Bathing History Tirol

Wellness has a long tradition in Tirol

Tirol (an Alpine region in Austria) is Wellness Country par excellence, and bathing has a long tradition. We can find first written mentions of ‘bathing’ facilities in Tirol starting as early as the 13th century! It is said, that even the Romans have enjoyed hot springs in Tirol.

I myself learned more about early bathing history in Tirol from a presentation some years back during a cluster wellness symposium, when I was introduced to a book published in 1905 in Innsbruck, called “Bathing in Tirol, the healing waters, particularly the Brenner bath” by Prof. Dr Joseph Nevinny.

bathing history tirol

In the introduction to the book, Dr Nevinny says: ‘I have chosen this topic with purpose, because I know not of another country in which on the one side the needs and demands for the healing waters have this deeply penetrated all levels of society, and on the other side so little is done to establish and develop bathing facilities like in Tirol.’

I did more research on the topic over time and came across some very interesting facts, that I am happy to share with you today.

bathing history Tirol

The idea of social bathing

Crusaders in the 12th and 13th century would bring the idea of social bathing to the Alps, according to ancient and oriental rituals such as the Hamam that they have experienced in the orient during their travels.

Imitating those sophisticated oriental rituals, simplified bathing houses would sprout across Europe.

At first, simple frames were built around natural springs, with simple wooden huts for protection. In the late middle ages a public “bathing parlour” could be found in Alpine villages, accessible to everyone.

After having been a common part of daily life across even the lowest social levels, starting from the middle of the 17th century (till early 19th century) bathing was commonly considered an indulgence, waste and luxury in Europe, and typically reserved for wealthy people during that time.

bathing history Tirol

However a very healthy economy in the Alpine regions, due to flourishing commerce in the 15th and 16th century, mining in the 16th and 17th century, and prosperous stock, wine, and fruit farming based on a favourable climate, locals were wealthy and able to compare themselves to wealthy city people. Another positive aspect was, that Tirol was spared from the consequences of wars on German territories in the late middle ages.

Those favourable conditions paired with the deeply rooted desire for summer-resort refreshments, health and bathing, people from all societal levels would make bathing a habit. It is said, that even servants were allowed a few days of ‘wellness holidays’, this right even been manifested in their work contracts.

Bathing was a very social and merry activity, accompanied by conversations, gossip, food and drink. It was not that uncommon to drink a beer whilst sweating in the bath.

bathing history Tirol

Universal every-day-life companion in the Alpine regions 

The very first simple bath tubs were of course made of wood – what else to expect in Tirol?

A hollowed out trunk of a tree would serve for a great variety of purposes, and is also known as the first bath vessels.

Trees and thus timber, has always been everywhere around in Tirol, available in abundance. People used wood for every day life such as for furniture, for tools, and for fire wood.

A dug out was the universal every-day-life companion in the Alpine regions in the middle ages, and served as

  • well and water trough
  • feeding trough for the cattle
  • wash basin 
  • cradle
  • butter barrel
  • brew barrel
  • slaughter barrel
  • with a lid as a trunk for clothes or other belongings
  • and eventually as coffin.

bathing history Tirol

15th century

On farms, locals would undertake ‘Brechelbad’ and sweat bath.

The ‘Brechelbad’ is a dry sauna of about 60o Celsius, typically furnished in a rural style. One would sit on benches that were heated from underneath. Herbal scents provide the specific ambience, supported by pine twigs that cover the floor, thus additionally massaging the soles of the feet.

The term ‘brechel’ derives from ‘breaking’, which refers to breaking flax.

Starting from the 15th century, ‘taking the waters’ came into fashion: people would spent the summer near natural springs for a water cure.

bathing history Tirol

16th century

In the 16th century, ‘hot springs as healing waters were discovered, called Wildbad (wild bath).

17th century

The first “Kurort’ were established, however hindered by wars and the church.

In Tirol the first bath houses with rooms were established, derived from the simpler peasant’s baths.

18th century

The Renaissance would encourage a different interpretation of hygiene and beauty, powder and perfume replacing water. However the bathing tradition established in the middle ages would continue in the Alps in private and more rural settings.

Early Spa Employment and Revenue opportunities

The ‘bather’ or barber was the boss. He was responsible for the entire operation and employed for example

  • an apprentice, who was likely allowed to wash and dress hair, and do shaving, administer bandages and patches
  • the “rubberess” – a female massage therapist, who provided services such as giving water showers or ‘massaging’ skin with birch tree twigs to enhance blood circulation
  • a care taker for clothes

The barber’s income would not only come from entry fees to the bath, and the services as describes above, but also from

  • food and drinks
  • providing medicine
  • providing treatments: bloodletting, cupping, oral hygiene, wound dressing, manufacturing of bandages and patches.

bathing history Tirol

Tirol is Wellness Tourism Country

Today, Tirol (together with the rest of Austria which to me is world leading when it comes to modern wellness services and facilities) is known as Wellness Country par excellence.

Although modern Wellness Tourism in Tirol – where ‘springs seemingly trickle at every turn’ – is fairly young (compared to Switzerland for example), locals have always had a very strong connection to their bathing habits.

It was a popular believe, that water is fresher, the higher in altitude it is found. This may be the reason why first wellness tourist in Tirol have come from Northern Italy. People have escaped the hot and insufferable summer months, seeking relaxation, relief and refreshment from fresh and cold water in higher altitudes.

Thus, the early idea of summer-resorts has likely been impulse for the development of a bathing culture in Tirol.

Today, many of the old bathing facilities are only of local importance, however others have survived and become of interest to wellness tourists worldwide.

bathing history Tirol


Visit Tirol

Pre-Summit excursions to the Global Wellness Summit, taking place in Tirol in 2016, include the trip “Healing in the Hills, the thermal waters and grand spas in Austria”. A great opportunity to visit these great places of bathing history in Tirol.

‘Amongst the Austrian regions, no other has such a wealth of extraordinary and abundant natural beauties, such a variance and diversity of nature’s phenomenons such as the Alpine region of Tirol… The reasons for the love of the Alps are twofold: first, admiration of natural beauties and secondly aspiration for health’ (Nevinny, 1905)

Anja Eva Keller Spa & Wellness Consulting

  • translations

I did all translations myself. I am no trained translator and no native English speaker. Please forgive any misinterpretations and inexact wording 

  • Resources:

Bauernbadl‘n in Tirol: „Die Erholungsangebote von damals zeigen auch Zukunft“, by Hans-Rudi HUBER, Tirol Consult Unternehmensberatung Vortrag am Cluster Wellness Symposium – fafga’14 alpine superior Innsbruck 16. September 2014 

Robert Büchner: „Im städtischen Bad vor 500 Jahren“. Verlag Böhlau, Wien

Dr. Josef Nevinny, Das Badewesen Tirols und die Heilquellen dieses Landes insbesondere des Brennerbades, Innsbruck 1905