Cult Shop: the Viennese apothecary mixing ancient remedies with modern science
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Saint Charles, an apothecary in the heart of Vienna’s fashionable Mariahilf district, has been making and selling herbal remedies under the epithet “right to the roots” since the rule of the Habsburgs. Established in 1886 by pharmacist Alfred Blumenthal, it was taken over by sixth-generation Austrian pharmacist Alexander Ehrmann and his business partner Richard König in 2006. Together they have sought to mix modern science with the ancient wisdom of traditional European medicine (TEM), which advises combining botanical remedies with holistic practices. In Saint Charles’s case, this means creating cosmetics, potions and tinctures made from lavender and linseed oil pressed in Lower Austria’s Weinviertel region, or hemp from Waldviertel in the north-west.
“Everybody knows about traditional Chinese medicine but no one really knows what TEM is,” says König of the philosophy pioneered by Hippocrates and Galen in Ancient Greece. “We wanted to show that the herbs you find here on your doorstep you can use as a medical remedy, but you can also use the same herbs for skincare, and you can eat them.”
Inside, ornately carved wooden apothecary cabinets are stocked with bath salts and face creams, essential oils and scented candles, and tea blends and botanical spirits; Saint Charles carries some 400 of its own products as well as being a dispensary for standard prescription medications. Everything is developed according to the teachings of TEM and made with local, sustainably harvested plants and flowers. The lavender and linseed oil is believed to have soothing and anti-inflammatory properties, while the hemp, used in teas and CBD oils, is said to provide natural relief for pain, inflammation and anxiety. One of the apothecary’s most popular products is its antiviral and antibacterial Apothekerseife hand soap (€32.80), created with the Viennese perfumer Lederhaas and made with a blend including thyme and clove. The idea for a unique pharmaceutical soap was conceived during the 2008 bird flu pandemic. “People would rush into the pharmacy in a panic asking for a doctor’s soap and there wasn’t one, so we decided to invent it,” says Ehrmann.
Much of the historic store’s original interior and furnishings have been kept intact. Original apothecary chests sit alongside a screenprint of a pharmaceutical label by Damien Hirst and an anatomical illustration by Austrian avant-garde artist Hermann Nitsch, while an old marble drinking fountain still serves Vienna’s famously pure Alpine tap water. This comes directly from mountain springs via a pipeline built during the reign of Emperor Franz Joseph, and is said to be some of the cleanest in the world. The floor is covered with geometric art nouveau tiles. “When you go to a regular pharmacy, you always have this type of floor – it has to be practical,” says Ehrmann. “But I wanted it to be a nice space for us to work in too.” An automated robot retrieves and dispenses medication. “It gives us time to stay with the customer where usually they would be on their own,” he explains. The products are packaged in minimalist brown- or violet-glass bottles and bear the emblem of a serpent-entwined rod – a tool wielded by Asclepius, god of medicine and healing in Greek mythology. “I wanted [the packaging] to give the impression that what is in the bottle is more important than the label,” says Ehrmann.
In keeping with Saint Charles’s holistic approach to health, the apothecary has a sister Cosmothecary on the same street that stocks the range of natural skincare and houses a small spa on its top floor, offering treatments such as massages using magnesium from the Zechstein salt beds of the North Sea. One door down is the Saint Charles Alimentary, a tiny 10-cover restaurant serving organic, predominantly vegetarian fare, and a few blocks away is a wellbeing centre with yoga classes and meditation as well as psychotherapy sessions.
Though the range of remedies may have expanded to accommodate our new ways of living, the holistic approach and belief in nature’s healing power remain the same as millennia ago. “It’s a combination of centuries-old tradition with a modern lifestyle,” says König of the pharmacy’s approach. “I think that’s the essence of Saint Charles.”
Saint Charles Apothecary, Gumpendorfer Str. 30, 1060 Vienna, saint-charles.eu