31 · 01 · 2021
Old world European spa resorts like Karlsbad, Marienbad, Baden-Baden, and Bad Ems, tickle our imagination with their frozen-in-time quality. To the modern observer, these out-of-the-way retreats built around mineral-rich wells appear as edifices of a bygone era that invites us to dream of faded luxe, blueblood sophistication and neo-classical architecture in polished stone.
The leafy isolation of these small health towns helped turn them into adult playgrounds for romance and entertainment. In fact, one might ask if the promise of adventure wasn’t their main attraction. That seems at least to have been the case for Europe’s most notable 19th-century artists and nobilities.
“SPA FACILITIES WERE AND STILL ARE, ALL ABOUT OFFERING ITS VISITORS THE OPPORTUNITY TO LIFT THE SPIRIT AND HEAL THE BODY WITH THE HELP OF WATER.”
As an idea, ”taking the waters” has been around since antiquity. But it was not until the 18th and 19th century that it became a thing that defined the social scene of Europe’s privileged class. What this old expression refers to is the act of going to a facility custom-built around a mineral-rich spring and drink or cleanse oneself in its curative water. Or in modern terms, spending some time at a spa.
Spa facilities were and still are, all about offering its visitors the opportunity to lift the spirit and heal the body with the help of water. However, compared to modern spa treatments, taking the waters was a relatively straightforward affair. While contemporary treatments include everything from colour-therapy baths, yoga, acupuncture and physiotherapy to naturopathy and full-scale holistic well-being regimens, taking the waters at a European wellness facility in the 1800s came down to drinking and bathing in mineral-rich water.
What is more, to visit one of the major European health resorts was to participate in a tradition with a long and storied history. Water had been used in rituals for religious and hygienic purposes since prehistoric times. But by the time the European spas started to pop up in the late 18th century, water had also become a scientific topic, studied for its therapeutic benefits.
THE ORIGINS OF SPA CULTURE
But how did this location-specific health culture come to be? The origin of the very word ”spa” is somewhat unclear. As scholar David Clay Large points out in ”The Grand Spas of Central Europe” (2015), the term ”spa” comes from Belgium’s premier water-cure town Spa. The Belgian town adopted the moniker in the 14th century and sometimes used it in an abbreviated form in Roman imperial times. But it’s also possible that ”spa” is a derivation from ”espa”, the Walloon word for ”fountain”.
The first ideas about the medicinal benefits of water took shape in Greek and Roman antiquity. For both the Greeks and the Romans, water was a curative agent that not only provided a path to a cleaner, more beautiful and fertile body but to improved physical and mental health as well. The Greeks developed prototypes of the modern bathtub. At Serangeum, chambers carved into the hillside fed by hot springs served as containers for indulging in relaxation and personal cleansing regimens. But it was the Romans that transformed bathing into a concept and a culture of its own. They called their largest bathhouses thermae - luxurious bathing complexes with pools containing water heated by log fires.
As the Roman Empire started to crumble around AD 400, so did the Roman bathing culture. And to be fair, the Middle Ages that followed upon Rome’s fall, was not an inspiring bathing period in human history. The practice of public bathing fell into decline, and Christianity’s view of it as sinful and decadent only worsened the overall sanitary conditions. It wasn't until the advent of the Age of Reason that this started to change. By the late 1700s, water-cures were in vogue again.
“THE DAILY ROUTINE MORE OR LESS FOLLOWED THE SAME PATTERN: RISE EARLY. TAKE A HOT BATH. DRINK MINERAL-RICH WATER FROM A FOUNTAIN AND FINISH OFF THE DAY BY TAKING A WALK ON THE TOWN PROMENADE.”
The real peak years of the European spa culture spanned, roughly speaking, from 1800 to the 1920s. The towns we today associate the most with a particular brand of old world sophistication are a handful: Baden-Baden and Bad Ems in Germany, Aix-les-Bains in France, Karlsbad in Bohemia (today’s Czech Republic), and Marienbad (like Karlsbad, located in Bohemia).
Offering medicinal water-cures, the facilities in these towns borrowed many features of the Roman baths such as hot and cold baths as well as steam rooms. Also, like the Roman bathhouses, there were rooms for socialisation, entertainment and reading: libraries, lounges, and gambling rooms. Most spa towns of notice provided a range of premium services that went beyond standard procedure. One that was particularly popular among Europe’s high-rollers and bon vivants in the 18th and 19th century was the so-called Kurliste. This leather-bound record of prominent visitors provided newly arrived guests a quick update on who else was in town. It was key for socialisation as it made it easier for guests to find each other and make new connections.
Of the European spas at the forefront of the resort scene in the late 19th century, Baden-Baden, Karlsbad, and Marienbad were the Big Three. They owe a significant part of their extraordinary popularity to the unique natural characteristics of each town.
While Baden-Baden with its scenic, dramatic setting at the northwestern border of the Black Forest featured otherworldly waterfalls, strange cliff formations and medieval castles, Karlsbad in Bohemia (today's Czech Republic) attracted visitors with its townhouses softly draped in emerald green woodland. Flanked by green mountains and peaceful meadows, Marienbad was also a Bohemian town. It boasted well-manicured parks and luxurious hotels with stone floors covered with carpets so thick and heavy they absorbed any sound.
For prominent 19th-century artists, these locations also allowed a chance to get away for some play, rest and recreation. Many leading European luminaries paid at least one visit to either Baden-Baden, Marienbad or Karlsbad: Goethe, Ludwig van Beethoven, Franz Liszt, Lola Montez, Friedrich Nietzsche, Franz Kafka, Mark Twain, Dostoyevsky, to name but a few.
The public gambling houses were powerful selling points for the spa towns. And Baden-Baden was the gambling Mecca of its time.
Unfortunately, gambling led many a guest to the brink of financial ruin. One of them was Russian literary giant Fyodor Dostoyevsky who travelled with his young wife Anna Grigoryevna to Baden-Baden in the 1860s.
He planned to get some writing done. With his financial resources at an all-time low and towering gambling debts, he needed to earn fast money. A new book would be the solution to his monetary pickle, he reasoned. However, the town was in every way the wrong environment for a gambling addict like himself.
He began playing roulette immediately after arrival. His rationalisation was, unsurprisingly, that betting on the spinning ball on the wheel was the quickest route out of his predicament. And so he continued playing until the final day of the pair’s stay, winning some but losing more. When it was time to bid Baden-Baden goodbye, he had lost the most of the pair's savings, not to mention Annas earrings which he had exchanged for money at the pawnshop to be able to pay for the transport home.
Just one and a half hour before departure from Baden-Baden he tested his luck one final time at the casino - but to no avail. He left Baden-Baden with more bills than when he had arrived. At least he had managed to start writing what would become a short novel - the appropriately named ”The Gambler”. It is telling that he named the fictitious town in which "The Gambler" is set "Roulettenbad”.
It was not only men who went to the spa towns to seek romance. A woman who virtually took over the social scene during her one brief stay in Baden-Baden was the Irish actress and dancer Lola Montez. An assertive and fiercely independent lady, she dated Ludwig I of Bavaria, the composer Franz Liszt and French writer Alexandre Dumas.
In 1845 Lola joined her then-lover Liszt on a trip to Baden-Baden. Liszt had no doubt a few days of rest and nice dinners in mind. But Lola had her own plans. While Liszt took the waters, she flirted with other men and caused havoc in the town’s casinos. She demonstrated her dancing skills at a roulette table one evening by casually throwing a leg over the shoulder of the man next to her. The croupier was as distracted as the man himself. Another night at the Conversation House she raised her skirt to an admirer and got expelled - from Baden-Baden. To call her a wild thing is an understatement.
“TO HAVE NOTHING THE MATTER WITH YOU AND NO HABITS IS PRETTY TAME, PRETTY COLOURLESS. IT IS JUST THE WAY A SAINT FEELS, I RECKON”
Even though the European spas in the 19th-century had an air of mystery, there was nothing enigmatic about their therapeutic regimens. They were efficient, precise health programs. American writer Mark Twain, who visited Marienbad in the 1890s, recognized as much, even though his impression of the town's lifestyle wasn't unequivocally positive.
The mere sight of other patrons at the hotel with the mandatory drinking glass in their belt ready at all times to take their prescribed dose of aqua caused the author of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to raise his fuzzy eyebrows in disbelief. Despite this, he eventually decided to give the water-cure a try. Soon enough Twain could also be spotted on the spa premises, tumbler glass attached to his belt. He felt slightly better afterwards but seems to have missed his old aches. “To have nothing the matter with you and no habits is pretty tame, pretty colourless. It is just the way a saint feels, I reckon”, he wrote in 1892 in his article ”Marienbad - a health factory”. Although these words are satirical, they nonetheless contain some insight about well-being: happiness lives somewhere in the zone between healthy self-discipline and indulgence. And we all have to find out where our precise sweet spot is.
The grand spas of Europe were the luxury resorts of their time. A significant difference between now and then is of course that you couldn’t go online and research Marienbad, Karlsbad or Baden-Baden. You had to physically travel to these places without knowing what to expect — by horse carriage in the 18th century and train in the 19th century. We can only guess what it really felt like for the first-time visitor to arrive in Baden-Baden after a few days on rocky roads through the Black Forest. But it must have been much like entering a fairy tale. In any case, the names of Karlsbad, Marienbad, and Baden-Baden still evoke a sense of mystique and adventure. To us, they are promises of the perfect escape.
Three books on spa life to check out:
The Grand Spas of Central Europe: A History of Intrigue, Politics, Art, and Healing (2015) by David Clay Large.
A comprehensive amusingly narrated story about the largest 19th century Kurorte and their impact on social and cultural life in Europe. Read it to learn more about where the fashionables took time off when city life became overwhelming.
Nine Perfect Strangers (2018) by Liane Moriarty
The author of HBO series Big Little Lies gives her new story about nine strangers gathered at a luxury spa in the Australian outback the Agatha Christie treatment. Behind the daily meditation, mandatory smoothies and exercise routines something less benevolent is going on.
The Gambler by Fyodor Dostoevsky
Dostoyevsky’s short 1867 novel tells the story of a young tutor to a Russian family who catches the gambling bug in the fictional spa town Roulettenburg. Dostoyevsky's own experiences from the roulette tables in Baden-Baden and Wiesbaden provided the real-life inspiration for The Gambler.