Bathing with sick naked people

A TRIP to Piešťany's public baths on Spa Island can be unforgettable. I'll certainly never forget my first visit, on a cold grey day in November.
I found the women's side of the baths complex presided over by an authoritarian male attendant, who hustled me to a cubicle equipped with a narrow bed and hooks for my clothes. I was briskly motioned to strip, and a few minutes later, clad in my swimsuit, I was shown to a doorway opening onto a silent twilit space. Steps disappeared into warm dark water, and I strode down them confidently, believing that I had the place to myself.
Gradually I realised that far from being alone, I was actually in the company of some 15 other women, floating around the edge of the small pool as still and menacing as crocodiles. And none of them were wearing any clothes.

A TRIP to Piešťany's public baths on Spa Island can be unforgettable. I'll certainly never forget my first visit, on a cold grey day in November.

I found the women's side of the baths complex presided over by an authoritarian male attendant, who hustled me to a cubicle equipped with a narrow bed and hooks for my clothes. I was briskly motioned to strip, and a few minutes later, clad in my swimsuit, I was shown to a doorway opening onto a silent twilit space. Steps disappeared into warm dark water, and I strode down them confidently, believing that I had the place to myself.

Gradually I realised that far from being alone, I was actually in the company of some 15 other women, floating around the edge of the small pool as still and menacing as crocodiles. And none of them were wearing any clothes.

You get 20 minutes in the water, and it's really all you need, because after about 10 you begin to sweat. When I reached that point, I got out, grabbing a dry sheet from a pile by the doorway, then found my cubicle again. Because I was having a massage, the officious official ordered me to strip completely, whereupon he wrapped me up like a mummy in the sheet and left me completely incapacitated on the bed, arms and legs locked rigid by meters of cotton.

I lay like that for half an hour before my masseuse was ready for me. The massage itself was as good as any, but the relaxing effects of the warm water and the 30-minute nap made it almost redundant. Once it was over, I got dressed and went to rejoin my companion, skin tingling strangely, half-drunk on the sulphurous fumes.

Tickets for the public baths are bought from a small kiosk in one of the freshly painted buildings on Spa Island, which is also home to several of the biggest spa hotels. Foreigners have to pay more than Slovaks for any of the services on offer, but the higher prices are still not very high. A 20-minute dip in a thermal pool costs foreigners Sk110 (Slovaks pay Sk50) and a massage costs Sk230 (Sk100 for Slovaks). The baths are open Tuesday to Saturday 13:00 to 18:30, and Sunday 7:00 to 12:30.

- Rachel Salaman

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