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Norwegians Take in the Sun in Spain on Doctors' Orders

Each year dozens of Norwegians flock to the coastal Spanish town of Altea to get Oslo-funded treatment at a rehabilitation centre for problems ranging from rheumatism to fractured bones.

"In Norway it is cold almost all year and it rains often. You can understand why they are better off here," the tanned head of the centre, Torild Thorvaldsen, told AFP under bright sunshine.

The rehabilitation centre was set up and is run by three Norwegian towns -- Baerum, Stavanger and Oslo -- to treat mostly retirees in the softer Mediterranean climate for periods of up to a maximum of 12 weeks.

It can accommodate a maximum of 38 people at a time in small apartments or studios, and they are allowed to receive visitors during their stay.

Except for a daily supplement of 15 euros (20 US dollars), the entire cost of their stay is covered by oil-rich Norway's well-developed social security net.

This is a rare exception to a growing health tourism that officials say is putting a strain on facilities as residents from other EU states -- seeking to circumvent long waits or higher costs at home -- come to Spain knowing they are entitled to benefit from the country's free healthcare system.

Except for the sun, nothing at the rehabilitation centre would lead you to think you were in Spain. The medical staff is Scandinavian as are the cooks while signs are all in Norwegian.

Altea, a whitewashed fishing village of some 21,000 people, was selected as the location for the centre because of its proximity to the town of Alfaz del Pi, which is home one of the biggest concentration of Norwegian residents abroad.

More than half of Alfaz's roughly 18,500 residents are foreigners, including some 5,000 Norwegians. The town has two Norwegian schools, a Protestant church and even a branch of the Norwegian social security office.

It is located on Spain's extensive Mediterranean coast w hich has become the Europe's Florida for northern Europeans looking for a place to retire in the sun.

"I love being here," said Rausi Norman, a 97-year-old former physical education teacher who was completing a second stay at the rehabilitation centre where she was being treated for back trouble.

"I just regret that I am not sick enough to stay for the full 12 weeks," she added as she subathed on her terrace wearing white shorts and a pink vest.

"It is very calm here, the weather is good, conditions are ideal," said retired art history teacher Tor Tvinnereim who was completing a fifth stay at the centre.

The centre has a heated pool to allow for swimming in winter and is fully wheelchair accessible.

Every week excursions to neighbouring towns are organized and on Saturdays a party with a surprise theme is held.

Guests especially appreciate the afternoons at the beach where they can go swimming, said Thorvaldsen.

"My doctor told me that I would be better off here," said 63-year-old Wenche Larsen who gets around in a wheelchair.

"There is sunshine, the sky is blue," said her husband Olav Larsen, a retired plumber, has accompanied her during the length of her stay. He called it the "best vacation" in his life -- and almost entirely free.


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