4) Jeseník Spa – The cradle of hydrotherapy
Located in the Hrubý Jeseník mountain range, about 240 kilometres east of Prague and close to the border with Poland, the town of Jeseník might not be a destination very high on the list of most tourists to Czechia. But the mountain town is a cradle of hydrotherapy.
Far from the most famous Czech spa towns in Western Bohemia, Jeseník possesses a distinct, rural atmosphere. The local spas’ history and tradition have little to do with the leisurely colonnades and aristocratic opulence of places such as Karlovy Vary. Here, the town’s mountain climate was often unforgiving for inhabitants, and perhaps the toughness that they had to develop left an imprint on local balneology as well. Tour guide Jiří Glabazňa told Czech Radio about Vincenz Priessnitz, the 19th century local with whom Jeseník’s spa tradition is synonymous with.
“Vincenz Priessnitz was the son of a local crofter and an unusually talented young man with great intuition, observation skills, and common sense. From his first attempts at healing animals and himself, he was able to move on to treating the injuries of other people. He was so successful that, when he died in 1851, he left behind a world-renowned institute of hydrotherapy.”
The road to success of the “water doctor”, as Priessnitz was nicknamed, was filled with adversity. At the age of sixteen, he was seriously injured when a load of wood fell from a horse-drawn carriage and crushed his chest, breaking several ribs. The doctors of the time offered little help with what was then considered a severely debilitating injury. But Priessnitz aligned his broken ribs with the help of a chair backrest, and then persistently applied a self-treatment of wet bandages on his injury. Within a year, he had recovered completely, a feat which, at that time, was considered nothing short of a miracle.
In 1819, the young homeopath started treating other people in his hometown in Gräfenberg, a hilly area which is today a part of the town of Jeseník. At first, he healed family members and farmer neighbours who occasionally paid for the service with their produce. In 1822, he added a second floor to the Priessnitz family residence and started receiving patients on the ground floor, where he had placed a wooden washtub. The first modern-style hydrotherapeutic institute in the world was born.
The early spa treatments were complicated procedures that included bathing, scrubbing, and applying wet bandages. But the basic principle was simple: varyingly exposing the body to cold and hot water. Michal Kalina, the head physiotherapist at the Priessnitz Spa Resort in Jeseník, told Czech Radio about one of Priessnitz’s staple techniques, which is still in use today.
“During the two-phase partial bath, the patient first warms up in a hot shower. Then he or she spends about an hour wrapped in cold bedsheets until the body warms up again. That is followed by a partial bath in cool water, during which the client is scrubbed and washed. It’s a great procedure for improving blood flow and overall toughness and immunity. Most importantly, it has a great effect on the mental state. It really gives you an energy boost and charges you up.”
Word of Priessnitz’s balneological prowess spread quickly in his day, and people came from far and wide to be treated by him. But the hydrotherapy institute did not become an officially recognized spa right away, as it faced stiff resistance from rival doctors and healers, who were eager to hamper the success of any competition. As part of a smear campaign, Priessnitz was even accused of witchcraft and shortly detained in the local jail.
In 1838, he finally obtained official permission for his operation and gained newfound prosperity. Aristocrats were soon joining the ranks of simple farmers as spa guests. Michal Kalina explains that they had to follow a tough routine, as demanding physical labour was prescribed to complement the water treatments.
“There was a very strict regime in Priessnitz’s spa regarding diet, drinking, and the procedures themselves. The latter were accompanied by a so-called labour therapy, during which, to warm up sufficiently, patients would shovel snow or leaves, or chop wood. If someone went against these rules, they had to leave the spa immediately.”
Today, the spa tradition on Gräfenberg hill in Jeseník continues. Some things have changed since Priessnitz’s day. Guests are no longer made to chop wood, and neither are they thrown out for drinking alcohol. But some of the founder’s original methods, such as the one- and two-phase baths, are still in use. The procedures are even done in wooden washtubs, just as it was some 200 years ago.
Jeseník’s climate is also touted for having beneficial health effects in and of itself, and the town can boast the cleanest air in the Czech Republic. Kateřina Tomášková of the Jeseník Spa Resort explains that the natural environment remains is a key component of treatment.
“We still have the same goal that Vincenz Priessnitz had, and that is returning the person to nature. We make maximal use of the mountain air, which is an officially recognized natural healing source, as well as of our drinking water, which, unlike other parts of the world, we still have an abundance of. Our climate is beneficial for easing breathing problems in children and adults. Thanks to our calm environment, we can also treat psychological problems. Besides that, Jeseník is a great place for recovery after cancer treatment, and we can help with dermatological diseases and disorders of the circulatory system.”
With 10 spa houses all run by the Priessnitz Spa Resort, Jeseník is a midsized spa town by Czech standards. Each year, it welcomes around 20 thousand visitors mainly from Czechia but also from Germany, Poland, and Slovakia.
The original spa building from 1822 now houses a museum. The nearby Priessnitz Sanatorium, which was built in 1910, 60 years after the death of its namesake, is now the main spa facility. Constructed in the style of a Baroque palace, with a lavishness that Priessnitz would likely frown at, it is an eye-catching architectural landmark. Standing in front of the building, one can get a splendid view of the surrounding mountain range, and guests of the Sanatorium can get an even better look from its lookout tower.
Visitors wanting to try traditional balneotherapy in its most authentic form can visit the Balneopark, which offers Priessnitz’s original procedures outdoors and for free. Using natural spring water, which has a temperature of between 8 to 10 degrees Celsius, the Balneopark is a great place to cool off on a hot summer day.
Unlike in the West Bohemian spa towns, the spring water in Jeseník is not typically used for drinking. And one would be hard pressed to find here a grandiose colonnade of the sort that can be seen in Karlovy Vary or Františkovy Lázně. Still, local springs are often decorated with various monuments, their construction commissioned by grateful patients to commemorate Jeseník’s spas.
To see the numerous springs and monuments, visitors can take one of the hiking trails which wind through the woods around the spas. One of the most noteworthy memorials is the one that adorns the Czech Spring. At its top stands a statue that depicts the Greek goddess of cleanliness, Hygieia, placing a wreath around the neck of Vincenz Priessnitz. The statue was one of the first major works of Josef Myslbek, the most famous Czech sculptor of the second half of the 19th century, who finished it in 1874 at the age of just twenty-six.
The paths offer splendid views of the Jeseník town centre and the rolling peaks of the Jeseníky Mountains. Especially scenic is the Ripper Promenade, which begins near the Czech Spring and goes in a loop. (It was named after Jan Ripper, Priessnitz’s son in law who enlisted Josef Myslbek for his work on the Czech Spring.)
The monuments alongside the paths stand as reminders that the unassuming town of Jeseník is where the son of a poor farmer made medical history. His balneological tradition lives on to this day, and, in combination with the pristine climate, it can rejuvenate tired bodies and worn souls alike. The nearby natural wonders of the Jeseníky Mountains ensure that there is plenty to see outside the spas as well.