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Famous European Spa Towns

Christian Kerber European spa

Photo: Christian Kerber

You reach the Hapsburg-era spa resort of Marienbad the way you reach a destination in a dream or a fairy tale: through a dense, dark wood, on a long and narrow road that twists and doubles back on itself so often that you think you must be lost. Suddenly, the road, and with it the vague anxiety of the forest, comes to an end, and you emerge with some relief into the ordinary asphalt streets at the bottom of a small Central European town, which rises coyly away from you up a gentle hill. Stout middle-aged couples stroll past, clutching their shopping bags. Outdated cars chuff along the narrow street between an enormous park and a restaurant-filled sidewalk, where ostentatiously patient waiters repeat, the way you repeat things to a child, the orders given by diners who almost certainly do not speak the same language as the people serving them.

Even so, you may wonder whether you’re still dreaming, still in a fable. The improbable colors of the buildings, for instance—pistachio, cappuccino, egg-yolk yellow, cinnamon—together with the icing-like rosettes and swags, give them the appearance of giant desserts. And the 19th-century hotels and spas and promenades themselves, with the unmistakable, overwrought look of late-Hapsburg civic architecture, seem to be trying to metamorphose into living things. Under tiny balconies on small apartment buildings, grossly oversize male caryatids writhe, making it difficult to tell whether they're supporting the balconies or trying to tear them down. Tritons and nymphs cavort on the façades of other buildings, while bare-breasted female caryatids patiently hold up doorways or pilasters as if secure in the knowledge that all this will ultimately be theirs again once the latest generation of tourists and anxious valetudinarians has passed through.

The patience of the statuary reminds you that the mirage to which Marienbad belongs is the irrecoverable past. For a long time, people would go to places like this to "take the cure"—people who inhabited an empire that no longer exists but whose vast shape is still visible throughout Central and Eastern Europe. From the fraught and crowded cities of the Austrian Empire these people would flee, every summer or during the various holidays. The aristocrats and the bourgeoisie and the workers, too, the Poles and Austrians and Croatians, the Serbs and Lithuanians and Russians, the Ruthenians and Jews and Germans, would descend on small and often isolated towns prized for their health-giving waters, towns whose very names—in which the German word bad, or bath, is almost always embedded—summon to mind vague associations with distant childhood pleasures.

They went to Baden-Baden, to Bad Gastein, to Bad Hofgastein. They went to Baden bei Wien, the sleek resort outside of Vienna to which Mozart escaped to compose while his wife took the waters and gambled, and to Bad Ischl, the tiny town nestled in the Austrian subalpine region called the Salzkammergut, a place whose crystalline lakes and towering peaks seemed to represent the truest, most essential Austria, the pure kernel of the sprawling, polyglot empire. (It was for that reason, perhaps, that this was the resort where Franz Josef spent nearly every summer from 1853, the year of his betrothal, to his death in 1916.) And they went to Marienbad, Franzensbad, and Karlsbad, too, three points of a small, almost equilateral triangle in the Bohemian forests in what is now the Czech Republic, where royalty and the haute bourgeoisie from Vienna and the great and small provincial cities—Prague, Kraków, L’viv, Split, Budapest—would transform the towns into microcosms of the empire itself.

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