©Vichy|Xavier Thomas
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World Heritage Registration

On July 24, 2021, the 44th World Heritage Committee, meeting in Fuzhou (China), inscribed the eleven major European spa towns, including Vichy, on the World Heritage List, recognizing their outstanding universal value. These eleven cities* form a carefully selected series among the hundreds of spa towns in Europe. This transnational property (bringing together seven different countries) is recognized as providing an exceptional testimony to the phenomenon of European thermalism which reached its peak between the 18th century and the first decades of the 20th century. The springs, the thermal establishments, the places of promenades, operas, theaters, music pavilions, stations, parks, cafés, golf courses or racecourses… all that we preserve today of this splendid period, testifies to this exceptional intangible value. At first glance, this Unesco World Heritage listing seems to be a matter of course. But in order to obtain the precious label, it was necessary to meet a very precise set of specifications. We talk about property, criteria, attributes and sites… Explanation of the text.


A good

This is how UNESCO designates the elements that it consecrates to underline the universal value, the irreplaceable treasure that they represent for the whole of humanity. In order to be included in the world heritage inventory, a property must therefore represent an inestimable value for humanity, but it must also prove this contribution by satisfying at least one of the ten criteria laid down by UNESCO.

An application on

Two criteria

UNESCO thus recognized that the serial nomination of the Great Water Cities of Europe met two criteria.

  • The first states that the property should “exhibit a considerable interchange of influences during a given period or within a given cultural area on the development of architecture or technology, monumental arts, town planning or landscape design.”
    In fact, water cities have been places of research and exchange of ideas and knowledge, thus promoting medical and scientific progress in a major way. According to the same mechanism but in a different register, from the XVIIIth century to the beginning of the XXth century, the great thermal spas have also contributed to the dissemination of the great artistic and architectural currents in the European cities.
  • The second criterion implies that a property must “bear a unique or at least exceptional testimony to a cultural tradition or to a civilization which is living or disappeared.” On this point, UNESCO has recognized that the great water cities of Europe were the scene of a cultural tradition that flourished from the eighteenth to the early twentieth century of “taking the waters.” This was not only a curative practice, but also a set of social activities and recreational practices associated with the cure.
An application on

6 attributes

The great water cities of Europe share a family DNA that has legitimized their serial candidacy. This unique genetic heritage is expressed in common characteristics that allow to measure the exceptional universal value brought to the history and heritage of humanity.

  • Location and setting

    There is a Wanderer sleeping in every visitor and it is necessary to give him to see, to contemplate. In some resorts, a steep topography is enough to create drama, but when nature is not enough, the hand of the architect, the builder or the gardener is at work to create panoramas, invent rivers, plan surprises, calculate chances.

  • The sources

    The water of the thermal spring is the product of a slow cycle, of a long path. And it is these unexpected geological encounters, along the underground faults, that make its stability, its chemical composition and the formidable diversity of its natural properties: temperature, taste, flow rate, pressure, clarity, purity, minerality, gaseousness, radioactivity…
    It is also around the raw material of the springs that the medical protocols crystallized, that the bath, the drink, the inhalation, the injection of gas or the application of thermal peloids were codified and that finally a whole organization and an infrastructure of care were deployed everywhere in Europe.

  • The urban complex of the city of waters

    In Europe, the development of water cities obeyed a common urban program, unfolding according to a spa plan that rationalized space while meeting the expectations of ever-increasing numbers of curists. From the spring, the therapeutic landscape spreads in concentric circles through the city, creating a soothing environment. The barycenter is the spring, which becomes a refreshment bar and is itself integrated into the “trinkhalle”, the starting point of the walk, the routine of the curist, which aims to stimulate the assimilation of the waters between two refreshment bars. Then comes the Kurhaus, the home of the visitor, where one can relax and socialize between two concerts in the kiosk. A few steps away, there is the ever larger and more luxurious spa. Then come the recreational and cultural spaces: concert halls, opera houses, theaters and casinos. A few more steps and it is the domain of hotels and innumerable villas inviting to the holiday. Finally, the day ends as it began, with a religious ceremony as cosmopolitan as the resort’s frequentation, in the synagogue, the temple, the Anglican or Orthodox church.

  • The therapeutic and recreational landscape

    The spa park is a cultural presentation of nature that gives the landscape a curative power that complements the cure itself. To break with the disease, one must break with one’s habits, one’s daily life, and get a change of scenery. One must undertake an initiatory journey towards health, a return to the state of nature. In the same register of new activities, from the end of the 19th century, the large water cities were equipped with sports infrastructures, such as golf, lawn tennis, and racecourses, adapted to the emerging practice of hygienic and social distractions.

  • Support infrastructures

    Among the common attributes we find a set of infrastructures more linked to the development of the thermal activity: artisanal, industrial or commercial sites dedicated to the collection, to the extraction, to the routing, to the production, to the conditioning and to the expedition of waters, mineral salts, pastilles, creams, drinks and other derived products; railway infrastructures; infrastructures linked to the supply and to the refuelling

  • Centers for the creation of international scientific and cultural values

    Sixth and last attribute, immaterial this one, their contribution to scientific and artistic culture, as well as to the emergence of a local heritage. The great European water cities have attracted an incredible concentration of artists, composers, musicians, actors, painters, writers and poets among the most avant-garde and talented of their time. They found inspiration, a stage and an audience for their art. Similarly, the artistic exchanges and influences of architects from all over Europe contributed to a transnational diffusion of architectural and decorative styles: Belle Epoque, Art Nouveau, Art Deco… And in these real summer capitals that were the great European spas, the whole world gathered and socialized. These first great migrations were already the occasion to make business or, in the resorts elected by the rulers of the world of that time, to maintain diplomatic relations in a more informal context. Thus, thanks to their accommodation capacity, the great water cities hosted all sorts of large events and congresses.

11 cities in Europe

A transnational ranking