Travel: Geoff Hill gets poked, kneaded, broiled, wined and dined in Slovak spa resort
On a health drive, Belfast travel writer Geoff Hill headed to the world-renowned spa town of Piešt'any, where he tried bio-balancing, being broiled and some excellent Slovakian wines
ONCE upon a time in what is now Slovakia, a little boy and his sister lived in a castle, although how they could afford the mortgage payments is a mystery.
One day a wicked witch wandering through the woods came upon the castle and muttered darkly: “Aha, I’ve read about these two in Witch? Magazine. And since I’m a wicked witch, I’d better do something wicked.”
After a few minutes’ wicked thought, she cast a spell evicting them both from the castle and, just to be extra wicked, turned the boy into a peacock. That’s wicked witches for you.
Fleeing in terror across the wooden bridge to the island of Piešt’any, the peacock fell and broke his leg, lay down in a pool of warm mud to die, and woke up the next morning to find his leg mysteriously cured.
Fast forward to the Napoleonic Wars in the 17th century, and a spa was built on Piešt’any for crippled soldiers to heal their wounds in the thermal water bubbling up from springs 6000ft underground at 69C.
However, with no bedrooms in the spa, they, and the civilians who came after them in the 19th century, were forced to stay in the hovels of local peasants, with outside toilets and yards ripe with manure.
Then, in 1912, local entrepreneur ?udovít Winter built the fabulous 118-room Thermia Palace spa hotel beside the Napoleonic one, its design a soaring hymn to Art Nouveau and its logo a cured patient breaking a crutch over his knee. After which he could nip out the back for a round on the country’s first golf course.
Its first client was Tsar Ferdinand of Bulgaria. Within a week it was filled with wealthy foreigners and, through the 1920s and 30s, it was the watering hole of sheikhs, kings and maharajahs; so popular that it had an agency in London and direct flights from there to the local airport.
Winter deserved the success, battling heart attacks, nervous breakdowns, regular financial crises, two world wars, the compulsory purchase of the hotel by the Nazis and then, when he got it back after the Second World War, the commandeering of it by the Communists, after which they banned Winter from his own hotel.
He died in poverty in 1968, aged 98, but his legacy lives on in the Thermia Palace, now reopened under new owners the Ensana group after a €4 million refurbishment.
Its clients still come from all over the world to cure everything from joint problems to skin disorders, including Arabs who stay for up to six weeks at a time, and a number of Israelis, creating a disturbing vision of riots on the west bank of the heated outdoor pool.
However, when I arrived, all was peaceful as I went to be interviewed by medical director Dr Boris Banovsky then examined by his assistant Dr Gabriela Sebikova, who managed to look simultaneously stern and kind.
Mind you, she is used to dealing with clients who react with horror to the news that they’re actually going to have to do some exercise.
“Mmm,” she said, “you have incipient arthritis in your shoulders and knees. Do you play sport?”
“Volleyball for years, and now tennis,” I said.
“I thought as much. I recommend the mirror pool, the mud pool, a back massage and bio-balancing. The mud is sedimental, and cured for a year in the thermal water.”
Which is why an hour later I found myself up to my neck in water at 39C, being broiled until I was oven-ready; a process completed by the mud pool, even hotter and with a layer of viscous gloop at the bottom which made me feel as if I was a primitive being emerging from the primordial slime. Or a bloke, to use the technical term.
Feeling simultaneously sleepy and bouncy, I presented myself to a charming girl called Angelica, who proceeded to lovingly knead my back to death. After that, it was off to 'bio-balancing' by Darina.
“Take off everything,” she said, then proceeded to poke, prod and manipulate my hips, spine and shoulders for an hour. It was fabulous. I felt like I’d died and gone to heaven.
To pull myself together before dinner, I went for a potter with guide Maria across the pedestrian bridge into Piešt’any town, passing a plaque saying it had been built in 1932, destroyed by the fascist army in April 1945, and in 1956 rebuilt for the benefit and health of the working class.
The town itself, a pleasant burgh of 28,000 souls, is an eclectic mix of dour Soviet buildings sitting glumly beside neo-romantic ones from when Slovakia was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, then Czechoslovakia.
Side by side, they look like a businessman uncomfortably sharing a park bench with a ballerina, but both look pretty beside the 700-seat concert hall, built in concrete in 1985 as a last sullen nod to brutalism.
Much nicer was the lovely old Slovan Hotel, also owned by the Ensana group but boarded up since the same year the concert hall opened.
“The ballroom is wonderful, but the springs below it are only 20C, so I fear it will never reopen,” said Maria, with a sigh.
We found ourselves at last in the natural history museum, in which the most impressive exhibit was a woolly mammoth’s tusk about 9ft long, and most moving the 4,000-year-old skeleton of a woman who looked as if she had just curled up for a nap.
Suitably awakened, impressed and moved, I wandered back via the old Napoleonic spa, on the corner of which is a permanently running tap from which locals still come to drink, using little china jugs with spouts to cool the water. It smells like rotten eggs, and tastes only slightly better.
And so to dinner in the gloriously lofty dining room. Rather weirdly, lunch is à la carte and dinner a buffet rather than the other way around, but the waiters, like all the staff, are funny, friendly and professional. Our waiter impressed everyone not only by his pouring technique, but by pronouncing the T in Moët & Chandon, since founder Claude Moët was Dutch.
Across the world, pedants everywhere breathed a sigh of relief.
Thankfully, a stay doesn’t include fasting or abstinence, and the food and drink is so good that I patented my own regime of manipulating my liver into submission using the rather splendid local wines.
I got so good at it that I may well turn professional once I get my Slovakian Liver Bio-Balancing Certificate.
:: Getting there
- I flew to Vienna, from where it’s a two-hour transfer across the border into a country which before the fall of the Iron Curtain was a land of countless tiny rooms lit by 40-watt bulbs and still with fear. Today, since both Austria and Slovakia are in the EU, there’s not even a border post.
- Alternatively, the train takes two and a half hours, or Ryanair flies from Dublin to Bratislava, which is an hour by train or bus to Piešt’any.
:: Being there
- Packages at Thermia Palace start at €145 per night for a minimum stay of two nights, including accommodation, half board, medical consultation and one-two treatments per day, depending on length of stay. A seven-night full board stay with up to 24 treatments starts at €155 per night.
:: The company has other hotels within walking distance, with two-star prices from €45 per night for half board, consultation and up to two treatments a day.
:: For details, visit https://www.ensanahotels.com/thermia-palace/en