A look at the French holistic therapy

Portrait of Tammy Strobel
A look at the French holistic therapy
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Joseph de la Bonnardiére, a French doctor, invented the term ‘thalassotherapy’ 150 years ago to describe a new therapy using seawater. Treatment centres along the coast of Brittany became fashionable and chic spas now offer thalassotherapy worldwide. 

Many suffering from joint injuries or inflammation caused by sport swear by its restorative effects. Sensuous treatments range from being massaged while floating in salt water to detoxing algae wraps derived from seaweed. The wraps deep cleanse the skin and stimulate metabolism, which is why some people regard thalassotherapy as beneficial for weight loss. High-pressure water jets, Scottish showers (alternating between warm and cold water) plus aqua aerobics also feature in thalassotherapy programmes, which can relieve aches caused by long hours sitting at a desk.

Since antiquity people have been aware of the positive effects of seaside breaks and bathing in mineral-rich, geothermally heated water at inland spas. Scientific understanding of the benefits is more recent. In 1904 René Quinton, a French scientist, argued that seawater, when heated to body temperature, accelerates the absorption of mineral ions into the bloodstream, aiding the transport of toxins out of the body. His findings helped boost thalassotherapy’s popularity. 


“Water, in its various forms, has been the cornerstone of health and wellness in virtually all indigenous cultures. For centuries, civilisations have instinctively been drawn to areas of geothermal waters, establishing rituals and complex systems around bathing,” says Melissa Mettler, spa consultant at YTL Hotels, whose properties include The Gainsborough Bath Spa, a five- star property in Bath, England. 

“’Taking the waters has been a revered method of cleansing, purifications and ritual for thousands of years,” Mettler explains. “Not all water is created equal, mind you. Thalassotherapy, being the therapeutic use of seawater, generally contains more sodium and iodine than traditional thermal waters. Each source of natural mineral water bursts forth its own cocktail of mineral components giving it unique and varied healing properties.” 

Weightlessness is a key aspect of thalassotherapy’s hydrotherapy massages. Prior to starting courses of treatment, which can last anything between a couple of days to three weeks, guests’ health, along with their individual requirements and wishes, are assessed by consultants. 

“First we have to know if the purpose is to relax or to treat some musculoskeletal health issue,” says Soraya Sacoor of the Thalasso Caparica, a 15-minute drive south of Lisbon, Portugal. A treatment plan is then developed, including medical appointments if necessary. The aim is to create a holistic offering, “because we believe that health is the result of a balance between the body and the mind.” Rest and relaxation are regarded as integral to treatments. 

“The therapeutic effect is due to the fact that seawater contains minerals and trace elements essential to the body,” adds Sacoor. She goes on to explain that “the temperature of the water, 32 to 38 degrees Celsius , is important, because it dilates the pores allowing the absorption of minerals and trace elements contained in seawater.” Because of its pleasant temperature, the water is relaxing and helps relieve pain. 

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Ivana Mijatovic, spa manager at the Thalasso Spa Lepa Vida in Slovenia, reiterates the view that unwinding and enjoying the coastline is an essential aspect of thalassotherapy. Her spa is within Seovlje Salina Nature Park, which features salt pans that have been operational for over seven centuries. The spa makes use of naturally produced salt, brine and fango (salt pan mud) during open-air treatments. 

In recent years Switzerland has become a popular thalassotherapy destination. The landlocked country has a number of highly regarded spas. Not everyone, though, believes they offer true thalassotherapy. 

“Thalassotherapy is the medical use of the beneficial properties of the sea and substances extracted from the sea in a preventative and remedial aim. Proper thalassotherapy can thus only be developed and carried out at the sea coast,” says Mijatovic. 

“Our thalasso spa is surrounded by the salt fields. The salt evaporation creates a special microclimate saturated with salt aerosols – a saline microclimate. Already in the 13th century, local medicinal elements of Seovlje Salina Nature Park – salt pan mud, brine and salt – were used in alternative medicine by monks of the Benedictine monastery in Portorož,” she adds. 


That nearby coastal city evolved into one of Europe’s grandest resort towns during the late 19th century. Prominent members of Austro-Hungarian society spent time in Portorož, whose climate was believed to be restorative and, in contrast to modern thinking, most popular during the winter. 

Sunshine plus 1,148km of coastline have helped Tunisia evolve into one of the world’s leading thalassotherapy destinations. It’s possible to book one-off treatments or taster sessions to acquire an idea of what participation in a longer programme entails. Typically, anyone booking onto a multi-day course will immerse themselves into the treatment pool on a morning and experience around four hours of intensive therapy. Afternoons tend to be kept free for rest and relaxation. Many newcomers are surprised by how exhausting the superficially easy-going regime proves, and subsequently stretch out on sand lapped by the Mediterranean Sea. Guests booking a treatment in Tunisia are likely to feel the beneficial effect of ghassoul, a type of mineral-rich clay which leaves skin soft while deep cleansing and accelerating detoxification. 

How we travel and the speed of communications has changed markedly since Dr de la Bonnardiére initially used the term thalassotherapy. The basic human need for downtime and de-stressing has not. A century-and-a-half on, his water-based treatments are, again, coming into vogue.