To spend a week in Italy without ordering a plate of spaghetti alle vongole is tragic. Not to start the day with a cappuccino and pastry filled with sweetened cream is almost criminal.
But here we are at lunch on our first day at Palace Merano Espace Henri Chenot in northern Italy, near the Austrian border, staring at a stick of raw carrot, a radish and a piece of celery not much thicker than dental floss.
All around us are unsmiling, mainly Russian, inmates in white dressing gowns, communicating with their mobile phones and forgetting to say thank you to the waiters. They look miserable — and this is meant to be an award-winning medi-spa with the mantra Health For Life.
Reboot: Palace Merano Espace in northern Italy (above) offers a cleansing detox programme
After lunch, I’m told that all diseases start with negative energy, that toxins cling to power over our bodies — and need to be dealt with ruthlessly.
The thing is that my own negativity is such that I may be about to pick up a fatal disease. Never mind the toxins, I might be toxic.
If you consume as much vino, coffee and onion bhajis as I do, a place like this is not easy.
But I know that. I’ve been here before. Well, not here in Palace Merano, but at similar spas where tough love is the order of the day. Just give me 48 hours to get through the crippling headaches, light-headedness, hunger pains and prejudice against fat-cat Russians and I’ll be fine. And so it proves.
Henri Chenot, 75, has been in the detox game for 40 years and is dedicated to a combo of Chinese medicine, homeopathy and common sense.
‘People take care of diseases, but not health,’ he says. ‘Why wait until you become sick?’
Perhaps because Palace Merano is expensive and, at first, debilitating.
On arrival, you might assume that it’s just another old-fashioned hotel, with a restaurant you might have found in Vienna in the early 20th century. But head down to the spa in the basement, or the medical centre on the fifth floor, or the high-tech bio-energetics department and it’s all brilliantly white, modern and super-efficient.
Every day starts with an hour of hydro-mud therapy. My first session introduces me to a small, kindly Italian woman shouting: ‘Striptease, please.’
They are the only two words of English she knows.
I duly hop into a warm bath, where jets massage my skin and the water changes colour. Then she shows me to a water-bed with a sheet of plastic on it. I am coated in mud from head to toe and wrapped in layers of towels and sheets.
‘Buonanotte,’ she says.
After marinating in the mineral mud, I am hosed down and whisked off for a massage; then a session with someone who sends electric currents through my body (I don’t feel a thing) to liberate any blocked energy, of which there is an awful lot.
Treat yourself: Mark had an hour of hydro-mud therapy every day (stock image)
The above happens every day, interspersed with seeing a doctor and nutritionist, a full body scan, perhaps a scalp massage here, a detoxing facial there. In fact, every conceivable treatment you can imagine.
There are a couple of hours in the day to wander around Merano, a pretty town with mountains to the north and lush rolling hills to the south — and tempting delis and cake shops.
All the staff are empathetic and knowledgable. Get to see Dr Max Mayrhofer if you can (kind and wise), and you are sure to come across Marie-Pierre, Chenot’s sister-in-law. She’s a bundle of (positive) energy who specialises in Chinese medicine and explains why you feel, at first, so ropey, and then, ultimately, so much lighter and clearer.
This kind of detox is like cleaning out the fridge. Everything has to be removed and then you’ll see the smears of dried honey, congealed ketchup and rotten tomato trapped behind the carton of out-of-date creme fraiche. All must go.
Any deep cleansing — be it the fridge or body and soul — may not always be fun, but you’ll be overwhelmingly pleased to have done it.
And I lost nearly half a stone, too.
Healing Holidays (020 7843 3597, healingholidays.co.uk) offers a seven-night detox programme at Palace Merano, from £4,788 per person based on sharing a room, transfers and all treatments and meals in the detox programme.