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  • Writer's pictureMeirion Harries

DAY TWENTY SEVEN Spas and Postmen

After two days in medieval Germany, the Race Marshal and I decided that we should take advantage of Mulhausen being a spa town. There was the option of leaping on the Harley and roaring down to Bad Hersfeld for a glass or two of the spa water which contains a high concentration of Glauber's Salt. Johann Rudolf Glauber identified the potent laxative qualities of this salt in 1625 and named it sal mirabilis. That was tempting but I wondered how steady the Harley would be on the way back, so we settled instead for Sauna World at the local thermal baths where we shuffled between the lemon sauna (80°C), sanarium (60°C), vaporisation sauna (95°C), log cabin sauna (90°C), fireplace sauna (110°C), Ruusu® sauna (85°C) and the steam bath (47°C).

There was a certain amount of trauma: we were offered robes and sandals but it seemed churlish to accept when others were not. In any case, it is verboten to wear anything in a sauna or steam room in Germany, other than a towel. We passed on the opportunity of plunging into the icy Tauchbecken – a certain way to cardiac arrest. Germans do love spas. When Goethe was taking the waters in Marienbad, spas were a privilege of the moneyed classes. Then in the 1970s, with state sponored medical insurance footing the bill for everyone, spa towns proliferated. Postmen, for example, were entitled to take eine Kur twice a year – a few weeks enjoying the waters, steaming and saunaing as a perk of being a civil servant. By 1981, over 6 million Germans a year were regular Kurgaste. Central and southern Germany, the hilly part, had around two hundred Kurorte in the late 1970s. And vocabulary developed around the phenomenon: your Kurarzt would prescribe Kurtherapie, which might include a Kurdiat; instead of dining, you would be sent to walk in the Kurpark until the evening Kurkonzert began. And, perhaps, on your walk you would find Kurschatten and then go with your new love to the Kurhaus to dance. The spa town in England that I know well is Droitwich, birthplace of Edward Winslow, one of the Pilgrim Fathers. From the south of Droitwich, descending at an angle of 45 degrees, runs a seam of salt and under the town it hits a seam of impermeable clay coming in at an angle from the north. The result is that the water table under Droitwich is incredibly salty. The Romans siphoned up the brine and evaporated out the salt in huge pans. Legionnaires were paid with salt – sal - hence salary. Salt extraction continued until the twentieth century with two consequences: because the evaporating rooms were so hot, no-one wore clothes and there is said to be much shared DNA in Droitwich; and secondly, the High Street sank down and down as the water table dropped. These days, you can walk into the bar of the Red Lion, which is on the first floor of the pub, from ground level.

(c)Chateau Impney

No salt is extracted in Droitwich now, but in the nineteenth century the salt made John Corbett the richest man in England. He married an aristocratic girl from the Loire and to ease her homesickness he built her an exact replica of a Loire chateau down to the last detail. But despite this display of love, Corbett ended up alone in her chateau: one morning, very early, his bride and the coachman disappeared forever down the winding drive. The best spa town in Germany is, of course, Baden Baden (a spa so healthy they named it twice). The offerings here make our lemon sauna pale into insignificance. The town website tells us that “Baden-Baden promotes wellness thanks to its curative thermal waters that bubble upwards from twelve springs at a depth of 2,000 metres under the earth. They push out roughly 800,000 litres a day, at temperatures of as much as 68°C. The water’s minerals and other constituents possess an all-around healing effect. Baden-Baden’s spas let you also enjoy a sea salt grotto, aromatherapy, yoga classes and Lomi Lomi”. American soldiers remember the spa town of Wiesbaden because when they took the town in 1945, they liberated a cache of 48,000 bottles of champagne - but it is better known as the backdrop for GI Blues. It is perhaps the oldest spa in Germany: there were bath houses in Wiesbaden in the fourteenth century and in the days when Goethe, Dostoevsky, Wagner, and Brahms (probably not together) came to the spa, there were twenty three bath houses. The Romans first enjoyed the waters and today, at the Kaiser Friedrich Therme, you can make a Romanesque progression from Tepidarium to Sudatorium to Sanarium and the Lavacrum. Inevitably, with a growing tide of Germans using the funding became unsustainable and the government clamped down. Under rules instituted in 1982, Kurgaste could take eine Kur only once every three years – and the spa towns suffered considerably. But only at first: within three years the numbers were back up to six million Kurgaste. Part of the reason might have been that the new rules forbade you from bringing your spouse – with the accompanying promise of a discreet Kurschatten.

And the popularity of spas has continued its upward climb. These days Germany has over 900 spas resorts of different kinds and they make a collective contribution to the economy of almost 7 billion euros.

Here's a little film about Baden Baden -

Here is a film about backdrops for G I Blues in Wiesbaden -

And here is Lynn Harrell playing the Tchaikovsky Piano Trio in A minor with Kyoko Takezawa and Wu Han:

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