Much has been written about the difference between travellers and tourists.
UPDATE OF THE ARTICLE PUBLISHED ON JULY 27, 2015
One third of beds in Slovak spas have the international certificate of quality EUROPESPAmed, which is guaranted by the European Spa Association (ESA). According to Jana Zálešáková, vice president of the ESA, and even if only a few Slovak spas have certificates, more than two thirds of all spa facilities in the country, could fulfil the high criteria of quality. “The European quality offered in Slovakia has been confirmed by the ranking of the spa hotel Thermia Palace in Piešťany on the second place among certified European spas, ” said Zálešáková for the SME daily and added that Slovak experiences are reflected also in Kosovo’s spa, which were destroyed during the war.
Everyone who decides to visit a spa in Slovakia is following the path formerly frequented by aristocrats and monarchs like Empress Elizabeth of Austria (affectionately known as Sissi), but which are now followed by normal everyday people who want to improve their health. It is important to learn why the nobility and wealthy aristocrats from around the world took the waters both figuratively and literally. The waters work. They will go a long way to heal what ails you, be it arthritis, rheumatism, nerve disorders, or, our favourite, manager’s disease. They worked for people we interviewed and they worked, we think, for us.
Spas in Slovakia
The word spa means something different to Americans than it does to most Slovaks. For most Americans the spa experience is luxurious, and the spa is the place you go to be pampered. One is a client at an American spa. This background fails to prepare everyone for the spa experience in Slovakia, which has a more medical background. One is a patient at most Slovak spas, and once foreigners make the transition from client to patient they are ready to drop their drawers with the rest of their fellow spa-goers. Much of the civilised world is under a doctor’s care, and most doctors prescribe drugs. Prior to the give-me-something-for-that culture, medical people didn’t have the science and tools they have today. The sick and the lame turned to what worked and what worked was minerals. Drinking mineral water, bathing in mineral baths, even breathing mineral-laden air made them better.
Slovakia has lots of minerals and many of them find their way to the surface, usually mixed with water from deep within the earth. According to Zálešáková the country has all kinds of mineral medicinal springs appropriate for spas except radon springs. The Slovak Health Ministry has issued 30 government licenses to operate official spas or spa services. Curative mineral springs have been around forever, most finding their way into written history by the 1100s, and their development tended to follow a pattern. As the areas became known, wealthy owners developed their spas with more sophisticated facilities than spigots and bathtubs. Prior to the communist era, spas were mainly enjoyed by nobles and aristocrats.
With the government change in 1948, spas became accessible to all people. The transition of accessibility from the aristocrat to the everyday person is visually exemplified in the architecture. Most spas feature large communist-era buildings constructed in the functionalist style to house the masses built alongside the older baroque or art nouveau historical styles developed when the visitor numbers were smaller. The public art spaces also displayed this dichotomy of styles.
Patients, including children as young as three, came to spas to recuperate from surgery or an accident, or because of a physical ailment such as digestive issues or asthma. A different type of spa culture emerged – one that could be enjoyed by everyone. Spas really caught on.
Spas differentiate themselves according to the different properties in their waters. Different springs boast different minerals; some waters are thermal, others cool, some full of sulphur, others of calcium or iron. The spa’s signature springs purport to cure or alleviate different diseases or conditions, so whatever ails you really determines where you should go.
When we are talking about uniqueness, according to Zálešáková there is very special water in Smrdáky. “Because of high concentration of hydrogen sulphide it is not possible to use the water directly for treatment. On the other hand it allows to prepare baths with different concentration of hydrogen sulphide, which is really unique.” Adding that what is unusual is also sulphur mud in Piešťany or water in Dudince which contains a very rare combination of carbon dioxide and hydrogen sulphide.
While there are differences in the types of mineral springs and the treatments offered, most spas share some common features. There are almost always a series of residences, usually at least one luxurious hotel and several smaller hotels and pensions surrounding the main treatment area. Most accommodation features full or half-board options, and the more expensive the accommodation, the more convenient the treatment facility.
Spas are situated in small towns or villages that generally exist because the spa is there. The grounds are often stunningly beautiful, and most spa representatives, echoing one another, insist that while the physical health of their patients improves with the spa treatments, their mental health improves from being surrounded by the relaxing beauty of the gardens.
Kúpele Piešťany (western Slovakia), one of the older and more well-established Slovak spas, makes its home on a picturesque island in the Váh River sporting broad avenues, tree-lined walkways, and inventively landscaped grounds, including a nine-hole golf course. Bardejovské kúpele (eastern Slovakia), located 4 kilometres from Bardejov, features 35 kilometres of marked, walkable trails as well as the oldest outdoor museum (skanzen) in Slovakia.
Kúpele Trenčianske Teplice’s facilities (western Slovakia) are located on the pedestrian walkway of the town of the same name. One can meander past shops and restaurants on the way to the spa’s park that contains specimen trees, benches, fountains and a lake within view of a modern convention centre facility.
A spa park adjoins Rajecké Teplice’s Hotel Aphrodite (northern Slovakia) spreading across the street and down the road. Artfully landscaped with a lake on which live black and white swans, this park creates a serene setting frequented by spa guests and visitors to the village. Slovakia’s newest spa, Kúpele Diamant Dudince (central Slovakia), also follows this pattern of incorporating lusciously landscaped grounds around its spa complex.
There are also similarities in the internal regimens of the spas. After checking into the hotel, patients visit the institution’s medical staff where medical histories, blood pressure and weight are taken. After a consultation, the doctor inputs patient information into a computer that generates a treatment plan for the patient. It is also possible to skip the health check, however, it is necessary to sign a document which confirms your own responsibility.
The treatment plan, frequently encased in plastic, identifies each treatment, its time, and location. Patients bring the treatment plans with them as spa attendants check their attendance at each treatment – much like a teacher taking attendance at a school class. It is easy to feel a kinship with others who roam the halls in bathrobes clutching their treatment plans and trying to figure out the labyrinth of the treatment centres; it is part of the shared experience.
Not only is there a system for the treatments, there is one for the meals as well, which are taken in a dining room on the premises. Clients are assigned a table and expected to frequent the same table each time they dine. Breakfast is typically a buffet and lunch and dinner usually consist of salad buffets while an individually ordered main meal with patients selecting their menu a day or two ahead. In some facilities also dinners and lunches are served in buffet style. The food at most spas is plentiful and healthy but remember to not take a spa vacation for the food.
Why visit a spa?
When asked why people choose to come to a spa, Denisa Murínová, former sales manager for Kúpele Trenčianske Teplice, noted the Slovak spa experience seeks to be restorative. Spa patients want to improve their health and doing so is not without sacrifices.
“People come to the spa for three or four weeks instead of travelling to Spain or Croatia because they are really ill and just want to feel better,” Murínová said.
Costs are reasonable, and insurance often picks up all or part of the tab for medical cases. A week including half board accommodation and treatments ranges from as low as €295 to €700 per person, somewhat more than accommodation at a three-star hotel. All the spas have discounted packages depending on the number of services desired and the level of accommodation.
A commitment to spa treatment is not only financial. Most spas recommend at least three weeks of treatment with some spas reporting that patients have taken treatment for as long as three or four months. Patients take, on average, three or four treatments a day, with the first immediately after breakfast. The most common treatments are classic massages, mud/peat packs and various types of mineral baths.
A classic massage dictated that you strip to the waist and roll down your pants leaving the tailbone exposed and lay face down on the massage table. A massage therapist would then begin the 15-minute treatment by working on the neck and shoulders, moving down the spine, and then concentrating on the tailbone.
Although spas are known for the different properties of their waters, some are known for their mud as well.
The Piešťany Spa offers a treatment during which spa employees spread unique sulphuric mud on parts of your body in the so-called balneo room with a couch and shower. Afterwards they wrap you into a blanket. The building with the balneo, i.e. mud therapy consists of a long corridor with booths for changing clothes. Each of them is equipped with a couch while two private booths are connected to one balneo room where the procedure takes place. After 20 minutes of the mud wrap, spa staff remove the mud from you before a shower to take away the rest. Afterwards they wrap you in a clean sheet and you rest an additional 20 minutes in your booth as another client is prepared for the mud procedure in the balneo room. This well-thought system enables circulation of people at procedures without meeting each other. While one is resting in the private booth after the treatment, the second enjoys a mud treatment in the balneo room.
Every spa is known for addressing specific ailments, and it is the reputation of the spa for curing or alleviating symptoms that to some extent identifies which spa patients select. Kúpele Bojnice, Kúpele Diamant Dudince, Kúpele Piešťany, Kúpele Rajecké Teplice, and Kúpele Trenčianske Teplice are known for diseases affecting the locomotive apparatus like arthritis and rheumatism or fractures; Bardejovské Kúpele and Kúpele Brusno are known for diseases affecting the digestive and circulatory systems, and Sklené Teplice (central Slovakia) is known for diseases affecting the nervous system. Bardejovské Kúpele’s claim to fame is that it alleviates the symptoms of more diseases than most other spas.
While all the spas are equipped to handle medical treatments, they also offer luxurious spa treatments: facials and special massages (lava stone for example) collectively known as beauty treatments. Spas have signature treatments ranging from special facials to steam baths in a natural cave. Costs for beauty treatments are frequently higher than costs for medical treatments. Slovak spas are a healthy (pun intended) industry. Most managers reported an average annual occupancy of more than 60 percent and sales people are optimistic about the future in an industry that is well established in the Slovak people’s psyche.
Many places have recently made significant improvements to their physical plants which acknowledges that maintaining state-of-the-art facilities and offering up-to-date treatments are the best ways to recognise the increased expectations of their patients – for both the Slovak and international markets.
The Danubius Hotels Group invested nine million euros to refurbish Kúpele Piešťany giving a facelift to its treatment areas, updating equipment in the rehabilitation centre, splitting its thermal pools into sections of hot and cold water, and enlarging the fitness centre, among other improvements. Rajecké Teplice’s two-year renovation added five outdoor pools as well as a new luxury hotel (the Aphrodite Palace) at the cost of seven million euros. Bardejovské kúpele, Trenčianské Teplice or Sklené Teplice have recently finished major renovations to their facilities.
Regarding to English, many of the younger spa employees usually know enough English to make themselves understood, and if they don’t,some humorous and good-natured give-and-take sign language usually doesthe trick. Since most spa patients are older than 55, this age group typically may not know English, yet many know two or three languages.
In Europe wellness refers to facilities featuring swimming pools, whirlpool baths, saunas, various types of steam rooms and exercise equipment as well as the services and procedures such as massages and exercise that promote health. Slovak spas are focusing on wellness to complement the traditional spa market. It suits the lifestyle of younger clientele, with or without families, and maximises the use of facilities originally built for longer stays. Wellness doesn’t require a three-week commitment or meetings with doctors making it more attractive for people who cannot be away from their jobs for a long period of time.
Spas, while not ignoring insurance patients, are more aggressively targeting wellness, offering couple’s massages, romantic packages and much better food options.
In Slovakia there are many mineral or hot springs not used just for spa. There are dozens of thermal and aqua parks with grand indoor and outdoor pools in wide use by the community that are aggressively targeting the wellness market segment. Some of them are using thermal springs, but as Zálešáková explains, “we can’t say that it is medicinal water. Even a layman should understand, that water in a pool is recycling, going through filtration, disinfection and there is approximately only 15 percent of new thermal water every day. This water can’t have the healing effects.”
By Ján Pallo, Pat Alexy Stoll and Don Stoll
W Smrdáky: Prírodné liečivé kúpele (Natural Health Spa), smrdaky.danubiushotels.sk
W Piešťany: Spa Piešťany, piestany.danubiushotels.com
W Trenčianske Teplice: Spa Trenčianske Teplice, www.kupele-teplice.sk
W Bojnice: Spa Bojnice, www.kupele-bojnice.sk
W Nimnica: Kúpele Nimnica (Nimnica Spa), www.kupelenimnica.sk
C Sklené Teplice: Thermal Health Spa, www.kupele-skleneteplice.sk
C Dudince: Slovenské liečebné kúpele – Diamant (Slovak Health Spa – Diamant), www.diamant.sk; Kúpele Dudince (spa), www.kupeledudince.sk
C Sliač: Kúpele Sliač (Sliač Spa), www.spa-sliac.sk
C Číž: Prírodné jódové kúpele (Natural Iodine Spa), www.kupeleciz.sk
C Brusno: Kúpele Brusno (spa), www.kupelebrusno.sk
C Kováčová: Kúpele Kováčová (spa), www.kupelekovacova.sk
N Červený Kláštor: Smerdžonka, www.smerdzonka.eu
N Vyšné Ružbachy: Kúpele Vyšné Ružbachy (spa), www.ruzbachy.sk
N Lúčky: Kúpele Lúčky (Lúčky Spa), www.kupele-lucky.sk
N Rajecké Teplice: Thermal Spa Rajecké Teplice, www.spa.sk
N Turčianske Teplice: Kúpele Turčianske Teplice (Turčianske Teplice Spa), www.therme.sk
N Tatranská Kotlina: Sanatórium Tatranská Kotlina (Sanatorium Tatranská Kotlina), www.santk.sk
N Nový Smokovec: Kúpele Nový Smokovec (Nový Smokovec Spa), www.kupelens.sk
E Štós: Kúpele Štós (Štós Spa), www.kupele-stos.sk
E Bardejovské Kúpele (spa), www.kupele-bj.sk