Marienbad and other famous European spa towns once drew crowds of the nobility and the masses alike. Today, Daniel Mendelsohn discovers, the bygone pleasures survive.
Christian Kerber European spa
| Credit: 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 Outdated cars chuff along the narrow street between an enormous park and a restaurant-filled sidewalk, where ostentatiously patient waiters repeat, the way you repeat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.

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.

And so, during the days I spent ogling vast hotels, drinking endless mugs of odd, brownish water and waiting to see if I felt any healthier—and relaxing, it’s true, into a familiar routine of baths and walks and potato-laden Central European meals—I kept hoping to come across a ghost. A dapper man in his early seventies, say; a hypochondriac, but one still amiably interested in your health problems as well as his, chatting with a somewhat stooped woman in German, or Polish, or Hungarian. A person, in other words, like my grandfather, the kind of career expatriate, born a citizen of a country that stopped existing 90 years ago, perfectly at home in this world that right now still exists largely in the imagination.

But naturally he didn’t turn up. I looked for him in the sidewalk cafés, where signs advertised fees for hourly Internet usage; I looked for him in the Kolonada, where one afternoon I sat eating a tepid grilled cheese sandwich, trying to eavesdrop on the babble of German and Russian and Polish nearby, languages I’d grown up overhearing if not quite understanding; I searched in the Nostalgia Restaurant, where one night I had a surprisingly good goulash with a wonderful local wine served by a waiter whose crisply expert English put my attempts at even rudimentary Czech to shame. A bit glumly, I promenaded and bathed and strolled and ate during those days, relaxed but unfulfilled.

And then, on my last morning in Marienbad, I went down after a restless night to the enormous, empty breakfast room at the Hotel Esplanade for a final meal. I was, at that early hour, the only guest amid a little crowd of waiters and chefs and experienced the inevitable feeling of silliness that for middle-class people goes with being waited on hand and foot. And yet it was precisely this tension between the grandeur of the setting and the slightly clownish emotion of the moment that jarred me into an imaginative leap that finally allowed me to reconcile the "new" reality of Marienbad with the old world I had been seeking.

As I looked at the six young waiters and chefs, with their Slavic pallor and high cheekbones, furtively adjusting the absurdly high toques and the blue neckerchiefs of their brand-new uniforms while they stood beneath the enormous flat-screen monitor hanging from the ceiling, it occurred to me that perhaps it had always been like this—had always been the case that when you were in these dreamlike places, you had to keep adjusting your fantasy to accommodate the reality of actual life. Perhaps you always wrinkled your nose at the clumpy tourists, rolled your eyes at the ostentatiously expensive clothes of the Russian nouveaux riches in the next room, breakfasted self-consciously while watching the waiters fidget with their collars and the maids suddenly spring into action to clear dirty dishes and adjust a place setting when the manager walked by. Perhaps the music always struck you as too saccharine; perhaps, even then, the paint was too fresh and the carpet too bright. Perhaps it was never a generic, romanticized "then," but always somebody’s quite ordinary "now"—my grandfather’s in 1971, my great-grandfather’s on a morning in 1912 when he, too, sat down to breakfast with nothing more on his mind than how to spend another blissfully monotonous day.

This, I now think, is the secret that these places were whispering to me, in their different ways. It is surely no accident that the element these spas so famously share is running water—always the same, yet always moving. This should have been my clue about the real value of the baths, which others before me surely discovered and which I came to appreciate rather late. Be careful of looking for the past: you may be so intent on the dreamy then that the now will vanish before your watchful eyes.

Take your cues from European spa-goers: instead of a facial, get a carbon bath; instead of a yoga class, take "breathing gymnastics." And consider seeing a local spa doctor (your hotel concierge can guide you) for a routine suited to your needs. Personalized prescriptions mostly range between one and three weeks’ duration. It all starts with the water: expect to drink it, bathe in it, inhale it, frolic in it. Spas may claim treatment specialties but treat many disorders. Here, briefs on some famous medicinal springs and some of their best-known treatments.


Baden Bei Wein

The Water Fourteen sulfur springs range from 86 to 97 degrees. The Cure Rheumatism. The Claims A 20- to 30-minute sulfur bath reverses sulfur deficiency in joints. Famous Visitors Czar Peter the Great, Beethoven, Napoleon I. Where to Stay Grand Hotel Sauerhof (43-2252/412-510;; doubles from $282, including breakfast). Spa Center Badener Kurzentrum (15 Marchetstr.; 43-2252/48580;

Bad Ischl

The Water Three to 28 percent salt content, and some sulfur. The Cure Respiratory tract, cardiovascular, and dermatological problems. The Claims A five-day respiratory tract therapy program—six saltwater inhalations, three saltwater baths, three sessions of breathing gymnastics, and three 25-minute massages—improves breathing. Famous Visitors Emperor Franz Josef, Mozart. Where to Stay Kaisertherme-Thermenhotel (43-6132/2-040;; doubles from $210, including breakfast). Spa Center Kaisertherme (see Where to Stay).

Czech Republic

Franzensbad (Františkovy Lázne)

The Water Twenty-six springs (average 52 degrees) with high carbon dioxide content. The Cure Pain relief. The Claims Mud with high sulfur and iron content, heated to higher temperatures than are tolerable in a water bath, has anti-inflammatory effects. Famous Visitor Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Where to Stay Spa Hotel Imperial (420-354/206-600;; doubles from $126). Spa Center Spa Hotel Imperial (see Where to Stay).

Karklsbad (Karlovy Vary)

The Water Sixteen springs (102 to 163 degrees average) with sodium-bicarbonate-sulfate and carbon dioxide. The Cure Metabolic and gastrointestinal ailments. The Claims A specific ailment will determine whether you bathe or drink from colder or warmer waters. Famous Visitors Gregory Peck, Whoopi Goldberg. Where to Stay The Grandhotel Pupp (420-353/109-111;; doubles from $362, including breakfast). Spa Center Castle Spa (1 Zámecký Vrch; 420-353/225-820;

Marienbad (Mariánské Lázne)

The Water About 40 cold (45 to 50 degrees) mineral springs (sulfate, sodium, magnesium, and calcium). The Cure Respiratory, metabolic, locomotive disorders. The Claims Most courses of treatment prescribe drinking 1.6 to 2.1 quarts of mineral water a day. Different springs address different ailments: the Rudolph Spring (five-to-four magnesium to calcium ratio) is recommended for osteoporosis. Famous Visitors Mark Twain, Thomas Edison, Frédéric Chopin, Johann Strauss. Where to Stay Hotel Esplanade Spa & Golf Resort (420-354/676-111;; doubles from $418, including breakfast). Spa Center Spa Hotel Nové Lázne (53 Reitenbergerova; 420-354/644-111;



The Water Four 75- to 82-degree springs, designated "strong," "medium-strong," "medium," or "light," depending on salt content. The Cure Stress, high cholesterol. The Claims Drinking two to three glasses of mineral water before breakfast, plus walking and singing around the town, will soothe any ailment. Famous Visitors Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn, Prince Rainier. Where to Stay Grand Hotel & La Pace (39-0572/9240;; doubles from $335). Spa Center There are nine spas in Montecatini. Ask your hotel concierge for recommendations.



The Water Six hot and cold carbonated springs (71 to 109 degrees). The Cure Rheumatism and digestive disorders. The Claims The Hôpital Spring (high in carbon dioxide) treats intestinal problems; the Célestins Spring, with the lowest mineral content of all the springs, helps digestion. Famous Visitors Louis XIV, Marquise de Sévigné, Napoleon III. Where to Stay Sofitel Thalassa Vichy Les Célestins (33-470/308-200;; doubles from $298). Spa Center Centre Thermal des Dômes (1 Ave. Thermale; 33-8/00-30-00-63;

—Jennifer Welbel