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UNESCO Spa-ing partners

The Great Spas of Europe project could see Bath become the UK’s first double-nominated UNESCO World Heritage Site. With a recommendation possible this summer, the project involves 11 spa towns across seven different countries, ranging from Montecatini Terme in Italy to Bad Kissingen in Germany. Emma Clegg considers the credentials of the sites

Spas were a huge European phenomenon from the 18th century to the early 20th century. The Bader Lexicon of 1854 lists 652 major European spas, but only a handful of the grandest now survive. Each used natural mineral waters to treat pain and disease before industrial medication and they are testimony to the development of medicine. The towns have unique urban forms and architectural ensembles including special spa buildings and visitor facilities such as spa houses, colonnades, churches, theatres, casinos, dedicated hotels and boarding houses. The combination of the fabric of the towns with ­­­­­their parks and green spaces and surrounding ‘therapeutic landscape’ was crucial. The spas attracted highly prestigious clientele and were resorts for the rich and famous before modern mass tourism.

Bath has joined ten other European spa towns across seven countries in seeking UNESCO recognition for their role as leading historic spa towns that changed the culture of Europe. The group includes Spa in Belgium, Vichy in France and Baden Baden in Germany, which all developed as open air resorts with beautiful surroundings and a thermal water cure. This could see Bath become the UK’s first double-nominated UNESCO World Heritage Site, adding to its existing listing as a ‘cultural site’ and ranking it alongside cities like Bruges and Barcelona. UNESCO World Heritage status remains the most prestigious global accolade bestowed on any heritage site. In addition to the status and marketing potential of Bath’s inclusion, it’s also likely that a successful nomination will provide international networking potential, enabling the city to take advantage of any possible European funding streams requiring partners.

It took over eight years of collaborative discussion and planning across Europe to complete the 1,434 page Great Spas of Europe World Heritage Site nomination. With the submission passed to UNESCO in January 2019, a recommendation is possible in June or July 2020 when the final decision will be made.

As a joint bid by each of the spa towns, the process is less of a competition and more a fulfilment of criteria. With one of the four main criteria including the need “to bear a unique or exceptional testimony to a cultural tradition or to a civilization which is living or which has disappeared”, we’re already feeling confident about the merits of our own spa city. But what are the other 10 sites being considered and how do they compare to Bath? Here’s a little look at each one.

Baden bei Wien, Austria


Baden bei Wien is a spa town to the south west of Vienna, at the mouth of the Schwechat River’s St Helena Valley, and one of the most important sulphur spas in Europe. It takes its name from the area’s 13 hot springs, first used for healing by the ancient Romans, who knew the town by the name of Aquae Cetiae. Following a major fire in 1812, the town and its spa facilities were built in a Biedermeier style. Ludwig van Beethoven was a regular visitor in the 1820s, seeking a cure for his many ailments and he composed some of his finest works in the town. In the 19th century, it was connected to the railway running between Vienna and Graz, which led to an increase in visitors taking the waters, including members of the imperial family. The spa town has preserved its Neo-Classicist appearance with later architecture inspired by Venetian architecture and the French Neo-Renaissance style.

Spa, Belgium


The name ‘Spa’ comes from the Latin Sparsa fontana (gushing fountain). Known in the first century AD, it wasn’t until the 18th century that Spa acquired such a reputation that its name was used as a generic description for other baths. Its water has been exported since the end of the 16th century, and in the 18th century prescriptions for the cure were combined with entertainment and relaxation. After Tsar Peter the Great visited in 1717, the town became the fashionable rendezvous for European aristocracy. It developed organically around its main spring, extending towards other countryside springs. The first network of walking trails connected the springs in 1749, offering views of the surrounding hills and affirming the link between nature and a thermal cure. Spa has all the attributes of a thermal spa town, including springs, decorated pavilions, a spa complex, public parks and a covered walkway.

Karlovy Vary, Czech Republic


Together with neighbouring Mariánské Lázně and Františkovy Lázně, Karlovy Vary (Karlsbad) is part of the West Bohemian Spa Triangle and is the biggest spa town in the Czech Republic with a high concentration of thermal spring outlets. It was founded as a spa town in the Middle Ages, bearing the name of Roman Emperor Charles IV. The spa area spreads in a deep valley of the Teplá River, embraced by the forested hills. The town’s architectural wealth is defined by the styles of Historicism and Art Nouveau from the 19th and early 20th century. It is characterised by noble villa districts on the slopes of the valley and the suburbs and the complex is complemented with parks, forest parks and a network of trails. Karlovy Vary represents a great spa town of the valley type whose spa area is instantly linked with the surrounding landscape.

Mariánské Lázně, Czech Republic


Mariánské Lázně (Marienbad) is one of
the most spacious spa towns in Europe, founded at the beginning of the 19th century when the surrounding swampy valley was transformed into a charming town of parks with Classicist and Empire houses, gloriettes, pavilions and colonnades. The springs first appear in a document dating from 1341, but it was only in the early 19th century that the waters began to be used for medicinal purposes. The core of the spa town is a central park with the spa colonnade in the wider part of the forested valley. Spa and other buildings encircle this central park and Classicist spa buildings dominate the architectural concept. The spa architecture, houses and villas across the site as a whole include styles from Historicism to Art Nouveau and the town’s urban structure is impressively intact.

Františkovy Lázně, Czech Republic


Františkovy Lázně (Franzensbad) is a sizeable spa town defined by the quality of its preserved buildings. The healing springs were already well-known in the Middle Ages, but the spa was founded later in 1793. The town’s original name was Kaiser Franzensdorf after Emperor Franz II of Austria, later renamed Franzensbad, under which name it became a famous spa. The spa was founded by Dr Bernhard Adler (1753–1810) who promoted the expansion of spa facilities and accommodation for those seeking healing. The town owes much of its reputation to a rich sulfurous-ferric mud that is used for mud baths in the treatment of gynaecological disorders. The town centre has an orthogonal plan view with a network of parallel streets and is characterised by Classicist, Empire and Historicist houses. The town is surrounded by a large park with individual spa buildings. The complex comprises hotels and boarding houses, pavilions over the springs, a colonnade, large spa facilities and a church.

Vichy, France


The waters of Vichy on the banks of the River Allier in Bourbonnais have been used since antiquity. The first-known settlement was established by Roman legionaries who found the hot mineral springs in 52BC. At its peak from the 16th to the 18th century after the creation of the first park by Napoleon I, who initiated significant building and landscaping developments, the thermal town served as a model of urban organisation and prestigious architecture. In 1903, the ensemble was rebuilt by architect Charles Lecoeur, including the oriental baths, the Art Nouveau opera building, and the pump rooms and gallery arcades. Vichy is equipped with palaces and districts, and connects to sporting facilities such as the Hippodrome and golf course. The eclectic architectural style of the ‘queen of spa towns’ – a slogan born in the 1900s – was developed through the construction of baths, theatres, hotels and villas of all styles.

Baden Baden, Germany


Baden Baden, on the outskirts of the Black Forest, was founded in 80 AD by the Romans. After a period as a residential city, it was redeveloped as a modern spa town in the early 19th century. In the valley of the River Oos, the district incorporates the 12 thermal springs with their water rich in salt, the Roman bath ruins, a Baroque bath, and the classic 1877 bath house, Friedrichsbad. The hot springs emerge at 68 degrees centigrade (compared to an average of around 40 degrees in Bath). There still exists a chestnut-lined alley, built to link the old town to the spa district. There are great historic hotels and parks and green spaces and many Enlightenment influences. The Lichtentaler Allee was designed as an English landscape garden inviting informal get-togethers. Well-preserved and still operating, the 1821 casino – the earliest preserved European example – helps makes Baden-Baden a unique representative of the ‘spielbäder’ of the mid-19th century.

Bad Kissingen, Germany


Bad Kissingen, on the banks of the Fränkische Saale, first developed health spas using mineral spring water in the Early Modern period (c.1500–1800). After 1815, the Bavarian State invested in the spa district, causing an economic upswing. Architect Friedrich von Gärtner built the Kursaal, followed by the novel cast-iron pavilion. The foundation of the German Empire and the establishment of a link to the railway system in 1871 resulted in the construction of elegant residential areas. Bad Kissingen became an informal diplomatic arena where decisions of global significance were made. New spa buildings were commissioned, such as a spa theatre and the Wandelhalle covered walk with an integrated pump room. From the early 19th century, the spa town spread out over the surrounding landscape, coming to include promenades along the river and footpaths into the woods leading to noteworthy natural sites. The heart of the spa area is now surrounded by gardens and villa districts whose borders show a fluent transition into the cultural landscape of the spa.

Bad Ems, Germany

The thermal springs and their picturesque natural setting within the Lahn Valley has given this site a high profile throughout history. Buildings typify the site’s world-renowned spa architecture and its Roman history and the Limes, Germany’s largest archaeological monument, was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2005. The spa is on a health spring saddle, which lets the healthy water bubble in large quantities. Notable buildings from the end of the 17th century are the Kurhaus (spa house), and the Catholic chapel Kapelle Maria Königin. The town is also dominated by 19th-century buildings, including an ensemble of buildings along the banks of the River Lahn. Structures that have survived include the Malbergbahn funicular, a typical 19th-century facility for leisure and recreation. Through the centuries the romantic site has seduced scores of artists, has regularly hosted kings or tsars, and was the backdrop to the famous Emser Depesche (Ems Dispatch), which sparked the Franco-Prussian War in 1870.


Montecatini Terme, Italy


One of the most famous and sophisticated Italian spas is Montecatini Terme in Tuscany. The springs here were first owned by the Medicis and then the Habsburgs of Tuscany. It was the Archduke Leopold I of Tuscany (Pietro Leopoldo) who used the sulphuric springs frequently during the late 18th century, encouraging the development of the little town beneath the hill as a spa. The spa’s origin dates back to 1773, while it is defined by the early 20th century when most of the baths, casinos, theatres, hotels and private houses were built. In the centre there are nine thermal centres immersed in the green of the extensive thermal park. Among the most significant are Terme Tettuccio, Regina, Torretta, Tamerici and Excelsior. Typical of Montecatini Terme are its elegant colonnades, most of which were completed during the first half of the 20th century and led to the town being nicknamed the ‘Italian Carlsbad’. The town is also characterised by its fountains, not only within the spas, but along the streets and in the main squares.

Bath, United Kingdom

The first shrine at the site of the hot springs was built by an Iron Age tribe who dedicated it to the goddess Sulis. In 43AD after their invasion of Britain, the Romans built a religious spa complex on the site, which developed into a bathing centre called Aquae Sulis. People travelled across the country to bathe in the waters and worship at the temple. After the Roman withdrawal from Britain, the baths fell into disrepair, although their use continued. In 1590, Queen Elizabeth I granted a charter incorporating Bath as a city and royal visits in the 16th and 17th centuries increased its popularity. In the 17th century, doctors began to prescribe the drinking of the thermal waters. The first 18th-century terraces, crescents, circus and squares provided lodgings close to the baths and pump room, and the management of the spa resort by masters of ceremony contributed to the evolution of a – supposedly – polite and mannered society. This honey-coloured Bath stone and Georgian architecture remain a defining part of the city’s character. In 1878 Major Charles Davis discovered the Roman remains of the baths. The site was opened to the general public in 1897 and was excavated, extended and conserved throughout the 20th century. The Thermae Bath Spa, which opened in 2006, uses the hot, mineral-rich waters from the Kings Spring, the Hetling Spring and the Cross Spring and provides a unique modern bathing experience

Main Image: The Roman Baths by David Iliff. License: CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikicommons. Other images shown by Adobestock, Shutterstock and TBM.