Book Review: Taking the Waters

David Clay Large’s engaging history: The Grand Spas of Central Europe 

In a sense, David Clay Large took a lifetime to write The Grand Spas of Central Europe.  Even as a young academic he understood – as his sub-title A History of Intrigue, Politics, Art and Healing makes clear – that the spa towns of Karlsbad, Marienbad in Moravia, of Baden-Baden in Germany, of Bad Ischl, Bad Gastein or Baden bei Wien in Austria were far more than places to take the waters.

A little work and more play

It was at Teplitz and Baden-Baden that the Austrian Chancellor Metternich firmed up the alliance against “that Corsican upstart” Napoleon that culminated in the Congress of Vienna in 1915.  Goethe preferred Karlsbad, where he worked “but mostly played,” carrying on “those sexual dalliances that were so necessary to his mental equilibrium and artistic temperament.”  There, he got to know Beethoven, who did get some work done, including preliminary sketches of the 7th and 8th Symphonies.

Everyone, it seems, was there. At Marienbad one might have met Frédéric Chopin, Richard Wagner, Hector Berlioz, Johannes Brahms or Gustav Mahler. While others – Nicolo Paganini, Franz Liszt, George Sand and Victor Hugo dallied in Baden-Baden.

American writer Mark Twain spent time in Marienbad (now Marianske Lazne), and found that, like Hans Castorp in Thomas Mann’s novel The Magic Mountain, the illnesses he encountered were often imagined to justify extended visits to the seductive spas – to which he was, of course, not averse.  After all, here was music, theater, variety shows, fine wine and robust local beers, elegant soirées in red-plush casinos – all guilt free, because the cure was there waiting in the cold light of morning, just there, at  the foot of the marble stairs.

And a marriage market 

The spas were many things: For women, for example, they represented a door to independence, as traveling for one’s health was one of the few “respectable” ways ladies could go abroad on their own – and convenient for those, who like Goethe, went to escape spouses, as men and women “bathed together without benefit of matrimony.” Still others went to find spouses, making the grand spas a kind of “marriage market for the cash-strapped aristocracy and socially ambitious middle classes.”

But we would be wrong to think that the health aspects were imagined, and for the stress-related illnesses that so plague our modern world, they may have been ideal.
Large is less sure about the Trinkkur, the drinking cure, by which he does not mean alcohol. As practiced at Karlsbad in the mid-18th century, the patient was to down up to 40 glasses of mineral water a day. A century later, clear-eyed reason reduced this to a mere four, “such being the falling-off in fortitude of later generations.”

Large admits that his decision to write the book was late-life wisdom, that there was something to be said for choosing a topic that would “demand research junkets to pleasant and pampering places” – a vast improvement, he points out, to the dusty German Federal Archives in Koblenz.

But there is no question of the enduring value of the study.  Today, Austrians can still get a doctor’s prescription for a Kur, and disappear for a couple of weeks to a steamy retreat of massage and good soaks, punctuated with mountain walks and pleasant evening entertainments – all on the tab of the public health system;  something that seems an unimaginable luxury to people from more puritan cultures.

Here in Central Europe, a cure is still thought good medicine, out of a belief in “an ounce of prevention,” but also out of a philosophy that the ills of the body can often be best treated by caring for the soul.


David Clay Large

The Grand Spas of Central Europe: A history of Intrigue, Politics, Art and Healing, Rowman & Littlefield, 2015

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