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Poprad: AquaCity – The Most Fun You Can Have in the High Tatras With Your Clothes Off

The impression dawns, some small time after you arrive in the AquaCity reception area (by which time you can already discern the excitable babble of squeals filtering in from outside) that what you are about to embark on is a rollicking good time. You’re going to experience some world-class treatments, sure – but above all, you’re going to enjoy yourself.

AquaCity, on the outskirts of the High Tatras city of Poprad, enjoys a cracking view out to the rearing mountain peaks of Northern Slovakia in one direction, and a birds-eye panorama out over one of Slovakia’s most beguiling medieval centresSpišská Sobota, in the other. But what it offers itself is a big diversion from the stunning scenery and century-old architecture the country is so famous for. It offers Slovakia’s greatest array of water-based fun – and in a nation well known for spas, too. The spa or kúpele concept at Piešt’any, Rajecké Teplice or Bardejovské Kúpele attracts thousands of foreign visitors annually for the fantastic thermal waters bubbling under Slovakia’s soil. But they all take themselves quite seriously. Straight faces and respectful silences are not the norm at AquaCity: it’s no more possible to keep them than it is to keep yourself from licking your lips when you’re eating a jam doughnut.

There is nothing ancient about the strikingly modern (and, more strikingly, massive) AquaCity complex – except perhaps the thermal waters on which the entire thing rests. At a time when it was unknown that Poprad possessed thermal springs under its bedrock, the story goes that AquaCity’s owner, Jan Telensky, stumbled upon a rusty old pipe with the naturally heated 49-degree water gushing out of it whilst taking a walk on some nearby waste ground – and that thus was the idea of AquaCity born. Nowadays, after the High Tatras mountains themselves, this wondrous wellness experience is the city’s top attraction. As often as not, people come to Poprad to luxuriate in the (quite literally) piping hot waters and don’t give the mountains any more than an admiring glance.  The “scrap to riches” success story is all the more impressive once it becomes clear that AquaCity is so vast it is difficult even to begin to know how to describe it – let alone how to explore it.

I’m soon laughing with the rest of the day’s thousand-odd visitors when I check in for my pampering session (I should perhaps be referring to it as a pampering adventure, because quite quickly the experience takes you forth into uncharted waters). From excitement, yes, but first of all when the manager in all seriousness suggests I’ll need an absolute minimum of a day to appreciate everything the complex has in store.

I am not a spa writer and the idea of spending a day doing, well, nothing really besides a little lounging in various pools and saunas, doesn’t immediately appeal: not besides getting out in the mountains hiking, or biking, or climbing, or caving. But I am won round fairly quickly (I attribute it to the friendliness of the staff showing me the ropes and the sheer innovation evidently behind AquaCity). As a writer you require something to really write about regardless of the subject matter: I would rather gush over a quirky hostel with nothing but dorm beds than I would over a lacklustre top-of-the-range hotel. Similarly, with AquaCity, I found the many USPs revealed on my cursory tour caused me to prick up my ears even though I have been known to doze off whilst listening to the intro spiel for some of the world’s better-known spa resorts.

Let’s deal with one issue, straight off. AquaCity is not a spa. It’s a resort without much precedent anywhere in Europe, sporting three hotels and great conference facilities (business travellers), too many eating and drinking options to count (food lovers), world-class leisure facilities from football to tennis to minigolf (sports lovers), some seriously ground-breaking health and beauty treatments (treatment seekers) – and then of course that immense collection of pools, Jacuzzis and saunas (pleasure lovers and fun-seekers!). Geothermal water-themed leisure and pleasure complex will suffice as a general description for now…

image by www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Cryotherapy…

I am advised to commence with the serious stuff (because AquaCity does have a serious side, like all wellness centres). There is good sense behind the advice: in absolute contrast with the geothermal waters for which the complex is most renowned, I am about to get cold – very cold (and it’s much better to wind up at the end of the day with a warm feeling lingering).

The cryotherapy unit, in its own special wing at AquaCity, is a European leader (cryotherapy was first developed here in Eastern Europe): the body is frozen at a temperature of first -60 degrees and then -120 degrees for a total of two and a half minutes in two different chambers. Whilst it is available in bigger cities like London, AquaCity offers the experience at a fraction of the price. Said to treat all manner of sporting injuries, the treatment involves first donning a warm hat, special thick-soled shoes and mittens, getting a medical examination (in this case by a jovial and somewhat flamboyant doctor) to check the temperature shock won’t kill you, then being ushered into first an ante-chamber (at a mere -60 degrees) and then, in 30 seconds time, being summoned into the main chamber at -120 degrees, where you have to walk around for two minutes (four minutes would induce death but two is fine) whilst the merry doctor communicates with you on a tannoy to check that you’re not in agony. And incredibly, you are not – because the iciness has very little moisture content. You walk out feeling invigorated and then engage in half an hours’ warm-up in the cryotherapy section’s gym. By which time you are more than ready for those warm waters…

One of the many pools ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

One of the many pools ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Getting Warmed Up

Back up a level, across AquaCity’s four-star Mountain View hotel, down again and along a twisting series of corridors (by which point, after almost a kilometre of walking, you will certainly be understanding the appropriateness of the ‘city’ part of the name of the complex), one enters the area known as Vital World – which is perfect for those that just imagined moments before they would be frozen to death.

Changing into nowt but a towel (the towel is optional, but you cannot proceed wearing swimming costumes – welcome to Central European-style spas!) you can embark on a veritable round trip of extravagant relaxation, circling through a steam sauna, a flower sauna, a salt sauna, a Finnish sauna and a beautiful snow cave (yep, High Tatras snow and ice in a cute little enclave that will have you thinking you’re in Santa’s grotto rather than a mega-resort). To truly luxuriate you’ll need a couple of hours here at least (I luxuriate quite rapidly as a rule and it still took me nearly that long) – particularly if you throw in the hot tub, the official relaxation area (after all that hard work in the saunas, some time on sunbeds with classical music is not amiss) and Slovakia’s premier Thai massage centre. Thai massage options include the Rit Tee (a hot, herbal massage) and the popular Tok Sen, which uses small sharp sticks to poke through your skin at the tissue and bones and thus, somehow, improve your circulation…

Poolside Fun

Vital World is wonderful, but there’s no denying that the part of AquaCity where you really let the inner child within you out is the extensive range of pools, indoor and outdoor, and water slides: a 50-metre Olympic-sized swimming pool, plus (between the inside and outside areas) 13 more pools with temperatures ranging between 27 and 40 degrees. Kids love AquaCity’s newest water-based fun, the Treasure Island pool – themed around a huge pirate ship. Even an a cool day the outside pools are packed (although the water slides open only in the height of summer). Fountains, more Jacuzzis, a swim-up bar and a healthy restaurant sandwiched midway through your between-pool wanderings embellish the experience. Best of all, each evening, a spectacular laser light show is projected around one of the larger pools (the Blue Sapphire): a fitting way to cap a day of being good to yourself…

AquaCity’s Eco-Friendliness

It would be tempting to think there was something wasteful in all this lavish use of hot water. But the opposite is the case.

The bore hole on which the complex sits gushes out 49-degree water that would otherwise not get used for very much at all. Instead, AquaCity’s modern steel-and-glass design allows for the water to travel around the buildings, heat up the centre from the pools to the rooms (in conjunction with solar energy), and still have sufficient quantities to power the world’s only geothermally heated football stadium, right next-door. Other deft green touches will have you feeling a whole lot better about your spa-going, too. Lights, for example, switch on and off automatically when you enter or exit a room. Pools were constructed with steel rather than concrete, which meant far less impact on the environment. The centre was even the first in Central Europe to attain the highly-coveted Green Globe award, the highest mark of internationally recognised environmentally friendly excellence. AquaCity brands itself as an immersion in ecological luxury and that, it seems, it most definitely is.

For sure, there is a fair amount to write home about – even for those for whom spas normally leave feeling luke-warm – and no need to feel guilty, due to those glowing green credentials, about indulging in AquaCity’s rather unique blend of fun… there are few places in Slovakia that cater quite so well simultaneously to poker-faced business conferences, to romancing couples – and to young families shrieking in unrestrained joy.

A Quick Guide to the Other Content We Have on Poprad

Places to Go: Poprad’s funky contemporary art gallery in an old power station

Places to Go: Nine reasons to linger in Poprad

Places to Go/Getting Around: Taking the Mountain Railway into the High Tatras from Poprad

Places to Stay: A cool travel-friendly B&B in Spišská Sobota, Poprad

Places to Eat & Drink: Poprad’s gourmet chocolatier

Places to Eat & Drink: Poprad’s trendy burger joint

Places to Eat & Drink: Poprad’s dignified Café La Fée

Places to Eat & Drink: Poprad’s Coolest Wine Bar

Going Out: Poprad & the Manchester United Connection

Arts & Culture: Dedicated traditional Czech & Slovak music radio station now based in Poprad

Getting Around: London to Poprad Flights

Getting Around: The Poprad to Ždiar to Zakopane (Poland) bus

Top Ten Medieval Towns in Slovakia

MAP LINK

LOCATION: Sportova 1397/1: from Poprad Tatry train station head east (left) on the main road, Štefanikova.

ADMISSION: 22 Euros (Aquapark only day ticket) or 34 Euros (Vital World and Aquapark day ticket)

OPENING: 9am to 10pm daily (Aquapark), 9am to 10pm Monday, Tuesday, Friday and Saturday (Vital World), 4pm to 7pm Tuesday to Saturday (Cryotherapy)

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: 42km northeast of AquaCity is Slovakia’s only whisky distillery at Hniezdne.

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Slovakia’s Wooden Churches: Four of the Easiest to Visit

Ladomirová Wooden Church ©englishmaninslovakia.com

Ladomirová Wooden Church ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

On this site, we like to believe we dedicate ourselves 100% to the bizarre, the off-the-beaten-track and the profound where Slovakia is concerned: we wouldn’t want you to be reading on here what you can Google elsewhere, after all. But for some reason writing about Slovakia’s most unique attraction of all (which is fairly bizarre, very off-the-beaten-track and profound, in a simple, solemn kind of way) has until now escaped us…

Maybe that is because of this: many readers will already be familiar with Slovakia’s outstanding collection of wooden churches. Their reputation does indeed precede them. Castles and mountains in Slovakia are incredible, but abundant – and many countries can also boast good castles and mountains. But…

Slovakia’s Uniquest Attraction?

But the wooden churches are – at least where Europe is concerned – a far more niche thing. They are consigned to a remote area along the borders of far-northeastern Slovakia, southern Poland and western Ukraine. Slovakia’s wooden churches are Unesco-listed – a testimony to where western Christianity meets more eastern religious persuasions (the 27 churches scattered through the remote countryside here represent Catholic, Protestant and Greek Catholic Faiths). The striking aspect of each is that they are put together without a single piece of metal: not even a nail. The fine interior decoration looks as gold and silver as the real thing – but once again, it is wood. These masterful works of architecture were built in the 17th- to 19th centuries, and each one is singular in its design. We leave this site to go into more detail – which it does better than any other on the web – it is not the purpose of this post, as we have said, to rewrite what is written elsewhere.

But the reality with most of the wooden churches is that they are hard to find (rarely, if ever signposted), in remote rolling countryside far from major public transport connections and only open by appointment (the appointment is generally made through the designated key-keeper, of which there is one per church, usually some old babka who will not speak any language other than Slovak). And so – to those with limited time and no wheels of their own – Slovakia’s uniquest attraction remains frustratingly off limits.

Fortunately, a handful of these churches are accessible without too much difficulty.

Most can be found in or around Bardejov and, further north, Svidník (a centre of the fascinating Rusyn culture). (and on both of these destinations we’ll be publishing a lot more content in late 2016)

1: Hervatov

This is our number one choice of a wooden church to visit: the most accessible one that feels – how shall we say – rustically authentic (being sequestered away in a tiny village). The interior is an absolute must-see: not because of mind-blowing lavishness but for its more poignant simplicity, with touching decoration on the walls and altar. About 9km outside Bardejov, it’s close enough to walk (via Mihal’ov; on the route shown on the map) if other means of transport fail (which they can). The custodian is one of the most reliable (her number is on the church door and church gate if the church is shut) and there is a little penzión where you can bed down for the night called Penzión ČergovMAP

GET HERE – First of all, you need to get to Bardejov. For this, Košice is the nearest big city that foreigners are likely to have on their itineraries: it’s a 4.5 hour train ride (every 1.5 hours)/one-hour direct daily flight from Bratislava or a 2-hour direct daily flight from London Luton. From Košice bus station (next to the train station) buses run every 40 minutes to Bardejov (1 hour 55 minutes). From Bardejov town centre, it’s only a 15-minute drive to Hervatov. But buses only run every two hours, with the first at 6:25am and the last at 8:20pm – and at weekends there are only four direct buses per day. So there is always the recourse of your own two feet…

2: Kežmarok

Surprisingly, you don’t have to go so far east to see a wooden church. The agreeable medieval town of Kežmarok on the south-eastern edge of the High Tatras has one right in its centre! It’s the biggest wooden church you’ll find out of all of them, dating from 1717 and built in baroque style (cool fact – there is a little bit of stone on the premises – in the sacristy, which was originally part of a city pub (!). Click here for detailed info on the church, and for an interesting theory about why this eclectic bunch of churches are indeed wooden! The Kežmarok church is open 9am-midday and 2pm-5pm Monday through Saturday from May to October and Tuesday/Friday 10am-midday and 2pm-4pm from November to April – so this church is great because it’s the only genuine wooden church still standing in its original location and with fixed opening hours. MAP

GET HERE

First of all, you need to get to Poprad, which is served by direct daily train from Bratislava (4 hours) and Košice (1 hour) every 1.5 hours, and by direct flight from London Luton. From Poprad Tatry train station, it’s a short walk to the bus station from which buses depart at least every 30 minutes for the 30-minute journey to Kežmarok.

3: Bardejovské Kupele

Yes, in the spa town a few kilometres outside Bardejov (virtually a suburb, and appropriately called Bardejovské Kúpele) you will find an intriguing addition to the usual spa facilities: a skanzen, or open-air museum portraying typical rustic life (a concept at which Slovakia excels). Actually, this Museum of Folk Architecture (Múzeum ľudovej architektúry) was Slovakia’s very first skanzen, opening in 1965. And in the museum (itself worthy of a separate post for its riveting examples of folk architecture from over the last couple of centuries) you will find no fewer than two relocated but utterly authentic wooden churches from the villages, respectively, of Mikulášová-Niklová and Zboj. The serendipitous nature of this truly amazing museum means these two dinky churches within its midst are pretty impressive.  MAP

GET HERE

As for Hervatov above, first of all, you need to get to Bardejov. For this, Košice is the nearest big city that foreigners are likely to have on their itineraries: it’s a 4.5 hour train ride (every 1.5 hours)/one-hour direct daily flight from Bratislava or there is a 2-hour direct daily flight from London Luton. From Košice bus station (next to the train station) buses run every 40 minutes to Bardejov (1 hour 55 minutes). From Bardejov town centre,  buses head out to Bardejovské Kúpele about every 20-30 minutes. The journey takes just five minutes.

4:Košice

In Košice’s East Slovak museum (link to Visit Košice website info, not the official homepage, as that is just in Slovak), renowned for many things including Slovakia’s only wax museum and the scary visit to the original old town jail, which lies within its walls, there is also a relocated wooden church, this time from the village of Kožuchovce. MAP

GET HERE

Košice is a 4.5-5-hour train ride (every 1.5 hours)/one-hour direct daily flight from Bratislava: there is also a 2-hour direct daily flight from London Luton. On the map just above, as you can see, it’s an easy 10-minute walk from the railway station to the East Slovak Museum.

Feast your eyes on these outstanding examples of religious architecture and – if your appetite is whetted for more – then maybe it’s time to consider the slightly more complicated, but also more adventurous trip out to the remoter wooden churches that lie in the extreme northeast. There are 27, remember: give yourself a few days if you want to see al of them.

MAP LINKS: Individual map links are provided above.

GETTING THERE: Ditto: in the individual sections above.

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From Bardejov, it’s a 79km ride east to Medzilaborce on the Polish border where you can visit the fascinating Andy Warhol Museum