“Bad” Places and Spa History in Germany and Austria

The question came up last week: How do towns get “Bad” in their names and what does it mean? And how recent is it? The answers required more than just a comments-comment, so here are the answers.

The super-condensed version: government interventions, place to bathe, and generally modern (post 1789.)

Baden as a verb means “to bathe.” So a Badzimmer means a room where one washes one’s self. It might or might not have a WC or Toilette included (hotels/inns will say). Used literally, Bad Pyrmont means the washing-place of Pyrmont. Baden Baden, the famous spa and casino town, is redundant. Like “Bath” in England, where the Romans went to take the waters and bathe, the word “Bad” indicates a place with a special medical or healthful property to the waters. All places with “Baden” or “Bad” are designated spa towns, but not all towns with current or former medical springs are officially “Bad” whatever.

The idea of going to “take the waters” goes back to the Romans at least. The Celts (Le Tene and Hallstadt cultures) made sacrifices to water deities at some springs, and at least one in what is now Germany has had offerings tossed into it for 4000 years. The Romans made bathing at springs an art, as well as a way to show their power by channeling and packaging the waters in a typical way. Roman baths often “improved” and domesticated native thermal and mineral springs, often making them exclusively Roman by fiat. There are a number of former Roman baths that have been found in Germany and Austria. Some are on springs, others are more like those in Rome.

As travel became more dangerous and pagan pilgrimage sites either converted to Christianity or made somewhat off-limits, the use of mineral springs returned to being a local phenomenon. The last Roman bath used in Germany only failed in the 1300s, and that after a major earthquake disrupted the springs and water flow. It had been maintained and used up to that point. However, these places were not specifically designated as springs, aside from maps and legal documents that noted the Quelle, or springs/headwaters.

Not until the 1700s, and really the mid 1800s, did it become fashionable and medicinal to go and “take the waters.” Originally, that was exactly what one did. People went to a particular place with waters that had a certain property, and drank them in large quantities. Sometimes it worked, other times it didn’t. Since people had traveled, they needed accomodations, and physicians to assist with the treatment, and a place to socialize, and . . . . Tourism is born, the original medical tourism European style. At some places, soaking in the waters (or mud) became part of the treatment, especially places where the waters were found to be warm but toxic if ingested in large quantities.

Tourism requires peace and money. In the German-speaking world (and other parts of Europe), taking the waters was seen as healthier than scientific medicine by some, and as a good adjunct to modern medicine by others. The government of West Germany used to provide up to six weeks of paid spa-time a year if your doctor felt it was called for. Some employment contracts also included spa-insurance and paid spa-days. The spa-goer went and drank the waters, bathed, ate a special diet based on their ailment, exercised, sunned (or didn’t), all on a relatively rigid plan.

When I was in Bad Pyrmont, the hotel I stayed in was a Kurort – a cure place – and the breakfast buffet had little tags indicating which diet each special dish was for. The basics such as eggs, ham, bacon, sausages, cheeses, cold-cuts, and rolls lacked the tags. More unusual offerings sported labels with “Ayurvedic” or “Liver” on them, so those having a cure would not go astray.

What about adding “Bad” to the name? Some such place names are old, as in 1800s or before, but many were certified either by the national government (Germany) or provincial/state government (Austria). Switzerland is a little different again, and doesn’t have government-designated “Bad” towns. In Germany, the place has 1. medicinal waters, 2. facilities for treatment, 3. a generally healthy climate, 4. a city government, 5. medical and scientific proof of the chemicals in the waters and their effectiveness. Yes, very thorough. In Austria the climate alone can be used as grounds for the designation, which dates back to the days when people with TB and other lung ailments went to the mountains for “air cures.” Some sources say that Germany also allows climate alone, others disagree.

There are exceptions, and a few places with pre-modern names that include Bad or end in -bad. The sense is the same – there is a spring (or healing place) associated with the town. A few locations, such as Aachen, could use Bad but prefer not to (Wiener Neustadt is probably another).

13 thoughts on ““Bad” Places and Spa History in Germany and Austria

  1. That’s a nice overall description of the meaning, and saved me a bit more digging. Thanks!

  2. My daughter and I passed through Baden Baden in the fall of 1985, and had a lovely three days of it. The town itself had the prettiest railway station, and there was one particular long skinny riverside park, the Lichtenthaler Allee (IIRC) that went all the way through town, and afforded a look at the back gardens of all the mansions on the other side of the river. We did visit one of the mineral baths, and had tea at the Brenners-Park hotel. Ages later, I put my memories of Baden-Baden into a couple of chapters in one of my historical novels.

  3. Peter!!! While Germany has quite a few, there are others in various countries that are also pretty famous. Blaue lagune near Grindavik is one we visited regularly… Geothermal and HOT water… Two that I can think of closer to home are Mineral Springs, TX and Hot Springs, AR. But I have to admit the German ones have more ‘class’ if you will.

  4. Visited a nice, family friendly hot spring and pool near Rotorua NZ. Hot water pools felt great after a couple days on twisty roads. Graduated temps from 120 down to 80 F. Input was 240 deg F – that much mineral load from volcanos cooking it. Signs said ‘don’t touch’ for good reason.

  5. Could the combination of petrochemicals and volcanism create hot oil springs? Are there any records of people safely bathing in those?

    • I don’t know how warm petroleum springs or other natural sources of petroleum are, but I really doubt that anybody would want to bath in them. You’d have to then bath in water to get clean. đŸ˜‰

      While apparently some societies used petroleum products for medical uses, I suspect the products had been distilled from crude petroleum.

      • At least one of the creeks at Pennsic features natural petroleum.

        Every year, you got people upset about water pollution, and every year, somebody has to explain that the oil was coming straight from Mother Nature….

        The same creek also has or had pretty decent clay close to it, and at least one potter who doesn’t understand the concept of “You can’t just start making pottery with somebody else’s clay, from somebody else’s land and streams, when you could just go ask the owner for permission and/or pay him.”

        Sigh…. There are some very special people in this world. Oh so special.

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