Outdoor thermal bath, Leukerbad, The Valais © Shutterstock

Healing waters: Switzerland’s thermal therapy
Benefit from the historical ritual of bathing
1 May 2024

Had a tough day at work? Maybe a full day on the slopes or a long trek snowshoeing across wintry snow drifts left you exhausted and in need of recuperation? We all know that a good soak in the tub can alleviate the stresses of a long day, but what about getting out of the bathroom and trying something more natural?

Fortunately, Switzerland comes pre-loaded with a variety of experiences that perhaps go beyond the delights of your home tub. Nestled among the awe-inspiring mountain ranges the nation’s thermal baths offer havens for inner tranquility, serenity and vitality. Yet, beyond their ability to soothe weary limbs after a day of adventure, these thermal baths—springs of water naturally warmed to varying temperatures and imbued with mineral riches—have also been cherished for their healing properties across the ages. So, do they work? Can they heal?

Bathed in history

Early scholars, in the time of Hippocrates, first pondered the concept of illness as something to be ‘rebalanced’ within the body. They noted that the mineral-rich composition of thermal waters, which included elements we now know as iodine, bromine, sulfur, calcium, magnesium and others, played a vital role in easing ailments and restoring the feeling of bodily balance.

Recent studies echo the sentiments of ancient wisdom, pointing out how thermal mineral waters can alleviate the discomfort of musculoskeletal disorders, promote recovery from injuries and even stimulate digestion. We take magnesium as a daily muscle recovery supplement, and likewise, bathing in magnesium-rich waters offers potent anti-inflammatory properties.

However, such therapeutic benefits extend beyond just physical relief. Mental well-being is also enhanced, with the serene surroundings of thermal spas providing a respite from the stresses of modern life. Without an ever-present digital distraction you can focus on the immediate present and a full awareness of your senses, the first step on the path to meditation. This immersion-induced stress reduction will undoubtedly leave you in a better mood.

When in Rome

The Romans knew a thing or two about bathing and they spent some time knocking around in Helvetica enjoying its natural benefits during their time. Known for their innovations and appreciation of luxury, Romans embraced thermal baths not only as places for physical rejuvenation but also as social hubs and centers of holistic health. They recognized the therapeutic potential of these natural springs by fostering a culture of communal bathing and well-being.

The town of Baden, or Aquae Helveticae as it was known, has been in the business of bathing, as the names suggest, for at least two millennia. The Romans left their first mark in 84 AD, establishing a spa which served as more than just a place to relax, rather it was a sanctuary where individuals sought healing, rejuvenation and communal connection. In fact, recent archaeological excavations in 2020 unearthed evidence of the Roman legacy, including a preserved basin dating back at least 2,000 years. This was once part of the city’s open-air St. Verena thermal baths which had medieval plumbing built on top of it. Such discoveries serve as a reminder of the enduring appeal and importance of thermal baths throughout history.

Leukerbad: magnificent views © Pixabay

Got Minerals?

The unique composition of minerals found in Swiss thermal waters has drawn visitors for centuries, seeking relief from various ailments and a boost to their overall health. From the calcium-rich springs of Yverdon-les-Bains to the sulfur-infused waters of Leukerbad, each thermal bath offers a distinct blend of minerals to suit particular needs.

Over time, attitudes to hygiene and bathing have waxed and waned – notably with the prevalence of syphilis during Reformation times leading to a low point – but the act of immersion ultimately endured. Today, modern facilities draw from the 19th century fervor for all things spa, yet blend this tradition with innovation, offering guests a chance to experience the healing powers of thermal waters in a comfortable and luxurious setting.

Switzerland’s spa towns offer multifaceted healing by combining modern medicine with complementary holistic therapies. Acupuncturists, herbalists and naturopaths are often found practicing in close proximity to these thermal resorts, providing guests with a range of holistic treatments to complement their bathing experience.

The choice in Switzerland is far too varied to be ‘definitive’ in any way. There is no ‘best’ spa to visit, rather the joy of Swiss bathing culture lies in the diversity of experiences studded across the country like geographic diamonds. From Rheinfelden (outside Basel), to après-ski hotels in St. Moritz, or the impressive architecture of the Tschuggen Grand, to outdoor vistas at Bogn Engiadina and the renowned choices at Leukerbad or Baden. With a little research you can find what suits you best. Keep in mind that some thermal waters may be natural while others are artificial, and mineral content variations mean varying benefits. Some locations may be perfect for a tranquil couples’ getaway, while others may be more family-friendly.

Steep yourself in the waters of history, just as the Romans did. Go on, you deserve it. 

* Richard Turner is a UN Today Contributor.
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