Maxine Sheppard from vtravelled.com, Virgin Atlantic’s social travel site, picks a selection of Europe's best spa towns to lose yourself in this autumn.
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Bath’s hot springs have been a major draw since prehistoric times but it was the Romans who first put them to good use. Their elaborate bathing complex took more than 300 years to complete, but firmly established Bath as England’s definitive spa town.
The Roman baths remain the city’s top attraction, though modern tourists will need to visit Thermae Bath Spa if they wish to enjoy the waters. Opened in 2006, this state-of-the-art facility is the only thermal spa in Britain and offers a rooftop pool with panoramic skyline views. The waters in all four pools are maintained at an optimum temperature of 33.5 degrees centigrade, and a full range of health and beauty treatments are available.
Despite Bath’s standing as a celebrated spa town, it’s equally renowned for its 18th century architecture. Caramel-coloured Georgian townhouses and handsome Palladian squares exude an air of refined elegance. Simply wander north from the city centre to the magnificent Royal Crescent to see one of the chief pleasures of any visit.
But while Bath may look like a genteel open air museum, it does have a livelier side. The sheer volume of visitors give its streets a certain energy, and a thriving dining, shopping and arts scene prevents the city from feeling too antiquated.
Deep in the foothills of Germany’s Black Forest lies the aristocratic resort of Baden Baden. During the 19th century the town became almost as famous for its Belle Époque casino as for its curative waters, with an illustrious who’s who of European intellectuals and royalty paying regular visits including Queen Victoria, Kaiser Wilhelm I, Brahms and Dostoevsky.
Today’s Baden Baden may not attract quite such a glamorous guest list, but the town still evokes an aura of sophistication and privilege. Wide leafy avenues are lined with grandiose villas, while stately public squares brim with fashionable boutiques and bubbling fountains. Those who come for medicinal reasons have the choice of two baths. Friedrichsbad is sumptuous with its classical columns and marble statues, or built in the 1980s, Caracalla Therme is vast but more humble.
Friedrichsbad’s speciality is a Roman-Irish bath which consists of a two-hour session of showers, steam baths, massages, thermal bathing and a restorative half hour nap. It’s an all-nude facility throughout, with mixed bathing on certain days. Caracalla Therme on the other hand, insists on swimwear and is more like an aqua park with thermal springs. There are seven pools along with a sauna and solarium, and children over seven are welcome.
Bad Gastein is Austria’s premier and most picturesque spa town, having built a centuries-old reputation as a summer health retreat due to its thermal springs.
Lying within Hohe Tauern National Park, about 60 miles south of Salzburg, it is one of the most scenic spots in the country. Houses, shops and hotels spill attractively down the Alpine slopes of the Tauern Massif, dramatically divided by the tumbling waters of the Gasteiner Ache waterfall, whose thunderous roar can be heard throughout the valley.
Bad Gastein is most famous for its radon-rich waters, which originate deep underneath the mountains and bubble up to the surface from 17 different springs. The combination of radon, heat and altitude is said to help alleviate the symptoms of a number of ailments, including rheumatism and arthritis. The easiest way to take the plunge is at the Felsentherme spa. Here, the hot indoor pool is carved directly into ancient rock.
The small mountain town is also renowned as a winter sports resort. Dependable snow conditions have given rise to a prosperous ski and snowboarding industry with ski runs and cross country trails for all skill levels.
Karlovy Vary, better known in English as Carlsbad in western Bohemia, is about 75 miles west of Prague. According to local myth, the thermal springs were first discovered by Emperor Charles IV’s dogs in the early 14th century. Within a few hundred years an entire district of grand apartments and hotels had sprung up around them, along the banks of the winding River Teplá.
Frequented in its heyday by the likes of Beethoven, Freud and Marx, the town fell into neglect during the post-World War Two Communist era when it was mostly patronised by less affluent travellers from the Eastern Bloc. But a concerted renovation effort over the past two decades has restored the town to its former glory.
As the largest spa in the Czech Republic, present day Karlovy Vary welcomes around 150,000 travellers each year. Most come to relax or soothe their aching bones, though the increasingly popular International Film Festival has given the town a more global profile.
The well-to-do town of Vichy on the edge of the Auvergne is one of the best known spa resorts in the world. It suffered a decline in the aftermath of its World War Two role as the seat of the Vichy Regime, but rebounded in the 1950s and 1960s when an influx of high-spending clients arrived from Monaco and North Africa. Thousands of visitors continue to be lured every year by the volcanic mineral waters first discovered more than 600 years ago.
Vichy is home to two major spas. The once-opulent Centre Thermal des Dômes is now slightly faded. And the ultra-luxurious Les Célestins which provides a complete programme of mineral-based treatments, prepared by a team of hydrotherapists, massage experts and psychologists.
At the heart of town is its great green lung, the enormous Parc des Sources, first landscaped by Napoleon III in 1812. Around its edge is an exquisite canopied wrought-iron promenade which allows visitors to stroll at leisure without fear of getting wet. The understated grandeur continues further south in Parc des Célestins, where the brass taps of the Source des Célestins are the only place in town where the public can fill bottles and sip the water freely from its source.
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