Building a legacy on heat and cold

IF A picture paints a thousand words, then this one reads like a cheap crime novel.
It's a blurred JPEG taken in the bowels of Jan Telensky's strange hotel. He is laughing and jabbing his elbow into Sk1.6 billion in "used notes".

IF A picture paints a thousand words, then this one reads like a cheap crime novel.

It's a blurred JPEG taken in the bowels of Jan Telensky's strange hotel. He is laughing and jabbing his elbow into Sk1.6 billion in "used notes".

I've recently returned from his mountainside Slovak kingdom, AquaCity. And out of the blue, this picture landed on my desk. It doesn't look much like a publicity shot. . . too blurry.

And that's where this picture runs out of words. There are so many questions about Mr. Telensky, a thousand pictures could never answer them.

Questions like: Why was Jan Telensky, a Czech trainee locksmith, condemned to death twice? How did he cheat the grave and rise to be one of the richest men in Britain?

And how did he end up staking his reputation on a cryochamber and his own vast interpretation of Britain's world-famous Eden Project?

Let's head back to Poprad, the creaking gate to the High Tatras. Jan is almost three parts through building his ever-evolving hotel there. It is costing him a cool Ł200 million. But it could be a lot more.

On the face of it, Poprad is a strange place for such an expensive venture. Row after row of old tenement buildings, listless youths on street corners.

But the first phase of AquaCity opened in 2003 and, immediately, Poprad became one of the world's most unusual holiday resorts.

Back then, if you wanted to visit Poprad, you had to fly to Bratislava and drive through the mountains. Nowadays, budget airlines fly to Poprad-Tatry International Airport.

Jan met his wife, Alenka, in Poprad and it was because of her family that he first saw his ecological vision of the future.

They showed him the blow-hole of a thermal lake two miles underground.

He also knew about cryotherapy - subjecting patients to temperatures as cold as -120 Celsius to improve their blood flow and treat pain-related conditions. It's three minutes of death that can enhance your life.

So he set out to build a hotel that would use the earth's heat to make it sustainable, and use the restorative power of extreme cold to help guests and patients.

"I don't have to heat my hotel, the earth does it for me," Telensky said. "I use the latest technology to cool it to around 35 Celsius. The heat and the minerals in the thermal waters improve health and lives.

"When I first came here, my brother-in-law showed me a natural miracle under my feet. An eternal source of power, warmth and health. So, I harnessed it and created one of the most ecologically sound hotels in the world.''

The 2003 phase of AquaCity is unattractive. Big and square. Yellow and brown. Tin and pine.

The second phase of AquaCity, on the other hand, is a masterpiece of stainless-steel balconies and glass. The cryochamber stands like a sentinel at the marbled entrance, earning Jan his "Mr. Cool" tag.

It cost him Ł8 million to build AquaCity One four years ago. Then at the end of 2005 he ripped whole chunks down and began to rebuild it. The second phase was closer to Ł25 million.

By 2008 the third phase of AquaCity should be opened at a total cost of Ł200 million. This time Jan is going to build a four-star hotel, an international shopping mall and a glass-domed garden to rival the Eden Project in St. Austell, Cornwall. He already has a farm growing organic food for his hotel kitchens.

"Years ago Slovakia and the Czech Republic were filled with rubbish, anything that wasn't bio-degradable," he said. "Plastic bottles, plastic bags, rotting cars. Everything that was ugly. So, I shipped in a recycling plant. Now the place is better. It's not perfect, but it is better."

He smiles and tips his glass to me. And his obsession with the cryochamber begins to make sense: little deaths will always make you stronger.

It was the threat of facing two not-so-little deaths 40 years ago that put Jan on the road to his phenomenal business success.

"You know, in 1968 the communists handed me two death sentences because I tried to disable their tanks in the Czech uprising," he said. "At 18 years old I'd nearly gambled my life away over something I believed in strongly - the freedom of my homeland. I fled to Britain before they could shoot me and I learned to never be afraid of anything in this world or the next again."

This lack of fear has made him an invincible opponent. He plans every business deal like an invasion.

"Enemies say I act like Genghis Khan," he said. "It's true. You cross me and I'll hound you. Oppose me and I'll bulldoze you - but do a deal with me and you'll be a happy man."

He's done some unorthodox deals with his staff too, making some so happy they've been with him for more than 20 years.

"The good people get what they want. . . it could be a house, or it could be a new car," he said. "People who aren't so dedicated to my businesses but are trustworthy get what they deserve.

"The answer to 99 out of a hundred questions is money. It's the answer to that remaining question that makes things interesting."

And things have been interesting enough over the last four decades to earn Jan hundreds of millions. He has a house in Oxfordshire, a seaside apartment in Brighton, homes in the Bahamas and Dubai, a Manhattan apartment, penthouses in Prague and Poprad and a 2,000-acre farm in the Czech Republic.

"I've reached that stage now when I can't stop making money, no matter how hard I try," he said. "So, I've decided to leave a legacy."

AquaCity is Jan's first step. He's already been awarded an armful of green awards.

While his training school and property businesses continue to churn out money, Jan has the time to work for his legacy in ways that on the surface appear to be both eccentric and bizarre

"People might think I'm a bit crazy - but all I'm trying to do is make the world better," he said.

In the meantime, he is busy having fun. His latest venture is a virtual reality swimming pool, where people can swim among 3-D sea creatures in a laser show.

And Jan revealed to me that he has found another thermal lake. He's going to use this to provide free heat for Poprad's poorest.

Well, I finally began to decipher the true story behind this grainy little photo - Jan Telensky has set out to save the world. And he's started with a rundown Slovak city.

Leigh G. Banks can be reached at

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