PIEŠŤANY IS SLOVAKIA'S MOST-VISITED SPA TOWN, FREQUENTED BY AS MANY INVALIDS AS PLEASURE SEEKERS

Taking the waters: Treat or treatment?

SLOVAKIA has a rather schizophrenic relationship with its many spa towns, of which well-heeled Piešťany, 80 kilometres north of Bratislava, is the best known.
On the one hand, thermal waters have been considered therapeutic since ancient times, so it's no surprise that Piešťany's sulphur-laden springs - hot at 67 degrees Celsius - have provided treatment to thousands of people suffering from a range of illnesses for centuries. The water and mud are particularly good for "inflammatory and degenerative rheumatic diseases", publicity literature states.
On the other hand, thermal water is fun. The Romans knew that, building extensive recreational baths in every corner of their empire. So did the Turks. And now Western hoteliers are just getting the hang of it, putting in "spa facilities" wherever space and money allows in the hope that they will attract more guests as a result.



SLOVAKIA has a rather schizophrenic relationship with its many spa towns, of which well-heeled Piešťany, 80 kilometres north of Bratislava, is the best known.

On the one hand, thermal waters have been considered therapeutic since ancient times, so it's no surprise that Piešťany's sulphur-laden springs - hot at 67 degrees Celsius - have provided treatment to thousands of people suffering from a range of illnesses for centuries. The water and mud are particularly good for "inflammatory and degenerative rheumatic diseases", publicity literature states.

On the other hand, thermal water is fun. The Romans knew that, building extensive recreational baths in every corner of their empire. So did the Turks. And now Western hoteliers are just getting the hang of it, putting in "spa facilities" wherever space and money allows in the hope that they will attract more guests as a result.

So in a place like Piešťany, where every second building is a spa, when does relaxation become treatment, or the other way around? Does the frivolous pleasure seeker have a moral obligation to get out of the water to make room for a pensioner crippled by arthritis?

Some might say that the Slovak medical practice of prescribing free spa treatment to certain patients could explain why the two traditional uses of thermal waters have become so intertwined here. After all, when the government's footing the bill, it's better for everyone concerned if a few days spent taking the waters doesn't look too much like a holiday.

If you're not in Piešťany as a guest of the state, your visit could take a number of forms. The umbrella organisation Slovak Health Spa Piešťany (Slovenské liečebné kúpele Piešťany) runs a dozen spa hotels where you can choose the level of service you want, from hotel accommodation only to a "comprehensive spa stay", which includes such delights as lymph drainage and densitometry examinations. Although they call themselves hotels - and are quite swanky - these institutions are classic sanatoria, complete with men in white coats and people slumped in wheelchairs.


SLOVAK doctors prescribe spa treatment for a range of ailments.
photo: Brian Jones

For those looking for more familiar territory, there are several regular hotels and pensions offering decent accommodation at a good price (see box above). If you're staying in a place that doesn't have its own thermal baths, there are always the public baths on Spa Island, right in the centre of town, where you can immerse yourself in the healing waters and contemplate life.

Apres spa activities

Whether you are in need of treatment or not, taking Piešťany's waters is invigorating, and the town caters richly for newly energised visitors.

Although small, its geography is simple to grasp: Most of the town is on the west bank of the river Váh, and the Colonnade Bridge links the town centre to Spa Island, which is in the middle of the river. Restaurants and pensions line Winterova, the main drag, named after Ľudovít Winter, one of the founders of the town's spa complex.


NUNS on Colonnade Bridge watch a flock of swans feeding on the river Váh below.
photo: Brian Jones

Diners can choose between plenty of restaurants, specialising in Chinese, Greek, Italian and Slovak cuisines among others. The Art Jazz Café on Winterova has an English menu and a lot of space, and puts on live jazz shows on Monday and Friday at 20:00. The food's good too. Popular with locals is the Korzo sweet shop and café nearby, which offers a fine array of goodies.

The local cinema shows movies, and cultural events of every type take place throughout the year. Spa aficionados may want to head to the Balneological Museum, which explores the history of medicinal baths and displays several objects found in archaeological excavations. You can also rent bikes and explore the town and its very pretty environs on two wheels.

Piešťany is an hour from Bratislava by train; about 15 run each day. There are frequent buses from the capital as well. Both the train and bus stations are about half an hour's walk or a 10-minute taxi ride from the town centre.

photo: Brian Jones

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