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A Bad Blumau Experience
At Rogner-Bad Blumau, Austria's artfully eccentric new spa, the beauty is only skin deep.

By Carolyn Spencer Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 16, 1997; Page E01

At Rogner-Bad Blumau, an odd and extraordinary new spa in the remote Austrian countryside, terra-cotta floors sway and curl. Guest rooms are in buildings whose shapes suggest recumbent dinosaurs. Swooping rooftops are covered with grass and trees; they dip to the ground like branches heavy with snow. Windows are placed haphazardly, rectangles, circles and squares, frames painted in natural colors and neon tints.

These design factors accumulate to make an architectural statement so unusual, puzzling and otherworldly that they alone threaten to make Rogner-Bad Blumau a rising global destination. Add a full-service and, get this, moderately priced resort that offers stress-free, pay-one-price-for-almost-everything plan, thermal pools, a spa, cafes, bars, boutiques and day trips ranging from cosmopolitan Vienna to a working daily farm -- and the place promises a getaway mixing elements of the Guggenheim, the Esalen Institute and EuroDisney with a dose of Alpine Austria thrown in.

A stay here, I figured, offered an opportunity not only to renew body and soul but also a chance to recapture my sense of childlike wonder.

I discovered that Rogner-Bad Blumau makes it hard work to be a kid.

For the fourth time in an hour, I'm lost, wandering around an underground parking garage looking for Kunst Haus, the building in which my room is artfully hidden. I'm at the mercy of Friedensreich Hundertwasser, Rogner-Bad Blumau's mercurial creator, whose architectural philosophy -- "a straight line is evil" -- embraces the soft, natural lines of nature and creates all sort of challenges for those who try to live within it.

I started out in the lobby, a room whose high ceilings and tile floors amplified the chatter of voices and the high-pitched hum of laser printers. One wrong turn led to the resort's indoor thermal pools, a colorful and chaotic place where pedestrian bridges arch over streamlike waterways so shallow that people have to maneuver through them like crabs. Another turn took me to the "meditation island," a separate building which housed the spa. I stumbled down a stairway into a room full of saunas -- Finnish, Swedish, herbal. Another passageway, curving of course, led me to Klimbim, a bar that overlooked an outdoor pool where boisterous adults were leaping into man-made waves.

More thermal water theme park clogged with day-trippers than holistic retreat for those in search of soul and solitude, the pools are nevertheless the highlight of Rogner-Bad Blumau. They are fed by natural hot springs that date back to the Neolithic age.

At the center of the outdoor facility (you can swim through to the indoor arena) is a vast hot pool, notable chiefly for its underwater whirlpool, contained within a concrete banquette located in the center. During the day it's a central meeting spot -- "meet at the whirlpool at 4!" At sunset, with the day-crowds gone and the sun setting behind an iridescent gold onion spire, couples cuddle. The stars begin to shine, the moon is luminous, steam rises from the surface. It is romantic, it is seductive. Singles are missing out, I think. This is a prime place for a fling.

Inside, the pool mimics a river, winding around corners, under bridges and through acres of beach chairs before depositing swimmers into "rural" nooks where you can curl up on underwater benches. The sun dapples through the skylit roof, bouncing off columns covered in clay tiles in yellows and greens and blues. Some look treelike. Others have been whacked with hammers to create a mosaic.

As exotic as Rogner-Bad Blumau is, the guest rooms, while evoking a modern-day version of Fred Flintstone's lair with their smooth, curved walls, are serene. They are small but efficient, designed in Scandinavian-country style. Foyers hold charming pine armoires. The walls, which curl gently around corners and archways, are painted a restful off-white. Floors are pine.

Friedensreich Hundertwasser is Europe's Andy Warhol of pop architecture. He has applied his trademark reverence for nature and disdain for straight lines to utilitarian civic structures throughout Austria -- a rest stop off the A2 autobahn, an industrial incinerator, low-cost housing and now this moderately priced resort. The challenge here, he says, was to show that a building itself can have a great restorative impact on a holiday-taker's psyche. "Nowhere can you find such harmony between an intact environment, man's creativity, and the traditions of nature's healing properties."

Says Wolfgang Mucher, a Hundertwasser fan from Innsbruck who's on his second stay at Rogner-Bad Blumau in less than six months: "You look at his odd windows, his sod-covered roofs, and you feel happy. Bad Blumau is a piece of nature and a piece of art. It's not selling a room, it's selling an experience."

Which brings me to this: Is it really possible to have a great holiday simply because you're inspired by Hundertwasser's organic fun house?

My answer: Only if this merger of art and function in turn merges with reverence for hospitality. And it was awfully hard to appreciate Hundertwasser's "childlike" creation when the dining room was so understaffed that wine arrives after you've eaten, when there are insufficient numbers of deck chairs around the pool and when spa staffers were so inexpert that the masseur assigned to my full-body Bach massage, which involves the use of natural essences to relieve aches, had no idea which oils to use.

And it's not churlish to expect that a resort marketing itself to an international clientele be prepared to accommodate English-speaking guests. Even with two years of college German and a smattering of Italian and Spanish, I found myself at a loss over and over again. Details on menus, spa treatments and activities were available only in German. During my excursion to a working dairy farm, I spent two hours communing with cows because the lecture was in German (despite assurances from a hotel staffer to the contrary). Wolfgang Koibl, the spa director, offered a 45-minute pre-meditation class lecture entirely in German.

He wasn't the worst offender. That prize goes to the concierge I dubbed Prison Warden Gabriella, who was responsible for translating the daily schedule of activities for me. Her voice so dripped with contempt that I felt treated like a stupid child.

Rogner-Bad Blumau is an unforgettable place. Unfortunately, my experience there was exhausting, frustrating and humiliating.

Eva Baumann, the resort's resident manager, has heard these complaints before. "Of course that will change," she says. "But we're still new and introducing our staff to the nature philosophy was our first priority."

In the end, I found myself relying on the kindness of bilingual strangers. Eventually, it was far more pleasurable to dine at one of the provincial village pubs in nearby Blumau, where the barkeepers possessed none of the sophistication of the nearby resort but at least were welcoming and reasonably fluent in English.

Certainly, there were memorable, enjoyable moments. At night under the stars, the outdoor pool, its surface steaming, was nearly mystical. Koibl's musical meditation ultimately was an intriguing inner adventure in which I drifted off to the sounds of a metal rod clanging against pyramids and bowls, bells and gongs. One man fell asleep so soundly that he was still supine, snoring slightly, when class ended only to bound past me later, reinvigorated, as I walked to the dining hall. The views from the roof of my sod-topped building were stunning.

It seems ironic and a bit sad that the impact of Hundertwasser's organic, human-centered design can be undone by basic human-centered failures in courtesy, competence and hospitality.

Details: Rogner-Bad Blumau

GETTING THERE: Rogner-Bad Blumau is in Styria, in southeastern Austria, a two-hour drive south from Vienna or an hour north of Graz. From Washington, Austrian Airlines, Swissair, Lufthansa, KLM, Northwest and United are among those that fly to Vienna. Connecting service to Graz is also available. Round-trip fares start at $784 with restrictions to either city. Rogner-Bad Blumau will arrange taxi service from Vienna ($110 flat fare) and Graz ($78). That's a one-way price.

PACKAGES: European Connection, a tour operator that specializes in Austria, is offering a three-night Rogner-Bad Blumau package that includes round-trip air on Austrian Airlines, accommodations, a sightseeing tour of Graz and a rental car. Prices begin at $932 per person, double occupancy, through March 31 (with the exception of Dec. 24-Jan. 3 when higher rates are in effect). The agency can also customize your trip to include a stay in Vienna. Call 1-800-345-4679. You can also reserve directly through Rogner-Bad Blumau by calling 011-43-3383-5100. Room-only rates begin at $137 per night; half-board (breakfast and dinner) is an additional $22 a day.

THE ARCHITECT: If you want to get a handle on Rogner-Bad Blumau's legendary architect Friedensreich Hundertwasser, spend a few days in Vienna. He's got his own museum, KunstHausWein (3 Untere Weissger-berstrasse 13), which is every bit as bizarre as the resort.There's a fabulous cafe in the back. Also worthwhile is a 1 1/2-hour riverboat ride on the Danube aboard the Vindobona, designed by, you guessed it, Hun-dertwasser. A Hundertwasser-Kombi-Ticket, which includes admission to both, is $22. If you're still curious, check out the Hundertwasserhaus, one of Vienna's most prestigious addresses. It's a few blocks from the museum (at the corner of Lowengasse and Kegelgasse).

INFORMATION: Contact the Austrian National Tourist Office, P.O. Box 1142, New York, N.Y. 10108-1142, 212-575-7723, http://www.anto .com, or check out the resort's Web site at Blumau/Blumau.html.

-- Carolyn Spencer Brown

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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