Spa secrets: six unexpected spots to relax on the European Route of Historic Thermal Towns
The European Route of Historic Thermal Towns has been helping travellers find healing holidays since 2010. In this time, the route has grown from six inaugural spa towns – Acqui Terme, Bath, Ourense, Salsomaggiore Terme, Spa and Vichy – to encompass some of Europe’s most fascinating thermal heritage destinations and monuments that preserve traditions dating back to the 19th century. Among the 40 member towns across 15 countries that form the route today are spas and research centres that have shaped our approach to wellbeing and our understanding of the health benefits of mineral waters. Start exploring at one of these six little-known stops.
1. La Bourboule, France
Vichy might be renowned the world over for its curative waters, but the nearby spa town and ski resort of La Bourboule is just as worthy of a visit. Although this Auvergne town saw its first heyday in the 19th century – when the Choussy baths and Grands Thermes were built – it’s thought that the hot springs were first discovered by ancient Celtic tribes. It’s from this association that La Bourboule may have been given its name: Borvo was the Celtic god of spring water. These days La Bourboule is known not just for its Belle Époque baths but for its emphasis on welcoming families. Even the chic Grands Thermes offer a play area and activities for little ones, plus “mini-cures” designed to help skin conditions for children over 18 months. Sancy’ O us even more kid-friendly, with a 100 square metre paddling-pool playground alongside the Balneo-Ludique pool with its massage jets and whirlpools.
2. Loutraki Thermal Spa, Greece
Contemporary spa culture has its origins in ancient Greek life. While pools and baths were most commonly used at gymnasiums, they also played a role in relaxation and rejuvenation. It’s thought the Greeks were the first to thoroughly study the healing powers of mineral waters from naturally occurring hot springs and to experiment with both steam and hydrotherapy. Not that it’s easy to guess from the sleek modern pools and treatment rooms at this Corinthian Gulf spa, but Loutraki was the cradle of Hellenic thermalism. One of the oldest spa resorts in Greece, it’s now one of the most luxurious with three indoor pools, one outdoor pool, a sauna, steam rooms and massage rooms. All in all it offers a rather more sophisticated set-up than the ten wooden bathtubs first built here in 1855, although the waters have the same effect as they did on the Spartan soldiers who once came here to bathe after battle.
3. São Pedro do Sul, Portugal
The thermal waters at São Pedro do Sul were first discovered by the Romans around 2000 years ago. Even the ruins of a Roman bathhouse have been uncovered here. Today, this relaxed spa resort some 100km to the southeast of Porto and just 30 minutes’ drive from Viseu is one of the largest and most beautifully sited in the Iberian Peninsula. São Pedro do Sul has an illustrious history. The first King of Portugal bathed here in 1169 – when it was known as Caldas Lafonenses – after being wounded in the battle of Badajoz. The site was later developed by King Manuel I, who built the Royal Hospital of Caldas de Lafões. The first steps towards São Pedro do Sul’s modern incarnation began in 1884, with the development of the Balneário Rainha D. Amélia, now one of two buildings that are visited by some 15,000 people who come to experience the thermal waters, which emerge from the ground at a constant temperature of 68.7C.
4. Galaalti, Azerbaijan
Azerbaijan might not be the first destination that comes to mind for a wellness break, but Galaalti is well worth the trip off the beaten track. Located some 120km northwest of Azerbaijan’s capital, Baku, this resort (sometimes spelled Qalaalti) is a pioneer for thermal tourism. Comprising a luxury hotel, medical facilities, sauna, indoor pool and rooftop pool, it sets a new standard for hospitality in the Caucasus. Seven sources of the spa’s unique naftsu waters were discovered here in 1969, with the first pools only opening in 1976. The Soviet-era facilities that once stood at are long since gone and the current complex opened in 2015. Aside from the benefits of the water itself, renowned for containing organic compounds of an oil origin but low in minerals, Galaalti is notable for its contemporary architecture which stands in contrast to other destinations on the route.
5. Terme di Salsomaggiore, Italy
The waters that led to the creation of the thermal pools at Terme di Salsomaggiore is so rich in minerals and salts, it was originally used to produce salt. It wasn’t until 1839 that the doctor Lorenzo Berzieri started to investigate the water’s healing properties and the town’s new direction was forged. He discovered that their anti-inflammatory and regenerative benefits far outweighed their previous commercial benefits. Today, Terme di Salsomaggiore is an easy half-hour drive from Parma and a popular destination for short and long retreats. The salsobromoiodic baths are the main draw, but there’s a wide range of spa, beauty and wellness experiences on offer here – and even a line of skincare products. Treatments centred on anti-aging and disease prevention are the focus, alongside complex rehabilitation programmes.
6. Baden bei Wien, Vienna
Forget about coffee and cake, Vienna’s most indulgent experiences can be found just to the south of the city centre in Baden bei Wien. The curative springs here among the earliest to have been discovered on the European Route of Historic Thermal Towns: archaeologists have unearthed traces of Neolithic activity here, while the town itself was already developed during the middle ages. Since then, Baden bei Wien counts many famous names among its bathers. Musicians such as Beethoven and Mozart came to relax and compose here, while the Kaisers of the House of Habsburg frequented the sulphur-rich waters some decades earlier in the 13th century. Consider the town’s elegant architecture and grand hotels, and there’s little wonder the town is nicknamed the “Spa of Emperors”. Today there are several different spas, each offering a tailored menu of cures and treatments targeted at everything from rheumatism to arthrosis.
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