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.

Stranger in a Strange Land

An American's First Encounter with a Slovak Spa

During my first week in Slovakia, I experienced my first taste of a Central European spa at Piešťany. Here are my impressions.

The public baths were closed, so a worker led me to the Hotel Irma, one of the many elaborate bath houses on the village's Spa Island. I found my way to a door marked "men" in Slovak and German and entered a locker room of sorts. To the left a row of beds where massages were being administered; straight ahead another row of booths, each containing a bed. In many of those beds men lay nestled in sheets, their pink faces peeking out from their swaddling. Men - aged, say, 20 to 60 - walked about naked, led here and there by the brisk and somewhat brusque spa attendants dressed in vaguely medical whites.

The atmosphere was medical, clinical, but not in the style of an American hospital. Everything was too lived in, too faded for that. And rather than the smell of disinfectants, the scent of sulphur - pure and pungent - permeated everything. That, and the dim lighting and shabby look of the place, set the scene completely apart from any medical or spa setting that I've seen.

No pool was visible, and it wasn't clear what I should do next. This strange world and its inscrutable customs had flummoxed me.

Finally, one of the brusque fellows confronted me in sharp German; he had pinned me as a foreigner without my having spoken. I answered in halting Slovak, and he directed me to a row of chairs where several gentlemen were already sitting. Singular, this, I thought. What are we waiting for and why? A pattern emerged. The terse spa workers orchestrated the movement from waiting area to booth; from booth to a doorway through which, I surmised, the pool was located; and then back through this door to the booth again.

Finally, I was beckoned, led into a booth, and ordered to strip naked. Then the attendant pointed the way to the pool. Through the doorway, down a few stairs, there it was, steamy, sulphurous, full of bodies wrapped in a sort of twilight haze. To the right was a shower. The procedure was this: You shower, then step into the pool, then find yourself a place to sit on the edge.

The water was warm, murky in the dim natural light. Maybe 10 metres above, there was a domed skylight, stained grey with age. I watched the vapour rise and disappear into the murky grey light. The smell of sulphur and bodies was thick. A partition, about four metres high, divided the men's side from the women's.

The water, perhaps 1.5 metres deep, contained about 10 men, mostly sitting near the edge, luxuriating. There was something superb about these naked men, sitting together in this strange room, partaking of this ritual. Silence was largely observed; I'm told that in a different bathhouse in Piešťany a sign hangs over the proceedings with the claim, in several languages, that "silence heals." I am taking a cure, panacea of 19th century literature, I thought to myself.

Alas, there's a 20-minute limit - but this is all you really want in this dim, dank underworld of naked male bodies. Because of the diligence of the brisk spa workers, the pool remained in constant flux, with almost always 10 men in the pool at any one time. Despite the movement, languor hung over the room like a weight.

So I wandered out of the pool back to the booth. There, I lay on the cot in the centre of my booth, and a spa worker wrapped me first in a sheet and then in a blanket. I lay, eyes closed, sweating but not uncomfortable, still wet (presumably to let my skin soak in the water even as it sweated out impurities). I thought of fragile Kafka, racked by tuberculosis and seeking a cure, unsuccessfully, in Bohemian spas; and of the prince in Dostoyevsky's The Idiot, who ends the book speechless, idiotic, and happy, living out his days at an alpine spa.

I was shaken from reverie by the attendant: time for the massage. I was led naked into the massage area and deposited on to the massage table. The masseur unceremoniously squirted warm oil onto my back and began the procedure, all the while discussing some important matter with a colleague. The massage was perfunctory and rushed.

Nevertheless I emerged from the spa feeling revitalised and ready to plunge anew into the local beer and food.

-Tom Philpott

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

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