144. Spa towns

Nowadays people who can afford it often take their holidays in distant places – the Iberian islands or even the Caribbean.  Before the days of air travel, however, even well-to-do holidaymakers stayed within short train-travelling distance.

One did not go on vacation to laze but “take a cure” – for the sake of one’s health. It was a serious matter. Spa towns grew up to cater for it. They were usually created where mineral waters bubbled up from the earth – ideally at a place with several such springs in the surroundings. City fathers added “Bad” (meaning bathing place) to the name of their village: Hence Bad Kudowa, Bad Reinertz, Bad Godesberg, Marienbad, Karlsbad and many more. The English, to save their breath, simply called their best place “Bath”. Splendid gardens were created around them with comfortable benches for the weary. An army of gardeners kept the gardens immaculate. Foot paths radiated into surrounding forests and hills. Paths were colour coded – red for steep; blue for middling etc.

Obesity was a widespread problem so many visitors came to lose weight. However, before a patient could “take the cure” he was obliged to visit a “Kurdoktor” – a resident medical practitioner. – who would then recommend which waters were best suited to his or her condition. It provided a steady income for a great number of medical men … and for many others.  Once a visitor’s medical condition had been assessed he could obtain a spa cup – a curious cup with a spout. The spout made it easy to sip waters while wandering in the gardens. Waters from more distant springs – each reputed to cure a different complaint – were piped to a central Kurhaus. There was often a band pavilion by the side, so between sips, one could be humming operetta tunes. There were restaurants which served fine food – as if to slow down the effects of over-hasty dieting. Patients came from far and wide: I recall portly Egyptian pashas with red fezzes and gold watchchains dangling from their waistcoats. There were also East European Jews in black kaftans and fur hats and even men in turbans whose origins I could not identify. Even the future king of England, Edward VII, came to spas like Marienbad frequently.

The locals hoped patients would stay a while. If their health improved too rapidly, the locals would have found their incomes shrinking. So festina lente.

Radio-active mud could not always be found in the vicinity so it was brought in by train. Such mud, they said, did wonders soothing arthritis. Apart from providing an income for numerous doctors the spas also provided employment for bath helpers – male and female – and toilet attendants as well as armies of gardeners and even for the poor widows of the neighbourhood. Some of the spring waters had diuretic effects so along forest walks little toilet houses were built – sometimes one every twenty yards.  Each was supervised by an old harridan who would hand over a few sheets of toilet paper and expect a tip. The local authority had given such duties to old widows who might, otherwise, have gone hungry.

Lending libraries displayed books in numerous languages – often books banned in the readers’ home countries – either for political reasons or because they were judged risqué. Readers from Germany, already under the heel of the Nazis, were among the most assiduous borrowers.

I once accompanied my parents to Marienbad when they went to take the cure. I was, however, enrolled as a day boarder at a nearby Kinderheim. A lifetime later, as an elderly man, I met a doctor who told me he had, in his younger days, been a Kurdoktor at Marienbad.  “Tell me, doctor, does taking these spa waters have real medical benefits?”

He smiled enigmatically. “I have no doubt a complete break from work and drinking water rather than swilling beer or gin will have … excellent effects.” And he smiled. Had that been a cynical smile?


Afterthought:  Grandfather Goldschmidt and grandmother Sophie did once venture much further than was usual at the time – to Constantinople (Istanbul). He brought back a studio photograph to prove it – he was wearing a fez while she was in baggy Turkish trousers. Photo studios lent out such props for a modest fee. He even had some postcards made of that photo and posted them to friends at his provincial home town. It was, I guess, a not-very-discreet way of showing off his financial success.