The Vila do Geres spa and a new take on the story of Stone Soup.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015, 11:20
The old spa Vila do Geres

Do you remember the children's story, Stone Soup where a tramp promises an old country woman that he can teach her to make soup from a stone? He puts the stone to boil in water and then tastes the 'soup'.

"It's good," he says, "but it would be a little better if there were some onions in it." The Old lady brings some onions from the garden.

Then he tastes again and again and asks for carrots, turnips, cabbage, meat, salt.... What did the stone have to do with the soup? Well you tell me. And what does this have to do with the spa at Vila do Geres?

Click here to find out.
It was in the early 1990s that I first visited the spa at Vila do Geres. I was by no means the first person to go there: the Romans beat me to it by a couple of millennia more or less; and in the 16th century the king, Dom Joao V, popularised it as a place to take the waters and seek a cure for numerous bodily ills so the town flourished. In the 90s, however, there seemed only to be a row of dilapidated hotels, many covered with expensive but cracked azulejos – Portuguese tiles – which were peeling off amongst windows with rotten frames and broken shutters. Clearly this place had not so very long ago been the haunt of the very wealthy, comparable to Bath or Harrogate in England, but it had fallen on hard times. Since then, fortunately, Vila do Geres has taken on a new lease of life. Most of these hotels have either been done up or demolished but one remains to show how I saw the spa then.

Ruined hotel Vila do Geres

Imagine how delightful it must once have been to stay here. I hope that protective barricade is not just to keep out the curious and prevent the unwary from being injured. It would be so good to think that some organisation is going to renovate it; give it back its beauty and pride. If they did it might end up looking as good as this hotel further up the street, the Hotel Aguas do Geres, once the Grande Hotel Maia.

Hotel Aguas do Geres

I neither wished nor could afford to stay in a hotel in those days so I chose a pensão - a B&B - on the hillside. This turned out to be the dullest choice I could have made. Breakfast was at the crack of dawn but the coffee was weak and there was no jam. The evening meal consisted of steamed fish and boiled potatoes. No one drank wine. I didn't enjoy my stay but I had booked in for several days and couldn't leave without paying a penalty.

One morning I spoke to the guest at the next table. To my surprise he eulogised the spa. "I come here every year for two weeks," he said. "The water is miraculous. It cures everything. You should come for a fortnight every year too. It would set you up for the other 50 weeks."

I wondered why the water was so beneficial. What was so special about a stay here?

"Every day I get up early and go for a walk. Then for breakfast I have bread and hot milk – no coffee. After that I go down to the spa and drink the water. I don't have any snacks during the day; in fact I don't touch cakes or rich food all fortnight. In the evening I have something light, a small piece of fish or chicken steamed or boiled with no herbs or spices. And, of course, I don't drink wine – no stimulants at all in fact. And throughout the day I exercise and drink spa water, five or six cups of it. It really is a miracle what the water here can do. You should try it. You will be all the better for it, you know." Finally it seemed he would go to bed early – by choice, he said, though I couldn't for the life of me see anything else you could do in the evening.

Thus, it seems, this story is the opposite of Stone Soup, which improved with every addition though the stone itself contributed pretty little. In this case the subtraction of everything that might be bad for your health – rich food, coffee, wine – improved the efficacy of the water, which also probably contributed very little to the cure.

Have you tried a cure at a spa? What was your experience? Do write in and tell us.  (If you are Portuguese, please feel free to write in your own language. You don't have write in English. O que é importante não é a língua mas a contribuição.)


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