgara liked best. Her treatments were intense, involving suction cups on my back and extreme force on my legs. Henri’s wife, Dominique—a warm woman with the perfect features of Carole Bouquet—came in to make notes about my progress. There was also a trio of doctors who backed up Chenot’s herbs and essential oils with Western medicine and were on hand if an older guest felt faint.

Chenot lectured about Chinese medicine in one of the salons; I dutifully took notes about the circular connection between seasons, elements, and character. He put me on an eccentric but effective regimen that included vials of seawater and the occasional cure of sandalwood oil taken by mouth. I duly drank the seawater at every meal, wondering about The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

I felt like a very fine spacecraft readied for a vital mission. I took to visiting Chenot more than once a year to keep the spacecraft functioning at optimum level. I would fly from Paris to Verona, where a car would meet me and drive north, past the Lago di Garda. Sometimes I visited the mummy found in the ice high above Merano in his own little museum in Bolzano. In 1996 they said he was 7,000 years old; today, he’s 5,300 years old.

I never saw anyone I recognized at Chenot—not an actor, designer, diva, or tycoon. Instead, there were Germans who looked the way German tycoons did on the German TV channels I tried to watch in my room: square-faced, tall, sandy-haired, worried. The place gave me anonymity among strangers.

I moved back to America in 2001. Recently, I’d heard that Julian Schnabel was spotted at Chenot, as well as a host of New York gallerists and museum directors, the boutique owner Betsy Ross, and a Picasso heiress. I was jealous. Last year, I developed a strange condition beneath my feet that no New York doctors could cure, though they could make it worse in a variety of painful and costly ways. At last I had an ironclad excuse to return to Chenot. I had been away for 12 years and was determined to stay two weeks.

The entire Palace hotel was now the Espace Henri Chenot. The parking lot, once covered in BMWs and Mercedes with German, Austrian, and Italian license plates, was empty. If the new international clientele needed to go somewhere, there were chauffeurs. The hall was unchanged, though the number of staff had increased fivefold. I was shown a snazzy suite on the top floor—a special floor, the concierge said. A profusion of mirrored walls and Wenge wood made up for the low ceilings.

I fell into bed after dinner, crying from exhaustion after the long trip from New York. But my sleep was soon pierced by the screams of little children. As far as I knew, Chenot didn’t allow children. I heard more shrieks. As I opened the door of my suite, two stubby little creatures galloped past, all high-pitched yelps.

“Shut up!” I yelled and slammed the door. I retreated to bed.

The shrieks began again.

I shot out of bed one more time. “You little monsters!” I screamed. The children froze mid-shriek. A middle aged woman in a housedress and a younger woman in shorts peered at me from the far end of the corridor. Two young men in bright polo shirts, their muscles and pockets bulging, moved toward me with the grace and speed of bodyguards.

The next day, after my session with the metal rods, I went to see Chenot, who was still the same. I complained about the tiny aliens on my floor. “Those would be the grandchildren of the president of Azerbaijan,” he said. “We put you on his floor—we didn’t think he’d mind.”

The hotel garden now was full of thriving palm trees, proving that Merano has its own microclimate. Like the trees, the guests had changed. They too were now lush and exotic: Russians, Azerbaijanis, Kazakhs, Tajiks, Ukrainians, and Belarusians; the emir of Qatar was due the following week with his favorite wife, Sheikha Mozah. There were no more Germans. One of the dining rooms had been extended over the gigantic pool below. Everything looked brighter, cleaner, bigger

Dominique Chenot was as good-looking and jovial as I remembered. As she walked up the stairs from the garden, I could hear her talking to a friend or a client on her cell: “You’re tired because you’re not eating properly!” she said. “Just some grilled fish and some greens! Do you have a good set of scales on the yacht? Good! Go weigh yourself right now. Swim in the morning—just in the sea, that’s fine. Is the trainer onboard? Good! Do some Pilates in the afternoon. And is the masseur there as well? Good!”

There were now six full-time medical doctors—seven if you counted the esthetic doctor who supervised the cosmetic procedures. Botox was now one of the Chenot offerings. Other things had changed so little that it was startling: Except for the addition of a couple of Russian-speaking waitresses, the spa staff, the chef, and the waiters were all the same people I remembered. Sigrid, the elegant blonde, was still running the spa bookings; Patti the masseuse was still there but not available, and Margarita proved just as effective. The baths were deeper than ever, and their jets stronger, but the cheery attendants were the ones I knew from the ’90s.

Like a child returning to a holiday house, I checked that the box of Monopoly, the chess set, and the backgammon board were still in what was probably once called the game room, spielzimmer, or sala giochi. It was reassuring to know that should it rain, I could always play checkers with a stranger.

I was assigned a table for one looking out over the palm trees and settled into that peculiar neurotic combination of self-hatred, self-pity, and wild faith that accompanies a stay at any spa. I wanted to believe in something, so I surrendered. I would let everything go. I would be nice. I lay in the bubbling baths reciting a new mantra: I will not scream at the grandchildren of the president of Azerbaijan. I will not scream at the grandchildren of the president of Azerbaijan. I will not scream at the grandchildren of the president of Azerbaijan.

I smiled at the bodyguards. Before I could get any further in reestablishing diplomatic relations with the country that produces most of Russia’s oil, I was moved to a room on a lower floor where there was no noise in the corridor beyond the occasional squeak of a spa sandal on parquet.

My feet got better very slowly. I visited the bright renovated gym. Tinctures and balms and pills were sent up from the Farmacia Druso in Merano. At a Saturday flea market, I bought bank notes from Weimar Germany printed between 1923 and 1933: bills worth 100 marks, 500 marks, 10,000 marks, 1,000,000 marks, 10,000,000 marks—the last from the days when it was said you needed a wheelbarrow of cash to buy groceries. The light coming through the clouds over the town looked like an illustration in a child’s Bible. I wanted to believe in healing and redemption—and maybe in a better global economy.

At dinner at my table for one, I felt the hush as night fell. The new geography of the world was spread out in front of me: four Russian girls barely out of their teens, a couple from the Gulf discoursing with a guest from Delhi, the head of Lazard Frères, a couple from Kazakhstan. At his table for one, a round silent Russian chewed his cubes of grilled cod with touching determination.

I looked down to see that my flat silver fish knife perfectly reflected the evening sky. For 10 whole minutes, the fish knife shone a bright cobalt blue. That is the secret of Chenot, I thought: The silverware is the same as the sky. By following Chenot’s regimen, we were partaking of the essential purity of nature. It was, of course, a minor hallucination, brought on by hunger. But it was also a vulnerable moment of overwhelming awe. My faith was restored.