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Wandering Europe’s Spa Towns

When the path to wellness runs through hot springs, old bath houses, and splashes of history and architecture—you follow.

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A Roman Bath in Bath, England.

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Wellness can mean different things to different people. But at its simplest the philosophy represents a pursuit of holistic health through good eating, lifestyle choices, activities, and self-care. Imagine an altered state of being that offers you a sense of physical and emotional equilibrium. Now what sounds more grounding than hitching a trail through a curated list of Europe’s famed spa towns, enriching body and mind along the way? Far from being just aesthetic vacation spots (which, make no mistake, they are) these intricately designed landscapes, usually planned around mineral springs, are treasure maps to wellness as perceived in the 18th and 19th centuries. The ancient towns, many preserved as heritage sites, conceal a time portal back to the glorious era of wellness-meets-pleasure in the continent, when the beau monde would travel to thermal spring destinations for their quota of self-care, and even tentative medical cures. As host to elite congregations, these spots also evolved to be centres of social mingling, tourism, culture, and entertainment. Whether it is in the U.K., Germany, Austria, Turkey, or Georgia, find your personal interpretation of wellness on this route overflowing with hot springs, history, architecture, greenery, and a lingering air of intrigue.

 

Diving into U.K. waters

“Oh! Who can ever tire of Bath?”: Author Jane Austen’s rhetorical musing from Northanger Abbey makes perfect sense when you step into the UNESCO World Heritage Site. Bring along a little imagination and it’s easy to recreate its portrait as a buzzing resort town in the 18th century, as captured by a resident Austen in her novels Northanger Abbey and Persuasion. But much before it came to be the playground of British gentry, the city was founded by the Romans as a resting camp for the soldiers patrolling Hadrian’s Wall. Their inspiration was the same—the healing touch of hot springs gurgling below the city. To this day, one can witness the embers of the lost era in the form the Roman Temple, museum, and the Roman Bath House. The historic spot wears an air of quaint charm thanks to its honey-tinted Georgian architecture, cobblestone streets, neoclassical-style public buildings, and the newly built Thermae Bath Spa—complete with herbal steam rooms and a rooftop pool with dreamy views of the Bath Abbey. A spa resort since 1716, Cheltenham in Gloucester was also coveted by aristocrats and literary giants. Now lined with gorgeous spas, Regency-era architecture, open spaces, and contemporary restaurants of repute, it makes for an interesting pitstop on the way to Cotswolds. There’s also the spa city of Malvern in Worcestershire, nestled at the foot of the stunning Malvern Hills. Malvern earned its wellness badge during the reign of Queen Victoria when it got its first ‘water cure house’. It is worth a dekko for its surrounding natural beauty, medley of bookstores, curio shops, art galleries, and architecture with Victorian and Edwardian roots—not to forget the original draw, the Malvern waters. Yes, it can be still bathed in, and drunk from! A spa town said to have been favoured by Queen Victoria is Harrogate. It came into existence when one William Slingsby unearthed the first mineral well at the location in 1571. Slingsby was convinced of the water’s health-giving properties, a belief that soon put the West Yorkshire town on public radar. It saw a boom during the pinnacle of public bathing in Victorian times, a status reflected in its opulent, oriental-style Royal Baths. Stop by to admire a vibrant theatre and live music scene, and of course, landmarks such as the Studley Royal and Ripon Cathedral, and World Heritage Site of Fountains Abbey. Buxton was imagined by the Dukes of Devonshire as an answer to uppity Bath in the 18th century, a competitor armed with the warm waters of its geothermal and a Crescent with Natural Baths. Its contemporary character fascinates no less, with art galleries, museums, opera houses, and a host of outdoor activities in the great wide open. The Buxton Festival of World Cinema, the Buxton Festival of Opera are both colourful experiences, but nothing beats the charm of the Buxton Well Dressing Festival in July, a cultural event that serves as a nod to the town’s water-loving history.

Fly from Delhi to Bristol via Munich and from Mumbai via Frankfurt with Lufthansa airlines.
Wandering Europe’s Spa Towns

A natural thermic pool in Maibachl, Austria.

 

Warming it up in Austria

While Austria is famous for being the birthplace of Mozart and Beethoven, along with its numerous castles are incredible tourist hotspots, the Alpine country has been catering to wellness tourism for centuries as well. Aqua Dome is one of the most famous outdoor thermal spas in Austria. It is built on an area previously known as the Langenfelder Baths, which were discovered in the 16th Century, and now re-structured for 21st Century modernity. The complex boasts 12 indoor and outdoor pools, seven saunas, and is well known for its three thermal pools where temperatures range from 24℃ to 34℃. You also get a beautiful view of the Ötztal Valley and the Alps from the outdoor baths that are known for mineral-rich water. Bad Blumau has connected indoor and outdoor pools, which are fed by natural hot springs. You can swim back-and-forth between indoor and outdoor at this centre designed by architect Friedrich Hundertwasser, where underwater music and rainbow-coloured facades treat all your senses. The centre also boasts the Vulkania curative spring, which has water of approximately 43℃ fed from a volcanic spring running 2,843 metres below the Earth’s surface. References to the hot springs of Bad Gastein date as far back as 1230. The spring water was studied by Theophrastus Parcelsus, Marie Curie and Heinrich Mache at different points, leading to the discovery that the water is rich in radon. Thus, radon therapy began at these springs with reports that symptoms of arthritis and spondylitis have eased after bathing in the waters of these springs. The complex has 18 spring which are rich in radon, as well as an indoor and outdoor pools, and saunas. Therme Laa is fed directly from the pools of a spring called Laa thermal North I, which is rich in sodium chloride and iodine. The water is a steady temperature of 42℃, leaving anyone who bathes in it incredibly refreshed. There is also an adults-only silent spa on the complex where talking is prohibited so peace and quiet are always maintained. Kärnten Therme is an ultra-modern spa complex that has pools rich in calcium-magnesium bicarbonate water. They are fed by six natural underground springs with warm water for rejuvenation. There is also a natural pool called Maibachl, which fills with water from the melting snow of Mount Dobratsch in summer.

Fly New Delhi to Vienna with Lufthansa via Munich and Frankfurt while flights from Mumbai connect to the city via Frankfurt only.

No Bad Baths in Germany

While the word ‘bad’ might carry a different connotation for English-speakers, the Germans know it to be their word for rest and relaxation. Translated to English, the German word ‘bad’ actually means ‘bath’ or ‘bathroom’, which is why you see so many holistic centres around the German countryside with word in their title. Start with Bad Zwischenahn, situated on the Zwischenahner Meer in Lower Saxony, where the original sanatorium still focuses on mud-based treatments. The lakeside rehabilitation centre is often visited by those with chronic arthritis, hoping to salve their pains through the healing properties of the water. The town is also famed for its traditional meals which include smoked eel, Schnapps, and East Frisian tea, as well as the windmills around the lake of which the oldest dates to 1811. Wiesbaden is one of the oldest spa towns in Europe, its name translating to meadow baths. At one point, this town boasted 26 running hot springs, today 14 of those are still operational; the most famous being the Kochbrunnen where the water touches a peak temperature of 66°C. There are two public spas in this town; Aukammtal, which has an outdoor thermal pool, and Kaiser-Friedrich-Therme. The town also has a weekly farmers’ market and a winter market reminiscent of older times. Baden Baden is one of Europe’s favourite spa destinations. The town located in the Black Forest Mountain range in the state of Baden-Württemberg has been a go-to destination since the 19th Century. Known as much for it’s beautiful architecture as it is for its spa retreats, the town was the on-site shoot location for the 1997 Bollywood blockbuster Dil To Pagal Hai, as well as inspiring several novels. In 2021, the town was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site and inducted in its list of Great Spa Towns of Europe. Bad Sachsa is a mountain spa in the town of Harz where luxury is the buzzword. This is the place to visit if you are looking to soak in warm waters with a beautiful view; the Harz National Park sets the scene while you relax. Most famous among the hotel spa locations here is Hotel Romantischer Winkel on Lake Schmelzteich; the hotel has a large outdoor pool which is perfect in warmer months and a 3,500-square-metre spa with a steam room that is preferred in winter. Bad Tölz is a traditional Bavarian town south of Munich. It was developed as a spa town when natural hot springs were discovered here in the middle of the 19th Century. Visit this town and you are sure to see murals covering the typical Gothic architecture; a sight to behold for most tourists. But the claim to fame for this town is the medicinal mud spas that help with musculoskeletal conditions and the iodine-rich waters of Kurverwaltung on the the Isar River, which are also known to have healing properties.

Direct Lufthansa flights connect India to Germany with terminals at Frankfurt and Munich. Indian ports include New Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata and Chennai.
Wandering Europe’s Spa Towns

Soak in the sulphur-rich waters, when in Tbilisi. Photo courtesy: Lufthansa Germany

 

Trailing Turkey’s Hot Springs

You’ve seen the Instagram images—turquoise swathes of water swirling in cloud-white travertine terraces. Little wonder that photographers’ darling Pamukkale translates to ‘Cotton Castle’ in Turkish. But there’s more to the mineral-rich waters of Pamukkale Thermal Spring than icy good looks, it’s a bona fide geological wonder that’s been listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. Located in the Denizli province of Southwestern Turkey, these springs are known for carrying traces of carbonate minerals and they hurtle into beautiful natural rock pools, which, under a gamut of geological and atmospheric influences, gain their fantastical white radiance. Pamukkale is also the site of the Greco-Roman city of Hierapolis, ancient, sacred, and filled with ruins that merit their own runtime. Also in Denizli, Karahayit Thermal Spring is recognizable for its red-hued thermal water, which is surprisingly drinkable. The water is believed to be beneficial for digestive issues. When in and around the city of Busra, you can head to Oylat Thermal Spring or Cekirge Thermal Spring to quench your spa-thirst. The springs of Oylat, said to carry some of the most therapeutic waters among the Turkish hot springs, are rich in sulphur, hydrogen ions, calcium and iron. That they are relatively difficult to access adds to the adventure. The Cekirge springs, nicknamed ‘Silver Waters’, boast elements said to cure rheumatic diseases. Want the best of health and modern wellness? With some of its hotels housing artificial hot springs, Cekirge aims for total relaxation. Located in Izmir, Balcova Thermal Springs are known by the poetic moniker of ‘Agamemnon Springs’ and have been a nucleus of thermal wellness for over 2,500 years. Treatments here include hydrotherapy, kinezi therapy, and balneotherapy, among others. Be it the famous Gazligol Thermal Spring near Afyon or Ayas Thermal Springs in Ankara, you cannot travel through Turkey without running into hot springs. But should you wish to stay put in Istanbul, take out some time to rejuvenate in the springs of Tuzla, less than two hours away from the capital. High in sodium, its waters are said to help metabolism and skin diseases.

Fly Lufthansa from Mumbai to Izmir via Frankfurt while flights from New Delhi also travel passing Munich. You may also choose to travel to Ankara from New Delhi with the same lay overs, or land in Istanbul from Mumbai, also via Frankfurt.

Geothermal Magic in Georgia

Oh, pretty Georgia! If there’s one thing that can make this nature-kissed country cradled by the Caucasian Mountains even more alluring, it is an array of thermal baths. Just how integral hot springs are to the country’s culture can be understood from the nomenclature of its capital, Tbilisi. The name, given by 5th century King Vakhtang, is said to be derived from the Georgian expression for ‘warm place’. Legend goes that the king had stumbled upon the toasty waters of natural springs while hunting. Head to the Abanotubani area in Tbilisi for your fill of the Tbilisi Sulphur Baths, once a quarter bustling with over 60 bathhouses, and now home to ten.  The sulphur-rich water offers a cozy temperature of 38-40 °C, along with kisi scrubs and massages. Outside, the bathhouses facades charm with tiled patterns and brick domes ascending from the rooftops. Three open-air sulphur pools snuggle at the tail end of Bojromi Central Park in the eponymous resort town of south-central Georgia. Compared to some of the other pools, the water here sits at an understated 32-38 °C, making it comfortable for those partial to moderate warmth. No special treatments are available, but soak up the fresh air and you’d be feel no less alive. Rounding up travel costs? Bojromi can be reached easily from Tbilisi or Kutaisi by the signature marshrutka or local minibus. Removed from the more elaborate experiences of bathhouses and spa treatments lies the Dikhashkho Sulfur Geyser aka Vani Sulfur Pool near the town of Vani in Imereti. You’re looking at two pools in the middle of a field, receiving a steady stream of 40 °C water from one sulphur spring. You’ll have a wooden cabin to change in but no toilets. On the bright side, these watery sanctuaries are open all hours and cost absolutely nothing. Go if you’re keen on a rustic Georgian experience or love a rough tumble with nature. Much like Dikhashkho, Nokalakevi in Jikha affords a raw experience. Water trundles down the face of a hill onto a riverbed, forming a gorgeous white structure made entirely of mineral deposits. The ground here is covered in brilliant shades of rust. Feeling brave enough to stand directly under the hot water of the falls? Follow up the feat with a joy-plunge into the cool river water, and you’d have made a memory for the ages.

 

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A D V E R T I S E M E N T

A D V E R T I S E M E N T

A D V E R T I S E M E N T

A D V E R T I S E M E N T
  • Sohini Das Gupta travels with her headphones plugged-in and eyes open. While this doesn't stall the many accidents that tend to punctuate her journeys, it adds some meme-worthy comic relief. She is former Assistant Editor at National Geographic Traveller India.

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