We first got into these (in the most literal sense) in Hungary in the year 2001. Until then, we had harboured the same image of spas as most people: that they were old-fashioned, over-priced haunts of the over-privileged, masquerading as medicinal establishments.
Well, there are still plenty like that. Until the 20th century, medicine was for the most part so primitive that spas decently could defend themselves as if they were hospitals: a lot of people did get better if they 'took the waters'. It is not hard to explain why. Some people will get better anyway, and on top of that, spas are pretty relaxing places (if you have the money) and many of them used to put their 'patients' on dietary regimes which were bound to do some good to an overfed aristocrat who lived on rich food and an excess of alcohol. More importantly still, a long, relaxing bath in hot water will make anyone feel better, especially if combined with a bit of massage.
Then we discovered Igal, south of Lake Balaton in Hungary. This is a communist-era spa, for the workers. In other words, it doesn't have a grand hotel (though there is a very pleasant and affordable hotel nearby) and it certainly doesn't have a casino. For less than a couple of euros (a couple of US dollars, say, or twenty-five shillings) you can relax as long as you like in the hot, soothing and distinctly farty-smelling waters.
We loved it. As we travelled back through Hungary on our way to Austria, we went hunting for more. We only found four that were open, because it was October and the season was over: there are more open in the summer. I went to three, and Frances went to all four. On any journey, they are the most marvellous restorative. On a motorcycle tour, they are unbeatable.
Since then, we have gone out of our way (literally) to find affordable spas. Often we have failed. In France in particular, spas have spawned a powerful pseudo-medical establishment with strong financial interests to defend, and the curative properties of spas are often extolled as if we were in the late 19th century instead of the early 21st. They charge enormous prices and their literature talks of 'indications' and 'counter-indications' as if they were newly-discovered wonder drugs. Some of the older Czech spas are no better.
But even in France, we have found a few good, affordable ones. Our two favourites are Llo (pronounced 'Yo') and St. Thomas in the far south-west, near the Spanish border. They are more expensive than the Hungarian ones, inevitably, but they are also a good deal more luxurious -- especially Llo. And it's still only a few dollars.
Then there's Arsen in south-east Holland, which we have tried, and Laa an der Thaya in Austria, near the Czech border a few miles from Vienna: we've looked at that one, but didn't have time to stop. The same was true of Bad Elster on the German border in the far south-east of the country: we want to get back to both. We're very much looking forward, too, to getting back to Slovakia, which has extraordinary numbers of thermal establishments. And last time we were in Spa itself in Belgium (late 2003), they were building a new spa complex with much more emphasis on leisure, and rather less on The Cure.
This, we are sure, is the future of thermal establishments: rest and relaxation, rather than grossly overblown claims of medical properties. Sooner or later, even in France, the bloated French health service will stop paying for them, and they will have to adjust.
And, we have to admit, there are genuine physical benefits. Frances hurt her hip in a motorcycle accident over a decade ago, and in 2000 she had surgery for breast cancer which left her right arm somewhat numb. After a session in a spa, both feel a lot better for anything from a few days to a few weeks. The point is, though, it doesn't matter which spa, and she doesn't have any so-called medical treatment: this is why we get annoyed at the overblown claims. She floats about in the bath; swims a bit; and I massage her legs and arms. For a few dollars, it's a bargain; for a hundred dollars per person per day (and some spas really do charge that much, especially in France), it's a rip-off, and the pain in the wallet outweighs the improvement in the hip.
But as you get older, you become more and more aware of the stresses and strains of riding a motorcycle for long distances. I'm certainly not averse to a session at a spa myself, as long as we can afford it.
Almost independently of Motorcycle Touring in Europe, therefore, we want to make a list of the affordable spas and thermal establishments of Europe, and if you have suggestions, [contact us]. Ideally, the rates should be under 10 euros per person per session, but we'll go a little above that if they are worth it.
Meanwhile, here's our (modest) list, rated from one to three stars on facilities (basic, middling, excellent).
This information has been verified as far as possible but should not be taken as definitive. You alone are responsible for your safety on a motorcycle (or elsewhere) and should always ride and behave accordingly. Click here for the Official Health Warning.
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last updated: 22/11/03
© 2003 Roger W. Hicks