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So spa so good for a healing experience; A new book takes Richard Edmonds on a tour of some of Europe's most fabulous health and wellbeing hotspots.

Byline: Richard Edmonds

PROFILE IN the late 19th century the great European spa towns of Bad Homburg, Baden or Bad Ischl were social centres for the rich and famous.

Jewellers had branches of their Paris shops here, the famous confectioners filled their windows with chocolates and marzipan in pretty boxes. At such places you would find the latest fashions in glass design from Galle or Lalique, fine galleries for the newest paintings or shops which sold embossed leather accessories for both men and women.

King Edward VII pursued dangerous liaisons at the Homburg spa and there was always game shooting to be indulged in when the pleasures of the bedchamber, including the vast midnight suppers, palled a little.

These glamorous spas are explored in Healing Sources: Spas and Wellbeing From The Baltic To The Black Sea.

This fascinating and well-illustrated book takes us on an extended journey through the spas and health centres of 12 European countries from decadent Art | Nouveau spas in Hungary to t | traditional sauna rituals in Latvia.

But it is by no means a list of places to stay, neither is Sophie Benge's book a directory of treatments. Much more importantly it is a journey which reveals to us just what it means to be well, to be strong and healthy in the regions of Europe that deserve to be much better known. These are the places where potent waters and the natural resources concentrated in central and eastern Europe are there for us all to wallow in.

Bad Ischl offered the spa delights of massage, heat treatments and healing springs for the overweight and those with sluggish livers.

But a great spa offered other things too, and one of the joys was the fashion parade, where the ladies of the town paraded their millinery and the latest thing in French fashions along the spa hotel terraces or through its parks in summer.

And when you felt better, and had shed half an inch, Bad Ischl in particular offered the dietary unwary a special sweet of shortcake loaded (in summer, of course) with fresh strawberries and cream which put your weight back to where it had been the day before.

That was the 19th century, of course, when wellbeing and spa treatments were treated less seriously than they are today.

Wellbeing, a word used almost flippantly today, takes on much greater importance in the spas and health centres described here - perhaps central Europeans know something we don't! Perhaps they have a greater understanding of the benefits found in the healing mud baths found at health resorts in Latvia, Poland and Hungary, where spa workers lovingly plaster you with thick, black ooze in which you wallow like a hippo.

"The erotic feeling of thick gloopy mud between the toes, is one thing", notes the author, who clearly speaks from experience, "the 'during' (when you are always perspiring) and the 'after' (when you need to rest quietly) effects of mud treatment are what really matters.

Europe is blessed with mineral springs, many rich in carbon dioxide, some possessing small amounts of radioactivity. At Covasna in Transylvania locals will tell you to trek up to Balvanyos, where the mineral water is so sour with its sulphur content that it tastes like wine. Sulphur leaves deposits on the epidermis which can ease conditions such as eczema and psoriasis.

But there are many other treatments discussed in this fascinating book, which has some fine interior shots of the various spas in Hungary, Marienbad (which spawned a film in the 1960s) Carlsbad and many in the Czech Republic.

Some areas are back to nature, where healing waters do not flow from bronze taps into marble pools, but where you whip off your clothes and take a dip in a mineral spring in the mountains. These are the areas where life is balanced between natural food, music and wine and bears and wolves still live in the deep forests, areas where people seem to live longer.

We can read that in the Crimea people talk about forest baths, while in the Baltic state people swear by air baths (which may mean coming down to breakfast in the altogether) as well as sun baths. At Jurmala in Latvia you can take a sand bath. In the summertime when the sand is hot, a twenty-minute "sand wrap" can boost metabolism and helps to dissipate physical pain, while at Spa Vilnius in Lithuania, a harpist eases you into the arms of Morpheus at the end of a spa day, since harpist Alisa Klen has devised a relaxing sound experience to help those with sleeping difficulties.

Curiously enough, these holistic approaches to living were well known to the Romans and Greeks and have been used in Eastern European regions for centuries, their practitioners probably unconscious that one day they would be at the forefront of a modern zeitgeist that respects nature in all its forms as a source of physical health and emotional balance.

HEALING | Sources - Spas and Wellbeing From The Baltic To The Black Sea by Sophie Benge (Prestel: PS40)


Eda Veeroja welcomes visitors to her family sauna in Estonia

A view of the Black Sea at Yalta, Crimea and the pool in Wojciech Spa, Ladek-Zdroj, Poland and, inset, Sophie Benge's new book
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Journal (Newcastle, England)
Geographic Code:4E0EE
Date:Feb 21, 2015
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