With medical science increasingly confirming the therapeutic benefits of bathing, Europe’s greatest historic spa towns are joining Baden-Baden in a bid for UNESCO World Heritage status.
Spa aficionada Suzanne Duckett considers our centuries-old love affair with taking the waters.
The Roman- built Great Bath at Bath
The therapeutic importance of bathing is a hot topic right now. The Great Spas of Europe – a collection of 11 spa towns – are making a joint bid to be awarded UNESCO World Heritage status in recognition of their heritage and the benefits of their waters. Yet bathing has been hot stuff since ancient Roman times, when the rulers of the day headed to mineral-rich natural springs for health and relaxation. Indeed, some say the word spa derives from the acronym for Sanus Per Aquam, meaning “health through water”.
What these 11 spas have in common is that they have all, for centuries, been at the forefront of wellness and health. They include the Belgian town called Spa; England’s Bath; Germany’s Baden-Baden (which translates as “bathing-bathing”) and various other “bads” or baths, from Bad Kissingen, also in Germany, to the former Carlsbad, now in the Czech Republic and called Karlovy Vary, France’s Vichy, and Montecatini Terme in Italy. Although Bath’s heyday came a little earlier, most of these spas reached the peak of popularity and fashion in the 19th century – and their splendid architectural legacy is at the heart of their claim to outstanding cultural importance.
Carlsbad (now Karlovy Vary) in 1935
But the bid isn’t just about the buildings, as Frank Marrenbach, CEO of Oetker Collection, explains. “This is about social history,” argues Marrenbach, who is based in Baden- Baden, where the UNESCO bid originated – from a much more local initiative aimed at preserving the beautiful parkland overlooked by Brenners Park-Hotel & Spa, the Oetker Collection property of which Marrenbach is also General Manager. “Ten years ago at Brenners we organised a group of locals to protect the Lichtentaler Allee – the beautiful green lung at the heart of the city. One expert who came to talk to us felt that Baden-Baden was worthy of some sort of heritage status – as it was such an ‘ensemble’ of fine buildings. And that’s what these spa towns all share: elegant urban architecture, often in beautiful natural settings, from the fine villas built by wealthy industrialists to the pump-rooms, hotels and casinos.” For as Marrenbach points out, “Spas weren’t just about health – health was an alibi. They were also places where people could spend time together.”
Marrenbach loves Baden-Baden. “It’s where I live,” he says. “There aren’t many places where you can listen to the Berlin Philharmonic and just five minutes away you’re in the countryside.” Asked to name another spa from the 11 that he especially likes, he plumps for Bath. “There’s such a unity to it,” he explains. Bath is also one of my favourites, and not just because it’s close to home for me, but because of its natural beauty and thermal treasures. The hot springs of Bath offer mineral-rich waters for bathing – and Britain’s only original and natural thermal spa has been enjoyed by everyone from the Celts and Romans right through to the Georgians and Victorians.
Visitors today enjoy architect Sir Nicholas Grimshaw’s brilliant merging of the old Georgian buildings with superb contemporary design. Offering delightfully warm waters containing 42 different minerals, visitors can enjoy a series of different pools, including the open-air rooftop pool. And with its Roman-style pillars, Thermae Bath Spa offers a contemporary take on an age-old tradition: four natural thermal pools of varying temperatures, saunas, steam room, thermal water fountain and ice alcove. It’s fabulous.
As a child, I loved bath-time. I didn’t need to be dragged into the bathtub. There was no need for me to be bribed by bubbles or distracted by dozens of rubber ducks. Perhaps this is why my work has involved a lot of wallowing in water all around the world: I’ve braved the Baltic after an extended sauna session near Copenhagen; I’ve been whipped with birch branches in Russia and lolled until I was prune-like in the Blue Lagoon in Iceland; and I’ve wild-swum wherever I could. This love of water in all its forms is also why I chose to write my book, Bathe.
Historically, many cultures – the Ancient Egyptians, for example, and the Turkish with their hammams and Russians with their banyas – have created their own bathing rituals for spiritual, religious, therapeutic or social reasons. As well as offering a place for relaxation and socialising, natural healing thermal waters offer myriad health and wellbeing benefits. The compositions vary, but thermal waters tend to be rich in mineral salts, including magnesium (which raises serotonin levels to ease stress, mitigate inflammation and muscle soreness and keep blood pressure in check); potassium (which energises and balances skin moisture), sodium (which helps balance lymphatic fluid and the immune system); and calcium (which boosts circulation, strengthens bones and nails and helps prevent osteoporosis). And thermal waters are a potent way to calm the nervous system and boost our bodies from the inside out: the warm water opens pores, allowing these nutrients to be absorbed and drawing out pollution, impurities, toxins and dirt.
Around the world, many natural springs also have muds and clays that are perfect for exfoliation and detoxification. Like salts, mud from hot springs, volcanoes and marine sediments contains the highest amount of minerals such as magnesium, phosphates, bromides and other minerals.
There are other health benefits to bathing, too. A recent study at the University of Freiburg in Germany tested 45 people with moderate to severe depression and found that a hot 40°C (104°F) bath, twice a week for 30 minutes, followed by wrapping in blankets with hot water bottles for a further 20 minutes, reduced their symptoms of depression more than two bouts of moderate exercise.
The art nouveau ceiling at Montecatini spa in Italy
Another study at Loughborough University looked at the effects of taking hot baths versus exercise, calories burnt during one hour of cycling compared to an hour-long bath at 40°C. Cycling burned more calories than bathing but the bathers burnt around 140 calories, the same as a half-hour walk. Researchers also showed that the anti-inflammatory response after having a bath is similar to after exercise. This helps us fight off infection and disease and can reduce chronic inflammation associated with illnesses such as type 2 diabetes.
But baths offer far more than simply physical bene ts. In the tech-greedy 21st century, giving ourselves a digital detox – putting the phone down and sinking into a bath – has never been more crucial. Bathing, in the bathtub at home or the thermal waters of a spa, provides the perfect reboot, giving the brain time and space to wander freely, think deeply, reflect and refocus. It’s no surprise that German composer Ludwig van Beethoven is said to have found musical creativity and inspiration through bathing, while crime writer Agatha Christie liked to dream up ideas in her large Victorian bath while eating apples and drinking tea. And we know that the Russian writers Nikolai Gogol and Fyodor Dostoevsky often went to Baden-Baden to take the waters.
Life in the modern world is the opposite of what our bodies naturally crave: an existence where our minds can rest and wander freely. Being around water allows our brains and senses to rest from overstimulation; it’s a holiday for our brains, releasing the hormone dopamine, which facilitates clarity and creativity.