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Piešťany: Take it easy

PIEŠŤANY, I discovered on my last visit, is the kind of place you limp into and skip out of.
The most famous spa town in Slovakia, Piešťany has attracted visitors for two millennia. Roman soldiers are believed to have first bathed in its healing waters around the time of the birth of Christ. Then, in 1421, King Žigmund of Luxembourg travelled great distances to sample the waters for himself. Seemingly everyone who is anyone has been here, from Bulgarian Czar Ferdinand I to former PM Vladimír Mečiar, hockey star Jaromír Jágr and supermodel Claudia Schiffer.


PIEŠŤANY spa houses offer cures for a host of ills.
photo: Chris Togneri

PIEŠŤANY, I discovered on my last visit, is the kind of place you limp into and skip out of.

The most famous spa town in Slovakia, Piešťany has attracted visitors for two millennia. Roman soldiers are believed to have first bathed in its healing waters around the time of the birth of Christ. Then, in 1421, King Žigmund of Luxembourg travelled great distances to sample the waters for himself. Seemingly everyone who is anyone has been here, from Bulgarian Czar Ferdinand I to former PM Vladimír Mečiar, hockey star Jaromír Jágr and supermodel Claudia Schiffer.

Piešťany's healing waters, which bubble up from the banks of the Váh and Rameno Váhu rivers, is said to cure a wide range of ailments, from nervous disorders to tendon and ligament ailments. But the water also works wonders on visitors hungry for nothing more than a bit of weekend pampering.

That is exactly what I was after, although I also needed some healing. After weeks of hiking and stumbling around the country, my left heel was so taut I could barely walk, those parts of my feet that had not already become callused had blistered, and my ribs were still terribly sore from a little spill I'd taken off a ladder in Slovenský raj (Slovak Paradise) National Park. So after checking into my hotel, I hobbled straight off to the public baths (located on Spa Island behind the Napoleon spas).

Ohhhhh my! After soaking for 20 minutes in the blissfully warm water, I spent the ensuing 12 minutes moaning in ecstasy as a stern elderly woman worked over my sore muscles. It was so heavenly that I almost went through the whole treatment a second time around.

Resisting the urge, I instead staggered out into a brilliant spring day feeling fit to take on the world. But that's not what you do here. In Piešťany, you take it easy. You sit in outdoor cafes, feed bread to the swans in the river, stroll the numerous gardens and parks. Or you explore the serene city centre and river area.


SPA island, complete with frogs.
photo: Chris Togneri

Martina Moravcová, an Olympic silver-medal-winning swimmer from Piešťany, told this magazine last year that "Piešťany has lovely parks and a very relaxed atmosphere. It is also famous as a city in which bicycles are the main mode of transport since the town is small and has many parks and pedestrian zones."

So on the advice of the 'Slovak Fish' (as Moravcová was affectionately dubbed during the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney), I rented a bike and took to the town.

Spa Island is the main attraction. Several grand hotels and spa houses create a sprawling complex offering an impressive 2,300 beds to visitors on any given night. The best part about the island is its parks. In the spring and summer, a swirl of colour bursts from the ground. Shaded groves, limitless beds of flowers, and a tranquil water garden all lend to the easygoing atmosphere.

Further adding to the city's sedate character is the weather. According to the book 'Slovakia Spas - Health and Beauty Walks', the town is in one of the warmest and sunniest regions in Slovakia. "The sun shines here for around 2,080 hours per year," it reads. That equates into sunshine for nearly half of the daylight hours (4,380) in a year.

Just north of the bridge that connects the city centre to Spa Island is a rustic suspension bridge leading to a secluded slice of land in the middle of the Váh. Ten minutes later, walkers, joggers and bikers find themselves lost in a tranquil river world. The only sounds are the gentle murmur of the water, the buzzing insects, and the wild calls of birds.

Lying down on my own private riverbank, I decided that I needed a tad more pampering. So after taking an early afternoon nap, I climbed leisurely back onto my bike, peddled into town and reserved my hotel room for another night. And now I can report that the bath and massage feel just as good the second time around as they do the first.

To get to Piešťany from Bratislava, take the main Bratislava-Košice train line for approximately one hour (80 km) north-east. For train departure times, check www.zsr.sk.

The article will be published in July in The Slovak Spectator's seventh annual travel guide, Spectacular Slovakia 2002. To pre-order copies of this year's 150-page full-colour magazine contact Lucia Hakeová at 02/5292-0451, or e-mail her at lucia.hakeova@gpp.sk

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