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Famous European Spa Towns

Christian Kerber European spa

Photo: Christian Kerber

It’s hard not to think that those who go to these spas today are consciously trying to catapult across the decades of war and totalitarianism and decay to something that belongs more to the 19th century than to the 21st. When I myself went there, it was at least in part to get a glimpse of the lost way of life of my own family, solid Austro-Hungarian merchants who, like everyone else they knew, would go each year to "take the waters." I went so I would be able to imagine the spa where my grandfather’s father, a prosperous businessman who would bring to his meetings a bottle of Tokay "to sweeten the deal," suddenly dropped dead one morning over his breakfast, aged 47, thereby plunging his family into the financial crisis that spurred them, ultimately, to come to America. I went, too, to see what it was that my grandfather was looking for, quite late into his old age and long after he had acquired forgivable reasons not to want to travel in German-speaking countries, when he would go each summer to Bad Gastein in Austria with his fourth wife (who had her own reasons) and take those chilly waters. Only now do I realize that he was trying to leap back into his own past, a past before a trip by a man such as he to a place such as that was fraught with symbolic meaning, loaded as it was with history and the shadow of grief.

The body, then, isn’t all that is restored and refreshed when you go to these places. It was more for the nurturing of a memory that I went myself, finally, to take the waters.

In Baden bei Wien, I immediately experienced the marvelous sense of relief that long-ago visitors must have had on arriving here; before I even got to the ultramodern Römertherme in the center of town to sit in jets, fountains, and showers of warm, cold, or sulfurous waters, I felt almost physically relaxed by the sight of the unassumingly elegant, pale creamy-brown Neoclassical façades. In Bad Ischl, I learned that what really heals you in a spa town are the uneventful, unchanging rhythms of the routines—meals, strolls, meals, swims—which come to seem as natural as breathing. But the paradoxical insight that the best way to connect to the past in these old spas was by fully inhabiting the present came home to me most forcefully in Marienbad.

When you take the waters in Marienbad, you spend less time sitting in them than drinking them. There are bathing establishments here, of course, and in Marienbad’s nearby sister-spas, the tiny, jewellike Neoclassical town of Franzensbad and the much larger Karlsbad (famous for its many visits from Goethe and for the hideous Soviet-era tower where an important annual international film festival now takes place). But the real point of coming to these places, now as in the past, is to imbibe the impressively varied waters that spring directly out of the ground: ice-cold and burning hot, smelly and tasteless, fizzy and flat. Around these springs a predictable profusion of classical temples, vaulted galleries, and rustic grottoes has been constructed; next to a spring you’re likely to find a plaque noting the name, temperature, and mineral content of that particular jet of water. On arrival here, people purchase a cheap ceramic spa-cup—a narrow, flattened mug whose handle ends in a drinking spout; walking along the old streets of town, you see nearly everyone clutching one, ready to thrust it under whatever fountain they pass.

I had read about this rather odd custom and was eager to sample the famous water in Marienbad, to which every conceivable curative power has been attributed by the faithful. ("You’re going to Marienbad?" a 94-year-old friend of mine who was born a subject of Franz Josef inquired, with an amused if slightly dismissive grin. "That’s where women go when they want to conceive!") But what I most wanted from Marienbad was to sense its famous, cosmopolitan past. Even today, when a good many of the grim traces of the Communist years remain to be sloughed off, you can see—in the fantastical Belle Époque self-indulgences of the architecture, the caryatids and whimsical colors, the sweep of the terraced gardens, the sheer enormity of the vaulted, glass-enclosed, crystal palace that is the Kolonada, the iconic central structure of the town—a yearning to be the pleasure-place of many people from many countries.

At first, perhaps rather typically, I failed to find what I wanted. Although Marienbad has clearly spruced itself up since 1989, the visitors often look overawed, like employees caught sneaking around the boss’s office. Many speak German, and come in tour buses; a noticeable majority of the ones who stay at the more expensive places appear to be Russian. The couples who stroll in the Kurpark here aren’t chic in the way couples in Baden bei Wien are; many put you in mind of Soviet television announcers.

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