I checked into Europe’s cheapest fasting clinic — here’s what happened

Wellness is one of the travel industry’s fastest growing sectors — you can now try everything from gene analysis in Switzerland to microdosing hallucinogens in Mexico. But, it’s the back-to-basics method of fasting that’s making headlines.

All sorts of claims have been made about the benefits of fasting and, as someone who only has to look at a Gail’s cinnamon roll to put on a kilo, I think it’s worth a shot. So here I am.

The Aqua Azur seaside hotel in Varna

From October to May, Dr Emilova’s clinic is based in a network of rooms at the Aqua Azur seaside hotel in Varna, where I’m staying. However, in the summer months it moves to the five-star mountain hotel Borovets Hills, 45 miles from Sofia. While the Aqua Azur has an indoor and outdoor pool as well as access to the beach, the mountain retreat has a bigger wellness offering, with saunas, a hammam and steam bath. It is also, I am told, far enough away from the seaside for patients not to be seduced by the wafts of beach barbecues.

Dr Lyudmila Emilova, who turned 80 this year but has the energy and radiance of a much younger woman, has been running her fruit and tea fasting programme for 30 years. She is regarded as some sort of messiah among her acolytes, who return every year for a health reset or for help managing a chronic medical condition.

I haven’t been to a former eastern bloc country since the early Nineties, when I was sent as a cub reporter to Romania to cover a Michael Jackson concert (that’s possibly the most ageing sentence I have ever written). But waking up in my spartan hotel room, I do get Warsaw Pact vibes.

The balcony overlooks the grey and horizonless Black Sea, and the medical attention is as functional as the decor.

Fiona McIntosh enjoying one of her three daily fruit juices

Take, for example, one of the battery of tests I have on the first morning to measure my general health. I dutifully sit on a plastic chair outside the room marked “EKG”, waiting to be weighed, measured (including the rather alarming test to determine my body-fat ratio) and have an electrocardiogram to check my heart’s rhythm and electrical activity. Next to me is a row of other patients, similarly well-upholstered, middle-aged women, clutching their test schedules. The door opens and a woman in a black leather mini-dress and knee-high boots (there are no white coats here) silently beckons me into a brightly lit room with a set of scales at one end and an examination couch at the other. A machine sprouting wires and electrodes hums beside it.

The woman sits down at her desk, looks up at me over her steel-rimmed spectacles and instructs me to take off my clothes.

The look in her eyes puts paid to any hesitation. I strip down to my pants, lie on the bed and close my eyes as she silently attaches sensors to my skin.

Electrodes are very much part of the treatment plan. There’s the ionic detoxifying footbath, using electrically charged atoms to leach toxins from your body through the soles of your feet. Better out than in, I muse, as the mucky sediment swirls on the surface of the water.

Other tests including an ultrasound of my kidneys, liver, gall bladder, spleen and womb, a blood pressure test and comprehensive blood tests are more standard, and there’s a cardiologist and a gastroenterologist on hand to deal with more serious problems. There’s also a group of charming, young English-speaking GPs who take my medical history and interpret the test results. I haven’t had an MoT like this since being pregnant 20 years ago.

Many of the Bulgarian patients at Dr Emilova’s clinic come for the full 30-day fasting programme, which involves 20 days of fasting with three fruit juices (or three pieces of fruit a day) and herbal tea with a spoonful of honey. Patients are then put on a ten-day “build-up” programme, when food is slowly reintroduced. International guests, mainly from Germany, France, Greece, Cyprus and a smattering from the UK, tend to do a week to ten days. Then there are nervous first-timers like myself, who book in for a five-day test run.

In my consultation with the charismatic Dr Emilova, she tells me that when she completes the full 20-day fasting programme she feels “younger and more sexy”. We both have a giggle.

“It is not important how many years a person has in their life, but how much life we have in those years,” she says.

Despite, or perhaps because of, the rigidity of the programme, there’s a real sense of camaraderie among the patients, who are all delightfully friendly and hang around together, make-up free and in tracksuits.

By day two I’m so delirious with hunger, I can’t imagine how I’m going to go on. Martina (52 but she looks about 35), a fellow patient, scoops me up. The management consultant from Sofia is on day 20 of her fast and swears that, once you get past the first few days, your body no longer craves food and you fall into a state of cleansed contentment. She is so evangelical about the process she makes a point of coming to the clinic every year.

Inmates, myself included, become quickly institutionalised. Every morning at 7am, we shuffle down to the hotel foyer for gentle stretching exercises adapted from qigong techniques. Then there’s an inspirational health talk in the theatre (I have a translator) and after that a guided walk through the woods and gardens nearby. This proves the perfect opportunity for some to sneak off for a fag behind a bush.

Dr Luydmila Emilova is 80-year-old owner of the fasting clinic

The absolute highlight of every day reminds me of more indulgent holidays — aperitivo hour at the bar. Only, instead of being served filthy holiday cocktails, the barman whizzes up a juice of my choice, served in a proper cocktail glass with a “fruit art” garnish, as Eighties hits thump in the background.

Every evening, before bed, I join an iyengar yoga class, which is not only one of the best yoga classes I have been to but also helps me to sleep like the dead.

However, the real miracle is that, by day three, I feel — almost — great. My hunger pangs have disappeared; I feel calm; my skin and eyes look clear. I’m inspired (and energised enough) to take a long walk on the pretty, sandy beach below the hotel.

On day five I return to London 2kg lighter and with a vow to eat less meat, less dairy and to cut down on the booze. I will definitely keep up the intermittent fasting at home and, if I ever do need a health kick, I won’t be blowing £10,000 on a trip to the Alps. I’ll be booking the next flight to Varna.

Fiona McIntosh was a guest of the Dr Emilova’s Clinic, which has full-board single rooms for £120 and doubles for £192, including medical tests and activities (emilova.eu). Fly to Varna

Would you ever be tempted to try a fasting clinic? Let us know in the comments below

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