Great Spa Towns of Europe
The Great Spa Towns of Europe are a group of eleven spa towns from seven countries.
They represent the development of European spa tradition from its roots in the antiquity to the peak in the 19th and early 20th century.
The included towns are: Baden bei Wien (Austria), Vichy (France), Spa (Belgium), Bath (UK), Montecatini Terme (Italy), Baden-Baden, Bad Kissingen, Bad Ems (all Germany) and Karlovy Vary, Mariánské Lázně, Františkovy Lázně (all Czechia).
Map of Great Spa Towns of EuropeLoad map
There is a funny story re Aachen: Technically, it should be called Bad Aachen. "Bad" is the indicator of a town being a Bad (= spa). If you look at the German components of the site (Baden Baden, Bad Kissingen) you see this naming convention at work.
Eventually, Aachen figured that being first in an alphabetically sorted list of German cities would come in handy and dropped the prefix. To this day, though, town signs advertise that Aachen is a "Bad" and a "Kurort". While Bad translates nicely to spa, "Kurort" (Kur town) doesn't really have a proper English translation. The term "Kur" (cure, roughly treatment) is key to understanding the German and Czech spa sites.
A Kur is a preventive or rehabilitation treatment where you work on your health, by diet, via treatments and exercise. It always includes a social component. You are supposed to enjoy your time and relax: healthy mind equals healthy body. Nowadays, with German health insurance still footing the bill every few years, it has become a way to get a paid for vacation.
To achieve these goals a Bad and Kurort has several parts and most are found in a Bad like Aachen:
- The town has a spring: Aachen's spring was the reason Charlemagne settled in town.
- The town has a Grand Hotel: the Quellenhof (Quelle = Spring).
- The town has a Casino: see above.
- The town has a Kurpark to go on relaxing walks: Kurpark Aachen.
- The town has an arcade: The Elisenbrunnen (Brunnen = Fountain).
- The town has several rehabilitation hospitals and Kur hospitals.
- The town offers entertainment, e.g. concerts.
- You pay Kurtaxe (Kur tax), a daily fee to fund the above (the park, the concerts): 2.20EUR.
This pattern is something that developed over time in Germany, for which a huge amounts of towns exist to this day. It found it's highpoint in the 19th century: Karlsbad (Czech Karlovy Vary). Everything I wrote above for Aachen is true for Karlsbad and more so. It has several Grand Hotels. It is embedded in pristine nature allowing for lengthy walks. It has an arcade, it has a spring ...
For a time in the 19th century Karlsbad was world famous and a location for Europe's nobility and rich, the jetset of it's time. Two of the most prominent visitors are Goethe and Schiller, Germany's two classical authors, who are commemorated with memorials in the city.
In its heyday, Karlsbad obviously profited from the limited travel distances; Saint Tropez was a world away from Berlin. But the heyday also falls into the time when mass tourism and taking a vacation start to become a thing. Probably, it was more socially acceptable to say I go on a "Kur" for health reasons, than saying I am taking days off to get blasted at the beach. Effectively, the night out at the casino or dancing in the arcades may have been the same.
The scale of Karlsbad is hard to fathom nowadays. It is still a spa town and it is still popular with tourists. But Europe's jetset doesn't flock here anymore. Several hotels are empty or repurposed, e.g. as a museum. There is still an entertainment program, but the visitors tilt to the older generations and it's more of a tranquil atmosphere.
Apart from Karlsbad, I also visited Marienbad (Mariánské Lázně) and Bath. Marienbad is smaller, but follows the template for a Kurort lald out above. I know some who prefer Marienbad, but for me Karlsbad is the place to visit. Bath is Bath and even though it was here that the modern spa idea was invented, I think it should be a WHS of its own... Wait it is.
There is no doubt in my mind that Karlsbad could have been inscribed. This is the epitome of (central) European spa culture.
As you may have noticed in my previous reviews, I am not a fan of serial sites, so for me it should have been only Karlsbad. And even if you ascribe to serial sites, I feel the selection makes no sense:
- I can see the point for the Bohemian spa triangle, but still feel Karlsbad on it's own would have been okay.
- Karlsbad represents the best of what German 19th century spa culture is. I don't see that Baden Baden or - even less so - Bad Kissingen add much.
- The German/Czech spa culture seems very distinct to me. From a high level it may make sense to combine them with Italian, French and Belgium spas, because those are all spas, but I don't think it makes sense. We also don't simply serialized Wooden Churches of Europe into one site.
- Bath is inscribed as a UK spa already with it's history dating back to Roman times. It's really distinct and deservedly represented on the list on its own. If there had to be a UK bath, I would have chosen a new bath. I passed through Harrogate.
For the Czech sites, all three can be reached by train from Prague. You can also connect between the cities by train. Crossing over to Bavaria is possible in Cheb/Eger.
In Marienbad, the train station is quite far off from the historic center. I had two hours and spent half of it walking from the train station to the city center. In Karlsbad, it's a bit closer, BUT there are two train stations. In my case, I had to do a sprint to get to the other train station. Between Marienbad and Karlsbad there are trains via Cheb with a transfer and direct trains through the hills. Travel time come out roughly the same.
While You Are There
You could obviously follow in Goethe's and Schiller's footsteps and rent an apartment in town and spend the summer there. The area is nice and you can hike in the nearby hills and forests. If you are in the area, visiting Zatec may come in handy as it's scheduled in 2022; but don't expect much.
The German part of this tentative site was reduced from the original six locations to three in the final nomination. And rightly so in my opinion. The remaining ones are: Bad Kissingen, Baden Baden and Bad Ems. I agree with Els that Bad Ems is not really impressive. So my review will focus on the other two German sites.
As in most of the other spa towns, the hot springs in Baden Baden were already used by the Romans. The remains of the Roman baths can be visited below the market square. The boom in the 19th century is closely linked to the granting of the casino licence. In summer, the high society frequented Baden Baden: Europe’s nobility, but also artists, composers and writers. Especially the Russians. Dostoyevsky fell out with Turgenev here. And Nikolai Gogol wrote about Baden Baden: "I only wanted to stay three days, but for three weeks now I can't break away. No one here is seriously ill. Everyone comes here to amuse themselves."
The most important spa buildings are the Kurhaus with the casino in the right wing and the Trinkhalle (pump room), both in neo-classical style with Corinthian columns. This is also where the Lichtentaler Allee begins, a two-kilometer-long footpath through an English garden along the river Oos. It is the usual promenade of the spa guests, you walk along typical examples of 19th century architecture: luxury hotels, museums and the theatre. A stroll through the villa district on the slopes above the park is also nice. The wealthy lived here in the 19th century and still do today.
I have visited Baden Baden several times, also long before the Great Spas of Europe were added to the T-list. Usually, the Friedrichsbad was my main destination. The Friedrichsbad is an irish-roman thermal bath, opened in 1877 and built in Neo-renaissance style. In most spa towns, the historic baths have long ago been replaced by modern sauna complexes with outdoor pools etc. Baden-Baden also has such a modern ‘sauna landscape’. But in the Friedrichsbad you can enjoy bathing tradition in the authentic layout from the 19th century, which in turn was inspired by the Roman Caracalla baths. I highly recommend it, even for those who are not big fans of sauna. The hottest room is 68°C, so not as hot as usual in a sauna. The body is stepwise warmed up and then cooled down again in a sequence of hot air baths (the Irish part) and steam baths and pools (Roman). The bath is textile-free, usually for men and women together, but there are also days for separate bathing.
I visited Bad Kissingen in 2016 and it was a pleasant surprise. The architecture and the townscape are different from Baden Baden and the Bohemian spa towns. The core of the spa district is a complex of four connected buildings: the Regent’s Building, the Arcade Building, the Brunnenhaus (pump room) and the adjacent Wandelhalle. Two of them, the Regent's Building and the Wandelhalle, were built only at the beginning of the 20th century. The whole complex is a mixture of different architectural styles: Biedermeier, Neo-Baroque and Art Nouveau. The photos show examples of the Art Nouveau elements, the interior of the Wandelhalle (photo left) and the Green Hall in the Regent's Building (photo right).
I liked the Wandelhalle and the Brunnenhaus best. Long rows of columns divide the interior of the Wandelhalle into three naves, giving it the appearance of a basilica. The Regent's Building is actually not open to the public, it is only for festivals and events. But when I arrived at the tourist information, a guided tour of the spa district was just starting, also including the interiors. The other buildings are freely accessible and you can also taste the mineral water, but only at certain hours in the morning and afternoon.
The Great Spas of Europe are a worthy candidate for inscription on the World Heritage List. As for the German part, two sites would be sufficient in my opinion: Baden Baden and Bad Kissingen.
The story of this transnational nomination began in 2008 when "The Spa of Luhačovice" was deferred by the WHC. The ABE evaluation was clear: no OUV for Luhačovice alone, but ICOMOS recommended a thematic study on European spa towns. Initially, a total of 16 spa towns from seven countries were included in the tentative list. In 2016, the number was reduced to eleven. Interestingly, Luhačovice did not make it to the final nomination.The nomination website Great Spas of Europe provides photos and brief summaries of each spa, and links to their official websites. The nomination focuses on the development of European spa tradition between the 18th and early 20th centuries with its heyday in the 19th century. It only consists of spa towns with hot and mineral springs, seaside resorts are not included.
I visited the three sites of the Bohemian Spa Triangle on Easter weekend 2018.
Karlovy Vary is the largest and most famous of the three towns, and it was also the liveliest. Although the peak season had not started in April, the city centre was quite full with tourists and locals. The historic spa centre is located in the narrow valley of the river Teplá. I started my walk at the Grandhotel Pupp in the south and ended it after 2.5 kilometres in the north, where the narrow valley opens and the Teplá flows into the Ohře. All main spa facilities - spa hotels and mineral springs (Pramen in Czech) - are located along this route on both banks of the Teplá. The buildings around the springs are called colonnades, even those without columns. I liked best the carved wooden Market Colonnade and the Mill Colonnade in Neo-Renaissance style, the largest colonnade with more than hundred columns.
The most impressive spring is simply called Hot Spring (Vřídlo in Czech), a geyser that sprays up to twelve meters high. Unfortunately, the building is less beautiful, quite ugly to be honest. It dates from the 1970s and was built from reinforced concrete and glass.
Even if you're not there for healing or wellness, you can feel a bit like a spa guest by tasting the water of the hot springs. It's free for all visitors, but be aware that some are really hot, up to 72°C. It’s best to buy a porcelain spa mug, otherwise you'll have to use plastic cups. However, I have to admit that it is difficult to find a reasonably nice mug, most of them have an old-fashioned and kitschy design.
I really enjoyed my walk through the historic spa centre of Karlovy Vary. You have to overlook a few modern additions, but in general the historic centre is well preserved and well restored with nice Art Nouveau and Historicist buildings.
I finished my ‘drinking cure’ in the Becherovka visitor center. Becherovka is a herbal liqueur that is sometimes referred to as "13th pramen" (in addition to the twelve regular ones). You can try the original Becherovka, but also tasty cocktails mixed with Becherovka.
Mariánské Lázně also had its heyday in the second half of the 19th century. The architectural style is similar to Karlovy Vary, but the layout of the town is different. The historic spa was built around a central park area in which the most important mineral springs are located. The most impressive building is the Main Colonnade, a cast iron structure with a length of more than 100 metres (photo). Mariánské Lázně is famous for its large number of mineral springs, 40 in the town itself and about one hundred in the region. It is therefore likely that parts of the surrounding countryside will also be included in the core zone.
Although the thermal springs were known for centuries, the spa town of Františkovy Lázně was only founded at the end of the 18th century. The historic centre is a planned ideal city in a strictly geometric order. The most important spa buildings are at the main square, the Náměsti Míru, and the mineral springs are located in the park around the historic centre. All spa hotels, the pavillons and colonnades are painted uniformly in yellow and white. All buildings are well preserved and appear to have been recently restored (or freshly painted, at least). Františkovy Lázně is much smaller than its two more glamorous neighbors. It seemed pretty sleepy when I visited, but that may be different in high season. At least until the First World War the spa had a high reputation among European nobility and high society.
The Bohemian spa triangle is close to the border with Germany, the distances between the three towns are only 50 kilometres or less. By car it is possible to visit the three sites in one day. I spent a little more time there, because I arrived in Mariánské Lázně in the late afternoon and visited the two other two towns the next day.
So far I have visited nine of the eleven nominated spas, only Montecatini and Vichy are missing. The three Bohemian spas are among the stronger sites of this transnational TWHS, and Karlsbad was my favourite. Among the eleven sites are also weaker ones and a further reduction can be justified. I would also withdraw Bad Ems and Baden in Austria. One can even argue that the three Bohemian spas (together with the already inscribed Bath/UK) are sufficient to represent the European spa tradition. In general, I'm also in favour of including one outstanding example rather than a long list of sublocations, but there are some exceptions. And for the Great Spas of Europe, I think a serial transnational WHS is appropriate to represent the diversity of this category.
We have to wait and see if the WHC agrees with the selection of sites. Often, these transnational nominations with multiple locations are referred or deferred on the first try. However, I am sure that in the end the Great Spas of Europe will be inscribed.
The Great Spas of Europe will be discussed at the 2020 WHC meeting, whenever it will be rescheduled. I had ‘ticked’ it already in 2014 with a visit to Spa in Belgium and of course, like 553 others on this website, had been to the future double-nominated City of Bath in the UK as well. But with a serial transnational nomination such as this, it is always interesting to visit locations in other countries. Germany has 3 Spas left in the line-up for the 2020 nomination: Baden-Baden, Bad Kissingen and Bad Ems (Bad Homburg, Wiesbaden and Bad Pyrmont have been dropped). On my way back home from Worms I stopped for a few hours in Bad Ems, where they were eagerly awaiting the decision.
Bad Ems lies in the vicinity of Koblenz, close to the Upper Middle Rhine Valley WHS but on the river Lahn instead of the Rhine. The town with about 9,000 inhabitants extends on both river banks. It is therefore nice to walk along the waterfront and as many as four bridges allow you to get to that other side: two only for pedestrians and two also for motorized traffic. One actually has the best views of the buildings from across the wide river.
In the 19th century Bad Ems attracted visitors from all over the world to enjoy its spa facilities. Among them the Tsars Nicholas I and Alexander II from Russia and the writer Fyodor Dostoevsky, who had summer residences here. They were attracted by the beautiful setting of the town and its apparent health benefits, but they also enjoyed socializing with the European aristocracy. This Russian link has been visually preserved in Ems by way of the Russian-Orthodox church which is still in use.
The town still relies for its income on the spa business, although it has gone through hard times in the late 20th, early 21st century. When I took a walk along the waterside around 10 on a Sunday morning, I only came across a man with a can of beer in his hand (not his first of the day) and I saw someone smoking a cigarette on one of the park benches. The many restaurant terraces were also still waiting for customers. To be honest it all came across quite boring and old-fashioned, although well-maintained.
The only thing that sparked my interest was a sign for a historical hiking route, partly uphill through the forest and with panoramic views of the pretty setting of Bad Ems. But with an indicative duration of 3 hours, I found that too long for this short visit. So I just walked back to my starting point via the other side of the river. From that side you have a good view of the monumental Neo-Baroque buildings of the Casino and the Kurhaus, both originating in the 18th century but further extended by Prussian emperor William I in the late 19th century.
Bad Ems surely is one of the minor locations among the 11 remaining Great Spas of Europe. It seems to become the kind of town that enters the WH List piggybacking on stronger partners: Bath has already proven to hold on its own, I liked Spa for its Art Nouveau and others on this website have reviewed Baden Baden and Karlovy Vary favourably. Ems actually has pulled off this trick before, it is already blessed with a WHS as it contributes 3 unremarkable locations to the 439 of the Frontiers of the Roman Empire WHS.
Read more from Els Slots here.
As a Japanese who grew up taking a hot bath every evening (like everybody else does in Japan even today), I have a predilection for spas, although, living in Europe, I hardly get to soak in "hot" water.
11 spa towns from 7 countries in Europe are joining forces to become one WHS, and Vichy is solely representing France. I was staying for 2 nights in Clermont-Ferrand in February 2020, and one afternoon I took a train for 30 min. to visit Vichy.
I first walked to the Hall des Sources in the Parc des Sources for "tasting" of the spa waters. The hall is not attended, but you can taste several different kinds of water as much as you want for free, and the most locals bring their own bottles. The water called "Celectine," with the least taste, had the best taste.
Then I walked around the Parc that included a quite beautiful former casino / current congress hall and a working opera house.
Then headed to the grandiose Thermes Les Dômes (Photo). This is where you can actually soak in water in a historic (but somewhat dilapidated) setting for 15 Euros. But at 15:00 I was told that the facility was full and was not taking in anymore guests that day. They suggested that I go to the nearby Celestins Thermal Spa.
There I went to find out that it was a modern facility where you can enter for 30 Euros. I was not actually planning to do this, but upon finding out that the entrance fee includes a bath towel, a robe and a pair of sandals (or rather plastic slippers), I entered on a spa-of-the-moment decision. At least this facility uses the real local spa water. I was also told that the Celestins Thermal Spa was a 5-star spa facility while Thermes Les Dômes was a 2-star. After hearing this I was no longer sure if I should have entered the Thermes even if they had allowed me to.
After putting on the robe in the locker room, I entered the pool / sauna area. But instead of dropping my robe, my jaw dropped. Everybody in the pool was wearing a bathing suit! Having been to several spa towns in Germany and also to the large sauna facility at my gym in Poland almost every week, I had no reason to imagine that they wore bathing suits at spas in France! I did not have a bathing suit with me and had already paid 30 Euros entrance fee. What do I do now??? Shall I venture into the water without it?
There was a little store at the facility, and my only option was to buy a pair of swimming shorts at the store. The cheapest one was 32 Euros. Having drained so much money at a ski resort in Switzerland only a few days before, I no longer cared about my wallet. So I bought my first European-style tight-fit swimming shorts, splashing 32 Euros, donned it and walked into the "lukewarm" water, wondering how anybody could possibly relax in a bath wearing bathing suit...(Besides, most people who come to these spa towns splash 10 times as much as I did to stay and be pampered at nice hotels.)
Now what does all this have to do with the potential WHS? Well, I would say that although this TWHS covers 11 spa towns in 7 countries, beneath the cover lie different cultures, and be aware of each country's peculiarity as to the bathing habits.
Before I arrived in Vichy, I read about its famous and healthy candy called "Pastille de Vichy," made with the spa water. As soon as I arrived there, I purchased them in a rather large container, and they kept my mouth sweet all day. During my 2-week trip through France, I kept seeing this candy in every city I visited.
Read more from Tsunami here.
I have been to several of the nominated towns and while I find the topic very interesting and most towns worth a visit I feel that the nomination is to big and includes too many towns with hardly any OUV. I think it would make more sense to nominate the best example(s) and not so many candidates. A good candidate from what I can see without having been there is the Czech triangle as a separate nomination. I feel the French, Belgian and Italian candidates have very little to offer and could be left out altogether. In Germany I have been to Bad Homburg, Wiesbaden and Baden Baden. All are beautiful and a nice visit but Baden Baden sticks clearly out for me: It was the most famous of the German Spa towns and had the most famous guests. The town center is, other then Wiesbaden, clearly centered around the spas and laid out in the most beautiful way along a park. It is still an active spa town and well renovated and exudes still the air of luxury and style. It even has a splendid casino, good museums and a few castles to complete the perfect spa town. I think it would make a perfect candidate on its own. Nearby Schloss Rastatt is a wonderful excursion.
Montecatini - The most beautiful label assigned is "The Temple of European Thermal Energy". Loved area for mineral waters, thermal treatments of any kind, exceptional nature, traces of celebrities at every step, all leave the traveler memories Imperious beaches have beaten the area later, to the nineteenth centuries - the beginning of the twentieth century, here are the megalomanic-constructions, the newest in a pleasant Art-Nouveau style. If the Medici of Tuscany loved the spa town, the real financiers were the House of Habsburg-Lorraine. The interiors of many of the spas can now be admired, as well as the palace where the city hall now works - in fact, a true art museum.
Read more from Lisu Marian here.
This is the 5th Great Spa in Europe I have visited. The other 4 are Karlovy Vary in Czechia, Baden-Baden in Germany, Spa in Belgium and Bath in the UK.
I guess Bad Ischl in Salzkammergut, which I have also been to, is no longer included in this Great Spas of Europe nomination, but Baden bei Wien is. I'm not exactly sure how these decisions were made.
I enjoyed visiting this small town outside Vienna quite a bit, but I see some problems in this nomination. First of all, there are not many traces of spa facilities in this town. At other spa towns included in this nomination you can either drink the spa water (Karlovy Vary; Spa) or soak in it (Baden-Baden; Bath) at their historic facilities. But here are no historic drinking or soaking facilities available for tourists.
The nomination says, "Among the most significant spa buildings there are Josefsbad, Leopoldsbad, Frauenbad, Engelsbad, Franzensbad, Grand Hotel Sauerhof, Kurhaus, and the theatre."
To begin with, the staffs at the tourist info were not able to give much info on the specific sites related to this nomination. They just said the whole town is nominated. They did not even mention the fact that the tourist office building itself had been converted from the Leopoldsbad mentioned in the nomination.
To be sure, there is a modern spa facility in town, aptly named Römertherme, but this is rather like a water park that you can find in any sizable city in Europe today. I understand that this facility does not even use natural spring water.
The tourist info said that a rehabilitation center (converted from Engelsbad) is the only place where you could be treated by the natural hot spring water, but you need to make an appointment with a doctor who may or may not decide that you need such treatment.
Upon my further inquiry they said that the best place to see the former bathing facilities in town is an art museum dedicated to a local painter named Arnulf Rainer. This museum had been converted from the Frauenbad mentioned in the nomination. There I went to find that one of the bathes was used as a library. All in all you can see 3 bathes among the Francis Bacon-like paintings by this artist. I thought this was a Tentative World Heritage in Danger! I had to pay the entry fee for the art museum to see the bathes.
Taking matters into my own hands, I discovered that Josefsbad had been converted to an Argentinian restaurant, and Franzensbad to a Turkish bath. Grand Hotel Sauerhof is permanently closed. (And, as mentioned above, Leopoldsbad to a tourist info office; Engelsbad to a modern rehabilitation center; Frauenbad to an art museum.) By then I knew why the staff at the tourist info seemed not to know how to answer my questions on specific sites.
So the only right place to head to in this city may well be the kurpark. This historic kurpark is not only the most beautiful kurpark I have ever seen but also the most practical one for health, as it is located over a hill on the edge of the Vienna Woods. Here you can find monuments for Strauss, Mozart and Beethoven (the photo), all of whom came to this town from Vienna for relaxation.
So if you come to this town looking to be pampered in a historic setting, you may get disappointed. Perhaps the best way to go is to believe that if you relax well even at a modern setting in this town, you can become a great musician. For this there is a historic tram (Wiener Lokalbahnen) that picks you up from the front of the Opera House in Vienna and brings you right to the front of the former Frauenbad in Baden bei Wien.
Read more from Tsunami here.
The Czech part of this nomination is sometimes called as the West Bohemian Spa Triangel. It consists of Karlovy Vary, Marianske Lazne and Frantiskovy Lazne. This part of Czechia was inhabited by German minority before WWII, thus, the spas are also known by their German names: Karlsbad, Marienbad and Franzensbad. Nowadays, Karlovy Vary is however very popular for Russian minority.
The Triangel as well as spa Luhacovice in the eastern part of Czechia (Moravia) have been included to T-list as separate sites for quite a long time. Luhacovice was deferred in 2008 and eventually "sacrificed" on the altar of trans-European nomination called Great Spas of Europe. The West Bohemian Spas emanate an international ethos for centuries. They certainly have the OUV, and they should have been already incribed. They are generaly appreciated as the symbol of spa culture by everyone in Czechia as well as abroad. Thus, I do not understand why the Czech nomination needs the help of western friends to be incribed... It reminds me one comment from the forum that by application of this approach the entire Europe minus Dresden will be inscribed soon as the trans-natinal cultural landscape of a global importance...
Luhacovice spa is also special but it is built in national style and it has mostly national connotations such as the influence of composer Leos Janacek.
The West Bohemia Spa Triangel is famous for natural springs (tasting higly recommended + liqueur Becherovka + delicious spa wafers), colonnades in Art Nouveau and modern styles, and relaxed atmosphere. Karlovy Vary is also known for the Film festival with tradition over 50 years.
(1) Karlovy Vary spa is the largest and the most famous from the Czech component, it is located in a deep, green valey of river Tepla (it means warm river in Czech). It was founded in midle ages and among several historical structures there, barroque church of St Mary Magdalene should be mentioned. However, it mostly consists of hotels and buildings for balneology purposes from 19th and 20th century including brutalist landmark - hotel Thermal (built 1967-1976). The most spectacular hot spring is Vřídlo geyser inside modern colonnade from 1975. It was under reconstruction during my last visit in 2019, and geyser "does not work" now. However, three hot springs inside the building are still acccessible - PHOTO. (2) Marianske Lazne spa is not such compact and intact structure as Karlovy Vary, but you can find very fine cast-iron colonade there. (3) Frantiskovy Lazne is the smallest but the most intact component recognized by yellow facade of 18th-19th century buildings.
The Spas are nominated for 2020, and I expect smooth inscription!
If you are in the area, there are quite a lot other places of interest: (i) Slavkovsky Les protected landscape area covers forested montaneous plateau with unique serpentinite rocks, numerous natural mineral springs, beautiful lakes such as Kladska, and areas with unique flora around vilage Prameny (2) Lazne Kynzvart small spa town with several springs and the chateau with fine collections, (3) the castle in Becov nad Teplou with wonderful Reliquary of St. Maurus from 13th century, (4) Soos natural reserve - incredible swamp area, etc...
I visited this tentative WHS in March 2017. When I used to live in Belgium, I always visited Spa for automotive reasons rather then for its historic value.
If you visit or live in any of the Benelux countries (especially Belgium), you'll most probably drink Spa bottled water as it is one of the most popular brands. The word spa, meaning natural water source believed to possess special health-giving properties seems to have originated from this village. However, I had never visited Spa to appreciate its historical significance and its link to water.
This time round, I decided to give it a try, as I reckon it would surely be included in any form of WH inscription linked to water. The town is very small and most of the sites are close to the main square with the first casino in the world. The spires of the church dedicated to St Remacle can easily be seen from the main square.
It seems that a lot of money has been invested to favour Spa's inscription on the WH list. There are information boards and signs everywhere now and everything is in tip top condition except maybe for the Bains building.
The tourist office is housed in what I considered as the highlight of my visit - the Pouhon Pierre le Grand which is both a nature site and a monument housing the main natural spring of the town. The word 'pouhon' does not derive from the Walloon 'pouhi' meaning to draw water but rather from the Latin 'potionen' that includes the words potion and poison. Thinking of the sulphur smelling water of the natural spring as poison was not so far-fetched even though several guests have visited Spa throughout history to enjoy its healing properties.
For a token entrance fee of 1 euro you'll be able to visit the building interior and see the natural spring named after the most famous guest to visit town, the Tsar Peter the Great. 92 famous guests are depicted on the Livre d'Or, a 9 metre long painting by Antoine Fontaine. The iron ceiling and columns of the building reminded me a lot of Kew Gardens. Moreover, other water-related items are on display, most important of which are the wooden trinkets or jolites of Spa. I was extra lucky during my visit as the tourist office had just inaugurated a 'permanent' exhibition of Joan Mirò paintings which will be on display till 2020. All in all, I spent a great afternoon exploring the different fountains, springs and buildings related to the importance of water in Spa but without the visit to Pouhon Pierre le Grand. Another site not to be missed is the wonderful Art Nouveau Maison Charlier.
I think that this transnational tentative site has a great chance of being inscribed and it would help to revive some interest in what were very popular sites around 20-30 years ago but are now taken for granted. Apart from Spa, I already visited Bath, Karlovy Vary, Baden Baden and Bad Homburg.
There's a rather grand transboundary nomination in the making called Great Spas of Europe. 16 Spa Towns scattered through Germany, Czech Republic, Austria, Italy, France, UK and Belgium are preparing a serial nomination on 19th century European spa culture. The final selection will hold less sites (maybe as little as 7 or 8). Bath, Spa, the West Bohemian Spa Triangle, Baden-Baden and Vichy seem to be the most likely ones to make the cut.
Last weekend I visited the Belgian town of Spa, a safe bet as it is considered the "original" spa after which the other 19th century resorts were named. The site was on Belgium's Tentative List on its own merits between 2008 and 2014, but now is caught up in what might become a cumbersome and messy pan-European nomination process. The failed attempts of the global Corbusier sites come to my mind when I think of the logistics. The nomination date for the Great Spas of Europe has already been postponed from 2015 to 2017.
I did not expect too much from my visit to Spa: the Dutch language Wikipedia-page on the town remarks that it "was" the most popular tourist site in the Ardennes until 1980. What happened then is unclear. I did enjoy my stay however: I spent a short weekend there, staying overnight in the much recommended Herbergue Chatoiment. The sunny autumn weather obviously attributed much to the beauty of the town. There were lots of tourists too, mainly Belgians making the best of a long weekend.
Among Spa's attractions are the oldest Casino in the world (1774) and one of the most fabulous Art Nouveau buildings in Wallonia: the Maison Charlier (1900). Not to be missed also is Peter the Great's Spring, the most efficacious of the springs of Spa named after Tsar Peter the Great who visited in 1717. Only a slow trickle from a modernist structure now remains, and tasting the mineral water is included in the 1 EUR entrance fee. A 1892 group painting in the same building (the Livre d'Or) shows 92 historical figures that visited Spa: lots of royalty and other VIP's ranging from Victor Hugo to Casanova.
Most of the city center's historical buildings seem to be in good repair. Only the original Bath House (a huge Classicist building on the main road) is without use nowadays and looks dilapidated.
The City Museum is worthwhile too. It has a collection of "Jolités", decorated wooden objects typical of Spa, which were often taken home as souvenirs by the many 19th century tourists. One of the most remarkable among those is a small ivory item, that was used to keep track of how many healthy glasses of Spa water one had drunk during the day!
21st century Spa still does have mineral baths. These have been relocated to the "Thermes" on top of the hill above town. You can get there using a self-service funicular. It's a very modern building (2004), and not much different from other wellness centers that have emerged recently all over Western Europe. It lies in a forest where the 19th century guests took healthy walks. I think more could be made of explaining the routes and promenades there. I wandered about for a while but did not really know where to go. Not to be missed in that area is the Spa cemetery, which is built terrace-wise on a steep hill.
Reflecting on my stay in Spa, I find it a pity that the bath culture is not so prominent anymore. The 19th century cityscape is the main attraction now. I guess Health Tourism nowadays is more alive in Eastern Europe, in Serbia for example where last year I visited Vrnjacka Banja. However: with a well-written nomination dossier (there are lots of stories to tell) and not too many discussions among the candidate cities, Spa and the other spas will be a shoo-in WHS in 2017.
Read more from Els Slots here.
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2021 Name change
Upon inscription from "Great Spas of Europe" to "The Great Spa Towns of Europe"
Renomination from "L'ensemble thermal de Spa : de la cure mondaine
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