Healing spas have a long tradition in Central and Eastern Europe, being used to alleviate a range of conditions from tuberculosis to infertility to depression. Although they fell somewhat out of vogue during parts of the twentieth century, the renaissance of what our biomedical culture calls “complementary and alternative medicine” has hastened the revival of many old spa towns. With the proliferation of discount flights from Western Europe, many small towns across the region are banking on medical tourism to help bolster otherwise flailing regional economies.
About 50 km from Zagreb in the region of Zagorje (perhaps best known as the county that gave birth to Tito), lies the village of Krapinske Toplice. Reputedly known as Aquae Vivae during the Roman era, the village’s thermal springs prompted the construction of its first bath in the mid-17th century. The first recorded account of the local waters being used medically stems from the early 18th century when a Viennese physician by the name of Stockhammer visited. Within the Habsburg scientific and medical community the region’s reputation began to grow, prompting Baron Heinrich Johann Nepomuk von Cranz (a botanist and physician obsessed with mineral waters) to conduct chemical analyses of the springs.
It was not until the mid-19th century, however, that word of Krapinske Toplice truly began to spread. Much of the credit for this is owed to a man called Jakob Badl, himself a beneficiary of the famous waters which seemed to have cured his sciatica. In response, Badl bought the local pools, set up a hotel and restaurant (the Bellavue), and built the area’s first hospital, a building capable of housing 75 patient-clients at a time. From this point forward, the village’s famous waters became known as something of a top health destination, appearing in European tourist literature of the time. Beyond the Austro-Hungarian elite, a substantial number of people travelled from France and Italy in the hopes of solving their ailments.
Although foreign medical tourism declined during most parts of the twentieth century, the Socialist-era government attempted to prop it up by building the “Rudarskom” hotel (with indoor thermal pools) and opening the Special Hospital for Medical Rehabilitation. The clinic employed a number of social workers, psychologists, and “defectologists” (specialists in the study and treatment of physical and mental disability in children – a field perhaps most commonly associated with the Soviet psychologist Lev Vygotsky), becoming something of a centre for mental and emotional wellbeing.
The village is still best known for its spas and Jakob Badl’s pioneering work in medical tourism has not been forgotten; he is held in such high esteem that the village now celebrates Badlfest (yes, for real) and modern tourists can even visit his mausoleum.
These undated (20th c.) photos are from the Wellcome Collection. They are described as being from the village’s “peasant spa” and some feature the practice of cupping through the use of cow horns.