hidden europe 4

The central European spa tradition

by Nicky Gardner


the beginnings of hydrotherapy in the Czech Republic, the faded charms of Marienbad, and water lilies on the thermal lake of Hévíz in Hungary

The mountains of northern Moravia in the Czech Republic are scarcely on the way to anywhere. The journey from Prague to Jeseník on the one direct train each day takes a leisurely five and a half hours. Here, tucked away in the folds of the rugged hills that once formed part of Austrian Silesia, is a little gem of European health history.

In 1822, Vincent Priessnitz, then still only a young man in his early twenties and without any medical background whatsoever, established the Priessnitz spa on the sunny south facing slopes overlooking the town that nowadays is known as Jeseník. In those days Jeseník, with its strong Habsburg connections, was called Frywaldov.

Vincent Priessnitz was a local lad, son of a farmer who had lost his eyesight early, leaving Vincent, then only twelve years old, to take responsibility for the family farm. Vincent observed how wounded deer would bathe a damaged limb in running stream water, a therapy which he deployed for himself to good effect when, at the age of sixteen, he had several ribs crushed in an accident with a cart. And thus it was that, in a remote corner of the Moravian hills, Vincent Priessnitz hit upon the notion of hydrotherapy.

A few wooden huts up on the hills above Frywaldov marked the start of Priessnitz's therapeutic adventures, and within a decade his spa, called Gräfenberg, had become an industry, albeit one that, in its early years, ruffled the feathers of the Austrian medical establishment. Priessnitz' sanatorium became hugely popular, and the medical historian, Roy Porter, records that in 1839 alone it played host to one monarch, a duke and duchess, 22 princes and 149 counts and countesses plus thousands of perfectly ordinary citizens.

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