Hungry for change? Author Anna Pasternak celebrates her ‘best Christmas ever’ while staving off the festive pounds on an unconventional winter break with her family
In our marriage, we each have our favourite sanctuaries for spoiling and regeneration. Mine is Chiva-Som, where its inimitable Thai blend of spirituality, softness and stress-relief is my reset heaven. My husband Andrew is devoted to the more clinical Buchinger Wilhelmi in Germany, where he fasts twice a year. As Yuletide is about family and togetherness, which inevitably means compromise, I decided to give him the gift of Christmas in his happy place. And he leapt at the idea of festive fasting, with asceticism aligned to the true religiosity of the season – a precious time to reflect on faith – as opposed to the Western bunfest of excess.
My 19-year-old daughter Daisy, however, was unconvinced. Even though I assured her that, while Andrew would follow the strict broth fast, we could live it up on small portions of sublime vegetarian food, she considered a sugar-, meat-, alcohol- and coffee-free Christmas to be fun-free. In a sense, she was right, because I had also issued a no-presents directive. But at least she had less time to serve: because you have to book in for 10 days to do the full fast, we left home five days before her.
One of the world’s leading therapeutic fasting centres, Buchinger Wilhelmi was founded 70 years ago by Otto Buchinger, a naval medical officer who cured himself of paralysis caused by rheumatic fever in 1918 by fasting for 19 days; and it now offers either a rigorous regime or the low-calorie detox diet that I plumped for. Since 2022 was an annus horribilis for me, with one result being stress-related weight-loss, my aim was self-nurture and – something Buchinger is big on – re-booting my immune system.
On check-in, I felt instant relief; but this soon escalated to triumphant smugness at my foresight in booking Christmas in a spa. There were only 60 guests, from 15 different countries (with a flood of new arrivals expected for New Year) and everywhere felt calm. The clientele included sisters from America, older singles, a 20-something Asian and the odd European couple – but no noisy families, as children under 16 aren’t allowed. I didn’t know how a serious medical clinic would present itself at Christmas. Would it ignore the festivities or indulge in a riot of tinsel and tacky decorations? The approach was pitch-perfect: a nod to the season with tasteful wreaths, pots of red amaryllis and pretty pine arrangements.
Every day, I gleefully compared what I was doing at Buchinger with my usual routine. The first morning, rather than schlepping round Waitrose, I was having a battery of blood tests and a consultation with the doctor. And at lunchtime, rather than grabbing a sandwich, I was sitting in the starched-linen, minimalist dining room for a tiny three-course meal – which was part of my 1,200 calorie-a-day anti-constipation diet. I’d been to Buchinger before, when alas my bowels didn’t play ball, so this time my dishes were enriched with added ‘good’ fats and an extra slice of rye bread. (Its efficacy made me realise that I don’t eat enough fat, or linseeds, at home.) Each Buchinger breakfast kicked off with its bespoke muesli, packed with linseeds, shredded apple, yogurt and fruits. And after lunch – a salad, then a scrumptious vegetable and grain dish, followed by a wisp of something sweet – I raced to my room for the afternoon liver pack (a hot-water bottle and wet towels that stimulate the metabolism). A German nurse/nanny swaddled me, then left me to sleep, with a pot of apple tea (rich in pectins) to drink on waking.
A sanatorium it may be (there’s a weigh-in and blood-pressure check every morning), but Buchinger does it with sublime style. Rooms are unfussy, with views over Lake Constance. Instead of flogging around the shops, I sat for hours in a meditative trance, absorbing the shifting light on the lake. And I realised that, while it’s all very well giving luxury gifts, the real luxury is the gift of time to yourself. Instead of Christmas Eve angst and freneticism at home, I spent three hours doing yoga and meditation; and it was so fantastic that I wanted to pinch myself with delight.
Buchinger’s French yoga teacher, Gilbert Grimeau, is a star in its firmament: attuned to subtle energy bodies, he ran a superb Christmas workshop whose ingenious mix of chanting, poses, visualisation and breathwork was purifying and enlivening. He kept reminding us that ‘the physical body is not your limit’ and to ‘switch off the control button’. And while I sloughed off layers of strain, Andrew did the daily two-hour guided walk in the mountains.
Daisy arrived for Christmas Eve, perking up at the special supper of popped corn and celery soup, followed by roast aubergine with potato purée; and later we enjoyed carol singing around the tree in French, German and English. On Christmas morning, I swam alone in Lake Constance at sunrise – I felt the luckiest mother alive not to be wrestling with the turkey, tensions and guests – and then eschewed the two-hour morning walk to read a book in bed. Christmas lunch was braised beetroot salad, apple gnocchi with sautéed mushrooms and tiny balls of steamed apple with sprinkles of crumble topping.
After our liver packs, we watched a seasonal film on the iPad, snacking on carrot sticks and quark dip, laughing at our version of mince pies and brandy butter. Still, it was surreal to feel raging hunger at 5pm on Christmas Day, when I developed an insane craving for roast potatoes. Supper at 6pm was chestnut soup and roast vegetables. We were all in bed by 7pm – but goodness, it was glorious to wake up on Boxing Day, energised and cleansed.
After a morning stretch class, I lay on a warm hay pack to melt muscle tension, then had a back massage before floating to lunch. That afternoon, my Christmas was made complete by a qigong therapy session with Mr Kolbe – and his mixture of acupuncture, acupressure, osteopathy and cranial sacral work was the best present I could have had. The minute he put his warm, capable hands on my spine, I wanted to cry; he diagnosed shock in my body and, as he released it, I sobbed. Unlike the traditional rows and resentments that flare up at this time of year, it felt pure and profoundly helpful, as with everything in the Buchinger bubble.
Andrew and I voted it our best Christmas ever. He left six kilos lighter and I lost one – plus five centimetres off my waist – but we gained so much more. I felt rested, fitter and at peace within myself. It was the convalescence I needed. And if poor Daisy said it was like staying in rehab, she did concede that, while ‘it wasn’t the best Christmas ever, it wasn’t the worst’. (She later admitted that she enjoyed the clean food as an antidote to her takeaway London lifestyle.) Of course, Christmas in a medi-clinic is not ‘all about the children’. But it felt gloriously selfish to eschew the traditions; and I entered the New Year happily, on a health high.