A statue in Karlovy Vary in the Czech Republic

UNESCO placed ten EU spa cities on its World Heritage List

UNESCO placed ten EU spa cities on its World Heritage List

Find out how ‘The Great Spas of Europe’ have shaped culture and society on the continent for the last 300 years

Ten towns in six countries. And all of them located in the European Union. These are 'The Great Spas of Europe' - historical resorts that are now inscribed in UNESCO’s World Heritage List. The reason behind this inclusion is that the balneological centres, in their own way, have shaped the cultural and social life on the continent since the 1700s.

The decision was made last Saturday after a lengthy campaign for recognition organised by the towns. The list includes Baden bei Wien (Austria); Spa (Belgium); Františkovy Lázně (The Czech Republic); Karlovy Vary (The Czech Republic); Mariánské Lázně (The Czech Republic); Vichy (France); Bad Ems (Germany); Baden-Baden (Germany); Bad Kissingen (Germany) and Montecatini Terme (Italy). A notable addition to this list from outside the EU is the City of Bath (United Kingdom).

Of course, we have to talk about the Romans

The word 'spa' comes from the Belgian town of Spa, an area known from the time of the Romans when it was called Aquae Spadanae and refers to the use of mineral-rich spring water in various medical procedures.

The belief in the healing powers of mineral waters goes back even further - to prehistoric times, while the practice of establishing urban centres near them has been especially popular in Europe throughout the ages.

The Romans established numerous spa-towns with bathhouses open to the public, as personal hygiene was held in particularly high regard at the time. The practice, however, declined during the Middle Ages, as after the fall of the Roman Empire, baths became epicentres of licentious behaviour and started spreading diseases, rather than helping to cure them.

Officials of the Catholic Church even banned public bathing in an unsuccessful effort to halt the syphilis epidemic sweeping across Europe. A general belief then developed among the European populace that frequent bathing promoted sickness and disease.

Medieval religious authorities welcomed and promoted this belief and made every effort to dismantle Roman baths. Their final goal was to push the ‘degenerate’ practice of public bathing to the annals of history.

This changed during the Renaissance and Enlightenment, when in 1326, Collin le Loup, an ironmaster from Liège, Belgium, discovered the chalybeate springs in the town of Spa. Chalybeate waters are mineral spring waters containing salts and iron. Consequently, these were used to treat ailments caused by an iron deficiency.  

Eventually, the town grew around the spring, while across the continent other mineral water places became associated with the treatments of specific ailments.

The mineral water boom from the 19th and 20th century

From the 1700s onwards, mineral springs became increasingly popular, and in the 19th century, they were already cosmopolitan retreats both for the cultured elites and the lower classes. This led to the creation of some of the first contemporary tourist spots on the continent.

While practices varied wildly from place to place, a typical day in a bath town could look like this: a communal bath held in the morning, followed by breakfast, sometimes coupled with specific physical exercises and a diet. After that, came vigorous drinking of mineral water and more bathing as physicians encouraged the visitors to do both with equal dedication.

The next several hours could be spent shopping, visiting the local library or coffeehouse. In the afternoon, the rich and famous would dress up in their fine clothes and walk up and down the main streets. Then came dinner, and then more walks.

The popularity of baths led to the creation of a never-before-seen urban model that combined gardens, hotels, gathering rooms, colonnades, galleries, casinos, theatres, villas and spa-specific infrastructure. This was all coupled with the remarkable and opulent architectural styles employed in the bathhouse buildings and their surroundings.

Some of the key characteristics, such as marble halls, columns, porcelain polls, were handed down from the Romans but with the emergence of more ornate styles in Europe, such as Baroque, baths became much more opulent.

This, in turn, made bath towns hotbeds for the exchange of ideas about art, medicine and science that had an unquantifiable effect on European society, promoting recreation as a time to take care of the body and the mind.  

The move to add these towns to the Heritage List will strengthen their prominence as places of leisure for the body and the mind, but at the same time improve the continuation of the balneological tradition as a cultural outlet across Europe.

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