There are a number of hot mineral springs around the area where I live. When in need of a bit of additional bien-etre (well-being) they are great places to relax and chill out. The two I have frequented are located at Ax-les-Thermes and Rennes les Bains.
People have used the natural springs throughout the centuries but I suppose it is the Romans (who pinched the idea from the Greeks) who really established their use for both medicinal and relaxation purposes.
The Romans loved their baths. It was often the Roman military presence (for example during the conquest of Gaul) that prompted the development of spas, making use of the thermal and mineral springs. Spas served not only for the treatment and recuperation of wounded soldiers but also as leisure centres for healthy soldiers. Spa treatments included bathing the injured parts of the body with the water, total immersion and drinking very large quantities of the sulphurous stuff. The waters were apparently good for rheumatics, skin diseases and other unspecified ailments.
The spa town of Ax les Thermes has a number of springs the most well-known serving Les Bains de Couloubret – a spa complex built on the site of ancient Roman baths. In the middle ages the springs were further developed to treat soldiers returning from the Crusades who were afflicted with leprosy.
The waters at Rennes les Bains were another Roman discovery and led to the development of an important spa for the soldiers serving in Gallia Narbonensis (part of the Aude region of SW France.). The spa was built on two levels with four basins and two pools – one rectangular that had a black and white mosaic floor.
Over time the Roman attitude towards baths and bathing changed making them more a place for leisure and relaxation and, whisper it quietly, a places for some rather naughty practices.
With the rise of Christianity and the fall of the Roman Empire the church considered bathing to be disreputable and eventually it was officially banned. Thus some people avoided bathing completely and sometimes for years.
This aversion began to change especially in southern europe where the Moors held sway. Public baths were rebuilt and opened again. The great unwashed flocked there sometimes for medicinal purposes but more often for leisure.
However, the renaissance was short-lived and in the 16th century many of the baths were closed as it was thought they gave rise to all sorts of horrible diseases. Only the rich continued the practice and, avoiding public baths, they took to the natural warm mineral waters.
Taking the waters as a cure became the new approach and spread primarily from Italy where doctors found previously lost treatises about the medicinal properties of the mineral waters. A new bathing culture developed which spread rapidly across Europe.
By the turn of the 17th century many spas were rediscovered particularly in France. These were of two kinds – hot springs for bathing and drinking and cold ones that were for drinking cures only. This was a serious activity focussed on medicinal treatments with purging, drinking, dieting and bathing in the mornings. The afternoons were dedicated to some indoor leisure activities and late afternoons entailed a quiet walk along promenades. Then it was early to bed.
The fashion for taking the cure led to the growth of the spa towns across Europe. Hotels and guest houses sprang up; theatres, casinos and dance halls provided entertainment. The resorts became a rendezvous for the affluent and social elite. Of all of them probably Baden Baden in Germany was the best known – a place to see and be seen.
Recently the value of the mineral spa waters has been more widely recognised particularly for the treatment of rheumatism and skin problems. However many of the spas are now dedicated towards leisure and relaxation – bien-etre as it is called here in France. I have sweated in the steam baths, bubbled in the whirlpools and been pummelled by water jets in the warm pool and felt all the better for it.