The European Spa Movement was synonymous with la Belle Époque, the 40-year dream period from the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 until 1914 and the carnage of the Great War. European aristocrats and politicians held their collective breath and noses and tried their hardest not to notice the churn of the grubby, socialist-ridden ground beneath them. It was a time of astonishing hypocrisy and impeccable manners, of opulent fashion and elaborately conspicuous consumption. It was Marcel Proust and Oscar Wilde in the drawing room, with Auguste Escoffier ruling the kitchen, and Karl Marx scribbling away in the gutter.
But at least it was clean, for those who could afford it. The geological underpinnings of the Continent, from Belgium through central Europe into Prague and Budapest, were a froth of hot, steamy, mineral-laden waters waiting to burst forth into the spa pools and showers of the rich. The first notion was to drink the refined liquid— à la Évian, Vittel, or Chaudfontaine—but then the remarkable idea emerged of bathing in it.
Almost overnight, every town that could sink a pipe was building its niche in the elaborate network of spa palaces and grand hotels that covered Europe. But there was a limit to how much froth the market could absorb. Between changing tastes, the invention of the private bathtub, and the convulsions of the 20th Century wars, the movement was doomed to a quick obsolescence.
The experience of the town of Vittel in central Lorraine was typical. After a brief flourish, its four grand hotels were taken over by the Americans in 1917 to house a field hospital assembled by Detroit’s Wayne State University. Then, in the Second War, the Nazis commandeered the spa for housing the high-value American, British and Jewish internees they hoped to ransom. In 1944, the American Third Army arrived and transformed the entire town into an armed headquarters camp. By the time Vittel had finished reeling, the spa movement had puttered onward.
Today, we hear about a renaissance of the European spa—and major centers in places like Mondorf-les-Bains, Baden-Baden, Abano Terme, and Budapest at least appear to be flourishing—but for the vast majority of the hundreds of towns with “les-Bains” or “Bad” or “Terme” in their name, the past is still stuck in the seedier reaches of the past.