These articles were published in the Spectacular Slovakia travel guide, published annually by The Slovak Spectator since 1996. The latest editions can be obtained from our online shop.

Murky Waters: Negotiating Slovakia's Spas

By Tom Philpott

    Statue of the town symbol of Piešťany.
 Statue of the town symbol of Piešťany.
 Photo: Ján Svrček

In the days of Habsburg rule, Upper Hungary - i.e., present-day Slovakia - possessed some of Central Europe's most elegant health spas. Dukes, counts, empresses and even the odd Tsar flocked in from all over to "take the waters" amid architectural and natural splendour.

Even today, it's easy to see how Slovak spas attained such status. They tend to be tucked into picturesque, mountainous settings, on the edge of forests and often on the banks of rivers. There are Slovak spas in which even breathing in the fresh air feels like a health-giving activity. And geologically, Slovakia is tailor-made for a thriving spa culture. Seemingly every second village boasts a spring, spouting mineral-rich and often thermal water.

But visitors looking for pleasure and relaxation in Slovakia's spas will have to accustom themselves to two important notions.

The Spa as Hospital

First, the spa tradition inherited by present-day Slovaks was always rigorously medical. The nobles who frequented Upper Hungary's spas generally did so to treat various medical "complaints," not simply to melt away stress in a thermal bath. Thus the spa served as a kind of hospital amid the trees and the hot springs - a concept that still flourishes today.

And that is why Slovak spas tend to be havens for the ill seeking relief from pain. In fact, doctors actually prescribe stays at spas to patients suffering diseases as serious as cancer, and the state healthcare system usually picks up the tab. Thus when Western European or U.S. travellers arrive at a Slovak spa town, they're often surprised that serious and not frivolous business is taking place. Walk into a typical spa building, and the first thing you see isn't people basking pleasantly in thermal waters. Rather, you're often confronted with a bare waiting-room, presided over by clipboard-carrying, white-clad workers, often with stethoscopes dangling from their necks.

These establishments do not cater easily to weekend pleasure-seekers. Most Slovak spas strongly recommend one- to three-week stays, with a program designed to combat specific illnesses. Remarkably, each spa specialises in fighting a particular set of ailments, the roster of which makes bracing reading. Bardejovské Kúpele, the spa village just outside the northeastern town of Bardejov, provides an excellent example. One of Slovakia's oldest and most prestigious spas, Bardejovské Kúpele specialises in treating "women's illnesses, anaemia, respiratory, digestive, and urinary defects, nerve diseases, and circulatory illnesses." In addition, the spa prides itself on its "post-oncological-procedure convalescence" opportunities. Impressive stuff, but not necessarily the kind of thing you're looking for on a weekend jaunt.

The contrast with Hungary's thermal-bath culture could not be sharper. There, casual visitors are encouraged to step from hot bath to warm bath to sauna to steam room and then back again, with perhaps a beer in between. An impulse to enjoy water, rather than doctor's orders, propels people into the baths, which are a common form of recreation. Why the difference in two regions so closely related by geography and history?

It probably has to do with Turkish influence. The Ottoman Empire, thoroughly Muslim, controlled present-day Hungary for 250 years, and it left behind a rich bathing culture based on the need to wash for prayer five times a day. The Ottomans never managed to hold much Slovak territory for any significant length of time, and so its bathing culture left no imprint here.

The Decline of Spa Architecture

The second shock that awaits the Western European or U.S. visitor to a Slovak spa is the often-dreadful architecture. It wasn't always thus.

If the Habsburgs lacked a hedonistic spa culture, they did have style. And in the older spa towns, such as Piešťany and Bardejovské Kúpele, there are grand, well-restored imperial-era buildings that wouldn't look out of place in Vienna or Budapest. A stroll through the manicured parks that surround these structures can evoke regal times past. The Irma building in Piešťany, for example, boasts arched and curved windows, as well as a domed roof. Its grand entrance, framed by the supports to a cheerful patio garden overhead, beckons the visitor inside to relax in its famed waters.

However, the 20th century was not kind to the spas or their architecture. The Habsburg monarchy along with its Russian counterpart, crumbled during World War I, depriving the spas of an important constituency and removing the wherewithal to maintain their former elegance. During the First Czechoslovak Republic of 1918-1938, the government partially revived spa culture by nationalising several existing spas and building a few new ones. But that effort diminished with the collapse of the Republic and the onset of World War II. By the time the Communists gained control of Czechoslovakia in 1948, the old building stock had deteriorated from decades of neglect.

For better or worse, the Czechoslovak government saw fit to nationalise the spas and "modernise" them - i.e., turn them into pillars of the national healthcare system. Rather than restore the grand old buildings, the government often preferred to bulldoze them. In their place, they erected vast, institutional structures that kill any spirit of recreation in many Slovak spa towns. Block-like monuments to crude functionalism (see Architecture chapter), these buildings sit uncomfortably among the restored old jewels of a past age. For the Western European or US visitor, they evoke unhappy images of the modern, clinical hospital - the kind of place you would go to, ironically, only on doctor's orders or to visit an ailing loved one.

The example par excellence might be Balneotherapy in Bardejovské Kúpele. Its literal name squares perfectly with its stark layout. It's a long, squat, white building, with heavily tinted panels of windows that span each floor, giving it a "top-secret" look - the kind of place you could imagine as the setting for men in white coats getting up to some vaguely sinister research. Its modernist flourishes include a staircase motif, in which each of its four floors is set back a few metres from the one below it. Yet this only adds to its overall cold feeling. In short, this is not a retreat from the rigors of the modern world; this is the modern world writ large.

Prospects for the Future

In general, Slovakia's spas offer limited appeal to foreign tourists. Yet, the country undeniably has huge potential to create recreational bathing spaces that could appeal to foreigners and locals alike. In addition to its dense network of thermal and mineral springs, the country has the lessons of two historical periods to draw from.

From the imperial days, Slovak spas could retain the insight that visitors want beautiful spaces. No well person will visit a spa that feels like a hospital; and sick people would probably gain more benefit from surroundings that weren't so depressingly clinical. And the Communists contributed the idea that the spas should be for everyone, not just a small ruling elite.

And from neighbouring Hungary comes the most important lesson: for spas to have broad appeal, they need to be based on the idea of hedonism, on the premise that people take to warm water not only because it's good for them, but because it feels good.

Already, a spa called Aphrodite in the mountain resort of Rajecké Teplice is taking these lessons to heart (see "Rajecké Teplice: Aquatic fantasyland"). Its success shows that Slovakia's spas can move beyond the cold medical rigor of the past and create spaces where people - even sick people - can enjoy themselves.

These articles and related information were published in Spectacular Slovakia 2003.

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