The spa craze is nothing new in Europe. In fact, the beauty and wellness business has been booming there for thousands of years. So why not take a pass on trendy New Age treatments and try some Old World ones instead? Here’s where you can do it in style.
The word “spa” may have been coined in Belgium, but the Brits gave us “bath,” and Bath, southwest of London, remains the best place to take one. The city owes its existence to hot springs that reputedly have unique healing properties. The ancient Celts took the plunge there, as did the Romans; and in the 18th century Queen Anne (with some help from Jane Austen) made Bath the place for health-conscious fashionistas. Because the springs still spew out over 300,000 gallons of water daily, you can follow suit at Thermae Bath Spa, a recently opened facility consisting of five Georgian buildings combined with a new stone-and-glass construction. Boasting four spring-fed pools, it’s designed to showcase Bath’s greatest asset — naturally-heated thermal water enriched with 43 minerals. The spa also has state-of-the-art treatment rooms where guests can choose from more than 50 indulgent options. The half-hour Cleopatra Bath (an appropriate choice for those who come to honor Caesar) costs $84; however, you can spend 90 minutes soaking in a historic pool for just $12.
Moor, Moor, Moor
1492 was a busy year for Queen Isabella of Spain. Not only did she commission Columbus to sail the ocean blue, she also put an end to almost seven centuries of Moorish domination at home, leaving countless Arab-style bathhouses to crumble in the process. In Córdoba, though, one got a new lease on life when Medina Califal Hammam was restored in 2001. Now light seeps back through the star-shaped apertures that dot its domed ceiling and intricate tiles again adorn the walls. In short, the place looks much like it did during its 10th-century heyday. Seems the bathing process hasn’t changed much either. Guests alternate between a series of hot and cold banos, and then submit to a quick pummeling from a chiropractic masseur. Medina Califal Hammam is popular with a secular, mixed-sex crowd, as opposed to a faithful gaggle of guys. That means advance bookings and bathing suits are required. You’ll pay $39 for a two-hour bath-and-massage session.
The Italian Underground
Tuscany’s spa tradition dates back to Etruscan times, so Grotta Giusti Natural Spa Resort, about halfway between Florence and Pisa, is a relative newcomer. After all, this elegant hotel didn’t start welcoming the Italian A-list until 1880. Yet the cavern it centers on — complete with stalactites, stalagmites and subterranean lake — is positively prehistoric. Its three chambers (dubbed Paradise, Purgatory and Hell) have 100% humidity and temperatures that climb from 88° to 93° while the lake (Limbo) holds steady at 97°. The combination creates a heady steam that de-stresses and detoxifies. Claustrophobes may prefer diving into the outdoor thermal pool, which supposedly does wonders for arthritis and gout; or heading for the adjacent spa where signature treatments rely on natural grotta ingredients. Top picks include a steam bath topped with a hydromassage or thermal fango wrap. Three-night Spa Breaks, including half-board accommodations and treatments start at $1,321 per room, based on double occupancy. Grotta Giusti also has an á la carte menu for day guests desperate for a quick body peel.
The continent’s most concentrated salt springs, located near the Bavarian town of Bad Reichenhall, started attracting attention in the Bronze Age. But throughout much of history salt has been a coveted commodity. So locals spent more time selling the stuff than soaking in it. That changed in 1848 when King Maximilian popularized the “salt cure.” Since then the springs have been used almost exclusively for therapeutic purposes. Today visitors can alleviate their back and joint pain at Rupertus Therme, an indoor-outdoor bathing complex; aid their metabolism by drinking from one of the city’s 55 brine wells; then catch their breath at the Gradierwerk “inhalatorium,” a 525-foot long wall coated with thorns. Each day, gallon after gallon of brine trickles over the thorns, forming a mist that reportedly relieves respiratory problems. Local spas, making the best of the brine, also provide salt-based treatments ranging from salt massages to exfoliating salt scrubs. The venerable Steigenberger Hotel Axelmannstein — Bad Reichenhall’s premier spa hotel — offers three-night packages with one treatment and breakfast daily. Rates start at $485.
Hungary is understandably famous for its hot springs: 100 or so bubble up in Budapest alone, and visiting the baths built over them by Ottomans, Hapsburgs, Communists, and Capitalists is a workaday ritual for residents. When Hungarians go on holiday, however, they take a three-hour train ride southwest to Hévíz, Europe’s largest thermal lake. Frequented by Romans 2000 years ago, and developed as a spa resort 200 years ago, Hévíz is filled with mineral-rich H2O that hovers around 90° year-round. Bathing in it is a bargain (a full-day ticket is $15), but aficionados are equally attracted by what lies beneath it, namely a three-foot thick layer of sulfurous, slightly radioactive mud which is said to soothe everything from rheumatic ailments to skin conditions. To feel its full effects, book a $54 mud pack treatment at the Rogner Hotel & Spa Lotus Therme. Although being slathered in pounds of butter-like blue-black goop may not appeal to fastidious types, devotees swear by the results. Seven-night packages, including multiple mud packs, start at $843.