Take a spa break in Central Europe, immersing yourself in history and hot water without breaking the bank.

When it comes to relaxation, many people make a beeline for the nearest spa hotel, indulging in exotic treatments as diverse as chocolate massages and algae wraps to ease away their aches and pains. With the hectic pace of modern living, it is perhaps not surprising that spa tourism is more popular than ever.

The good news, however, is that the ultimate pampering weekend doesn't need to come with a five-star price tag. A swelling number of low-cost flights from the UK to Central Europe are opening up historic spa towns, where treatments can be snapped up for a fraction of what they would cost in more established spa destinations.

The most obvious starting point for your first foray into Central European spas is the Hungarian capital, Budapest. After a morning spent shopping or sightseeing it is time to experience the real Budapest by joining the locals doing what they do best, relaxing in one of over a hundred thermal baths.

The city's inhabitants claim that it was Budapest's curative waters that compelled first Neolithic man and then the Romans to settle here; and this bathing tradition has been enthusiastically embraced ever since. While the influence of the Ottoman Empire has long faded it is still possible to bathe beneath ornate Turkish domes in some of the city's older thermal baths. For a taste of eastern exoticism check out the Rudas or Kiraly baths in Buda (website: www.spasbudapest.com). Note sessions are generally male or female only, so it wise to check times in advance.

Pest meanwhile boasts one of the city's best thermal spas, which allows mixed bathing every day of the week. The lavish Szechenyi Baths (website: www.spasbudapest.com) is an expansive complex of saunas, steam rooms, whirlpools, formidably cold plunge pools, swimming pools and thermal baths where water temperatures reach 38°C (100°F).

Floating alongside people from all walks of life in the neo-baroque setting of the outdoor baths, as elderly men play chess around the periphery, is a sublime experience. Leg and foot treatments, therapeutic massage, mud wraps and personal bathing experiences are also available for added pampering.

Neighbouring Slovenia has also embraced the spa tradition, with 15 thermal spas (termes), and a growing number of improved spa hotels catering to the needs of locals and visitors. Here the trend is towards more modern complexes like the excellent value Terme Čatež (website: www.terme-catez.si) in the south of the country.

However Doljenske Toplice (website: www.krka-zdravilisca.si), one of Slovenia's leading spa towns, breaks the mould. A clutch of 19th-century buildings, dating from the days when the stressed out citizens of Vienna would have sought refuge here, bestow upon this historic settlement a real touch of class. Today, spa treatments include Shiatsu massage, reflexology, aromatherapy and hot stone therapy.

The indoor and outdoor pools at Dolenjske Toplice's lagoon come complete with underwater massages, waterfalls and water jets. In addition to its therapeutic waters, the terme offers a combination of dry and wet heat in its Oasis Centre. One of its more unique facilities is the Japanese sweat bath (a hot pool and waterfall heated to 40ºC/104ºF). If you are feeling brave you can even take a traditional Finnish sauna on the spa's nudist terrace.

Further north in the Czech Republic the elegant old spa resort of Karlovy Vary (website: www.karlovyvary.cz) awaits. Anyone who has seen the recent James Bond film, Casino Royale, may find this historic town strangely familiar. The producers thought that Karlovy Vary was so picturesque, they used it as a setting for the Montenegro scenes.

Formerly known as Karlsbad, the moneyed classes of Europe have been heading to the Czech Republic's most famous spa town since the tail end of the 19th century, when many of its most impressive buildings were built. Here you can drink the curative waters that flow from the fountains on the street (just buy yourself a porcelain cup with a spout) before heading to one of the spas.

Located in the centre of the old town, the Castle Spa (Zamecke Lazne) is Karlovy Vary's most attractive curative centre (website: http://english.edenhotels.cz).

Visitors can make the most of the thermal mineral pool (unique in the Czech Republic), whose healing properties are prescribed for ailments ranging from gastric disorders to back pain, as well as hydromassage, reflexology and therapeutic massages. A bargain four-hour pampering package, which includes a complete body massage, pearl bath and two other treatments, costs less than a standard Swedish massage in the UK.

The Elizabeth Baths (Alžbětiny Lázně) is another good option (website: www.spa5.cz). Behind the facade of this early 20th-century grande dame, visitors will find a 25m (82ft) swimming pool, thermal baths, whirlpools, steam rooms and saunas, as well as a range of massage and beauty treatment and more traditional therapies. For something a little more unusual plump for a honey massage, peat bath, or even a peat face mask.

Next time you fancy a soak in a thermal bath, a mud wrap, or therapeutic massage, don't check into that expensive five-star hotel in Western Europe. Instead make a beeline for one of these Central European historic spa towns, where relaxation and rejuvenation have been integral to daily life for over a century.

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