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Exploring the great spa towns of Europe

Feargus O'Sullivan and Ellen Braitman
Feargus O'Sullivan and Ellen Braitman • 5 min read
Exploring the great spa towns of Europe
Unesco designated 11 picturesque towns built around natural mineral springs as a single World Heritage site.
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Unesco designated 11 picturesque towns built around natural mineral springs as a single World Heritage site. Their influence on architecture and landscape design continues to this day

Experiencing Europe’s new Unesco World Heritage site is no easy feat. To do so, you will need to visit three towns in the Czech Republic, three in Germany and one apiece in Austria, Belgium, France, Italy and the UK.

That’s because this new addition to the United Nations world heritage stable is a transnational listing of 11 towns as the Great Spas of Europe, a category that gathers together the continent’s best-preserved spa resorts. To Unesco, these towns represent the best remnants from a bygone era when the agreeable conflation of health and pleasure saw Europe’s elite flock to mineral springs — not just for healing and rest, but also for culture, entertainment and fun.

The spas were among a group of five new heritage sites announced this week, additions that also featured an artists’ colony in Darmstadt, Germany; prehistoric rock carvings in Himã, Saudi Arabia; 14th century fresco cycles in Padua, Italy; and France’s last-inhabited lighthouse. The designations also come in the wake of news that, for only the third time in its history, Unesco decided to remove a site’s world heritage status, deleting Liverpool’s Maritime Mercantile City from the list.

Developed during spa tourism’s golden age in the 18th and 19th centuries, the towns represent “a new urban typology,” Unesco’s press release says, comprising a unique configuration of “high-quality architecture, town planning and landscape design, arranged according to the physical location of natural mineral springs, and inextricably entwined with the cultural evolution of ‘taking the cure’ and modern tourism.”

In other words, these towns are a lot more than attractive architectural ensembles. They functioned as social and medical beacons for their societies, influencing and spreading ideas about architecture and urban planning across Europe. With their combinations of grand row houses, villas and ample green space, these places were arguably precursors to (and inspiration for) the later Garden City Movement, which continues to exert an influence on suburban planning today.

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The spa towns also became new hubs for international travel during a period when such journeys were gradually becoming less arduous. That created possibilities for social interaction that were otherwise unprecedented. Attracting anyone from affluent businesspeople to heads of state, the spas allowed a degree of social mixing without embarrassment that wouldn’t necessarily be possible in the more rigid setting of people’s hometowns — a situation that led to Spa in Belgium being dubbed the “café of Europe” in its heyday.

The social opportunities that spas made possible — not just in the bathhouses and mineral tap rooms, but in promenades, casinos, ballrooms and opera houses — permitted a degree of observation and people-watching that was clearly fascinating to writers. Goethe visited Karlsbad (now the Czech Republic’s Karlovy Vary, inscribed on the list) 13 times, while Jane Austen set two of her novels in Bath, a city where she spent five years of her life, providing a wry, not-entirely flattering portrait of the resort’s social hierarchies.

Despite all the opportunities the spa towns offered for social preening, gambling and display, these were still places intended to heal and soothe. Their combination of spa buildings, parkland and places of entertainment — and the daily rituals these were designed to support — reflect a holistic attitude to health. These were places where people’s wellbeing was improved not just by medical treatment and their waters’ perceived health, but through diet and exercise, entertainment and relaxation in an environment specifically created to calm and delight.

To what extent this environmental cure succeeded is up for debate. While we’re less likely to ascribe pseudo-magical properties to spring water nowadays, some spa treatments were, in fact, probably quite effective. To take one example, paralysis induced by lead poison, a familiar problem in an era when lead was common in many products, does seem to have been helped by diuresis induced by long, hot water baths.

And while many spas continue to offer medical therapies today, the practice of doctors prescribing spa treatment has faded out gradually since the mid 20th century. Still, the architecture and planning of towns intended to support these therapies express a belief that continues to resonate today: If you want to boost your wellbeing, careful diet, regular exercise, access to green spaces and an atmosphere of beauty and calm can do wonders. — Bloomberg

The 11 locations that make up the Great Spa Towns of Europe:

Baden bei Wien (Austria)
Spa (Belgium)
Františkovy Lázně (Czech Republic)
Karlovy Vary (Czech Republic)
Mariánské Lázně (Czech Republic)
Vichy (France) Bad Ems (Germany)
Baden-Baden (Germany)
Bad Kissingen (Germany)
Montecatini Terme (Italy) Bath (United Kingdom)

Photo: Bloomberg

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