Explore history and healing in some of Europe’s oldest spa towns

From Karlovy Vary in the Czech Republic to Malvern in the UK, we round up some of the most intriguing hot spring destinations in Europe — places replete with long-held wellness customs, and grand 18th- and 19th-century architecture.

Sunday, July 26, 2020,
By Nora Wallaya
Saturnia
The Mulino and Gorello waterfalls in the tiny Tuscan town of Saturnia draw locals and overseas visitors to wallow in their sulphurous rock pools.
Photograph by Getty

The mineral waters of Europe's hot springs have long been celebrated for their healing properties, many destinations picking up royal patronage and glowing monikers over the centuries. Today, these places still reap the benefits of the visionary town planners of the 1700s and 1800s: this was a time when rumours of the physical rewards of such bathing practices (previously the reserve of only royals and the aristocracy) seeped into the cultural zeitgeist. Towns and villages home to hot springs were selected for touristic development, becoming destinations in and of themselves. ‘Spa towns’ were born. Taking place during a golden age of European architecture, it resulted in a grand line-up of fashionable spa towns focussed on indulging the notion of ‘taking to the water’. Here are five to explore.

Vichy, France

In the 1700s, French royalty advocated the healing powers of Vichy’s Allier River, and what followed was a flow of European aristocrats who sought to dip a toe too. Later, during the Belle Époque period, a marriage of Art Nouveau architecture and an era-defining trend for frivolity blossomed in Vichy, springing spas and retreats that, though time has worn its mark, today still hark back to their hey-day.

Stroll the Parc des Sources, in the heart of Vichy, to get to the Hall des Sources, or hall of springs; a striking art deco glasshouse structure sheltering six thermal pools and a fountain running slightly saline drinking water that’s free to take away in a bottle.

Karlovy Vary, Czech Republic

Over a hundred Corinthian columns assert the grounds of the neo-Renaissance Mill Colonnade building, containing the five sulphur-rich hot springs that draw visitors to the Bohemian spa town. It’s among the several geothermal retreats of Karlovy Vary, or Karlsbad; a town whose notable patrons include Ludwig van Beethoven and Frédéric Chopin. In spring and summer, the pianists’ compositions can be heard tinkling around the spa and formal gardens of the colonnade during one of its regular orchestral performances.

Journey further south along the Teplá River and you’ll come to the town’s steaming geyser, Pramen Vřídlo. Shooting up at over 10 metres, today the geyser is enclosed within a functionalist steel structure dedicated to Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, the first person to have travelled into space. It’s here that visitors breathe its allegedly therapeutic vapour.

View of Karlovy Vary, a Bohemian spa town in the Czech Republic.
Photograph by Getty

Saturnia, Italy

Legend has it that when Saturn — Roman god of agriculture — grew tired of human squabbling, he rained a thunderbolt upon the earth whose impact sprung fountains of steaming water, bringing people together to bathe. Today, the Mulino and Gorello waterfalls in the tiny Tuscan town of Saturnia draw locals and overseas visitors to wallow in their sulphurous rock pools; a tiered series of turquoise, waterfall-fed jacuzzis surrounded by olive groves and cypress trees. Nearby is Terme di Saturnia, a five-star hotel and luxury spa that offers treatments using the springs’ mineral water.

Malvern, UK

The granite-filtered water rolling through the Malvern Hills earned its reputation for its one single quality: of containing nothing at all. The water’s purity was such that it was believed to be a miracle healer, attracting an A-list of Victorian patrons including British royals, Charles Darwin and Charles Dickens.

Though Malvern’s zenith as a spa town dwindled with the progression of modern medicine, its Victorian spa town legacy is still present and protected; look to the gas-lit street lamps, railway station and quaint shop fronts. The luxurious Malvern Spa is home to a pool filled with Malvern spring water; the only one of its kind in the UK.

Baden bei Wien, Austria

Romans soaked in these ‘baths by Vienna’, just 25 miles south of the Austrian capital, declaring their sulphurous waters medicinal. Slowly the news spread, and when the town began to receive royal patronage its golden age as a spa town began, with impressive Venetian and French neo-Renaissance buildings erected to affirm its status.

The town’s springs today feed water to its two leading spas; the Römertherme and Badener Hof, which pride themselves on using ‘liquid gold’ in their hydrotherapy treatments; the water they use is tinged yellow with sulphur.

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