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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

Bojnice Castle

Prievidza & Bojnice: Local Insights into the Valley of the Upper Nitra

We’re extremely grateful to fellow Czech- and Slovak-ophile, novelist James Silvester for writing this article for us on the delights of the little-visited town of Prievidza and nearby Bojnice, crowned by its majestic chateau.

It almost seems unfair to the Central-Western City of Prievidza to make it share an article with its much smaller but more glamorous neighbour, Bojnice and I mean absolutely no disrespect in doing so; it is simply that, for me at least, the two places are so intertwined that I find it hard to think of one without the other and consider them both to be, in effect, my second home.

Prievidza, in reality of course, is by no means the poor neighbour. Indeed, it is the industrial centre of the area with a relatively sizeable population (approx. 50,000 at last count) and an industry that has grown from a base in coal mining and the nearby power plant to include in recent years what seems a heavy investment in retail outlets and modernisation.

On my first visit to Prievidza, the fearsome, imposing letters of TESCO loomed out from between the branches at me, like the sinister Headquarters of a Bond villain. Since then, that particular corporate giant (and the adjacent Kaufland) have been joined by a freshly built shopping complex, housing coffee shops, eateries and all manner of branded retailers as the city aims to provide everything the everyday consumer could want. Heading further into the City centre, the square is complimented by another, more traditional shopping centre with smaller, more bespoke outlets lining the streets, and the attractive St. Bartholomew’s Church serving as a gateway.

Biograf, one of the best places to eat in the area ©JamesSilvesterAuthor.com

Biograf, one of the best places to eat in the area ©JamesSilvesterAuthor.com

What to Do?

Staving off a mention of the inevitable (the blockbuster nearby attraction of Bojnice Castle) for a little longer, Prievidza and the wider Horná Nitra region offer an impressive number of pastimes, with quite literally something for everyone.

For the active traveller there are some truly beautiful hiking/biking routes as well as a nearby ski slope and, if being strapped to the wings of a plane and dropped out of the sky is your bag, the chance to skydive from Prievidza’s small, local airport. In town there is a Museum of the Upper Nitra Valley Region (focussing on the fascinating history and geology of the area) and there is a beautiful golf course (and mini golf not too far away). Up in Bojnice village, the Museum of Prehistory (great for the kids) is right by its very own cave, which you can also visit as part of the experience.

Where to Eat and Drink?

Some truly great places to eat are scattered around Prievidza and Bojnice too. A personal favourite venue is Biograf, just off Bojnice high street (and happily a way away from the tourist hoards at the castle). A unique little venue with a mix of Slovak and British meals available (and garnering double points for always having blues playing), Biograf is actually the first ever cinema in the town which has been converted into a restaurant/wine bar of the unpretentious and extremely beguiling kind. Another classic place to head is the Kipi Casa Pub and Beer Garden, a stirling example of the very in záhradná piváreň (garden pub) concept a short distance away in Lazany.

And Now For the Set Piece: Bojnice Castle

From the Prievidza McDonalds (perfect for those who really can’t do without their little Western pleasures, and just why the Menu is so much better than in Britain is a mystery) runs the main road connecting the city with Bojnice. And it’s as you continue up this thoroughfare that it hits you: The Castle. It really does smack you in the face, as the row of trees lining the road give way to a suddenly unspoiled view of this piece of real life fairy tale, nestled with an almost nonchalant arrogance in the bosom of the densely forested mountain. It’s Sexy and It knows it.

The first mention of the castle (and the town) came in 1113 in the Bills of the King and it has often been described as Slovakia’s most visited castle. I could offer you a number of reasons why it deserves this epithet, but it ultimately comes down to one reason: It’s awesome. I mean, truly jaw dropping; it’s like Disneyland without commercialised mice, or Hogwarts without magic sodding adolescents. It’s current appearance owes much to the reconstruction sponsored by the last aristocratic owner in the early 20th century, but parts of the original castle wall still remain. Beneath the castle is a cave system with a well reaching deep down, which visitors to the tour can see for themselves.

All along the Watchtower… Bastion in Bojnice's grounds ©JamesSilvesterAuthor.com

All Along the Watchtower… Bastion in Bojnice’s well-castellated grounds ©JamesSilvesterAuthor.com

Not Just A Pretty Face…

It would be wrong to think Bojnice was all about the castle as there is so much more on offer, even before the investment put in for the Town’s 900th anniversary a couple of years back (yeah, the village harks back to 1113 and has the documents to prove it). Across from the castle is the expansive zoo (the oldest municipal zoo in the country) which is a whole day visit in itself. With plenty of rest points dotted around, the zoo reaches high up into the hills, affording some truly spectacular views of Prievidza and the whole area, not really done justice by a fat guy with an iPhone, but here goes:

©JamesSilvesterAuthor.com

©JamesSilvesterAuthor.com

Behind the castle lies a small, but effective, Dinosaur Park where you can let animatronic beasties frighten your kids, and alongside that (in the Summer season only) is a large and quite wonderful outdoor community swimming park. With a kid’s and full size pool and a couple of slides to choose from and plenty of sunbathing spots and eateries lining it, it rivals the zoo as an easy place to lose a day for just a few euros.

A short walk from there lies one of the main sources of tourism: Bojnice Spa. Surrounded by the forest, the spa is home to several indoor and outdoor heated pools (there really is nothing like swimming outdoors at night in winter with snow falling around you) and some rather impressive hotels, while a variety of treatments are available from the multi-lingual staff. Well worth a visit, even just for a swim – and definitely one of Slovakia’s loveliest spas.

What’s On?

The region plays host to several festivals throughout the year, perhaps the most famous being the International Festival of Ghosts and Spirits.

Although missing the festival this year, I was able to take part in a nice little community ‘clean up’ event in which a few volunteers cleared rubbish from the forest paths around the town ahead of it. This was made all the better by the participation of the Town’s Mayor, who resembled Joe Pesci, but tempered somewhat by my six year old son finding his first condom (which he mercifully believed to be an empty sausage). Thank God for gloves…

When to Go?

In truth there is something here all year round. Obviously, high season in the summer is perfect for those with young families as most of the attractions are open every full time and days will be packed, but that isn’t to deter from visiting at other times too (particularly because Bojnice Castle itself gets so crowded at peak times).

The area is a fun, friendly, clean and safe environment that epitomises the best of Slovak hospitality and offers something about as different to the bright lights of Bratislava as it’s possible to get in Western Slovakia. If you are heading into Eastern Europe, make the time to pay a visit and you might just find that Prievidza and Bojnice, just as they have with me, become your home away from home.

About the Writer…

James Silvester has been soaking up Slovakia’s unique atmosphere since 2005, with Prievidza and Bojnice becoming his much loved second home. In that time he has well and truly fallen for the beauty of this region of Central Europe and, more importantly, has realised that charming British befuddlement will in no way protect One from the repeated offer of Slivovice. A former Mod DJ for internet radio, James’s debut novel, Escape to Perdition, set in the Czech & Slovak Republics, was published in June 2015 with Urbane Publications.

 MAP LINK:

GETTING THERE: Four direct trains daily (a shade over three hours) serve Prievidza from Bratislava Hlavna Stanica (otherwise change at Šurany). From Prievidza it’s 2km up to Bojnice and bus is the way: they run hourly from the Prievidza bus station and take 8 minutes.

BOJNICE CASTLE ESSENTIALS: Website Opening Hours Admission by one-hour tour from 9am to 4pm from Easter to September, or from 10am to 3pm October to Easter. Closed on Mondays from October to May. Admission Price 8 Euros per adult.

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From Prievidza it’s 62km north to Žilina.

Getting Around Bratislava: Petržalka’s New Tram Link

Ah, the good old days. Bratislava’s Starý Most, or “old bridge” – seen in the foreground in the feature image back in the days when it still existed – personified them for me insofar as the city centre stretch of the Danube went. Did. It’s quite a shock, when you’re going for a stroll around a city you know well, to suddenly see something you assumed was a permanent fixture in the skyline utterly demolished. So it was when, the other week, I saw Starý Most, (one of only three bridges spanning the river in central Bratislava, along with Most SNP to the west, and the newest city bridge on Košická seen in the feature image background here to the east) gone for good and replaced by an imposter – the all-new, less-romantic, pedestrian/cyclist/tram connection to Bratislava’s high-rise suburb south of the river, Petržalka. Which opened in its entirety, trams and all, in August 2016.

Petržalka, with the largest population of any Bratislava neighbourhood, has long had a tram connection in the pipeline. The problem, however, was that plans hinged on totally reconstructing Starý Most. In its pre-demolition state the old bridge rocked even when you cycled across it and the first tram that tried going over would have been swept on downriver to Budapest. Now, as of August 2016, that reconstruction has been completed: and tram service over it courtesy of the No 1 Tram route from the main train station of Hlavná Stanica and the No 3 Tram Route from Rača goes through Šafárikovo Námestie as far as Jungmanova in Petržalka. The other stops it calls at on the Petržalka side of the Danube are, in order, Sad Janka Kráľa and Farského.  

But I have to say I’ll always remain sad about the old bridge going. It had, after all, been around since the 1890s. Emperor Franz-Joseph personally oversaw the opening, for Godsakes (although the actual steel part of the bridge was rebuilt after 1945). Since it was closed to traffic, and the greenery grew up around its pedestrian crossing, it provided a peaceful and (for the romantics) uplifting crossing from the Old Town to the Danube hiking/cycling trails out to Čunovo on the other side. In short it had personality. And personality is something reasonably lacking in more recent Bratislava riverside development.

Danube sunset from Most SNP

Danube sunset from Most SNP by www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

The plan is anticipated to take away a lot of the congestion and tram traffic around Šafárikovo Námestie too. Bratislava, it seems, will have one significantly extended tram route – and all within the next month, according to the latest estimate. A multi-million Euro grant from the EU paid for the destruction/ reconstruction of the bridge by the way.

New Possibilities

Whilst the plan will no doubt far more interest Petržalka’s 100,000+ residents, it’s also a heads-up for visitors to the city. Why? It could well usher in a new spell of development on the southern shore of Bratislava’s Danube.

Let’s remember that one of the key factors in a city’s success/failure lies in its connectivity. There’s a direct correlation between problematic or poor districts of a city and how isolated those districts are. Connectivity=progress; progress=prosperity; prosperity is something that wouldn’t go amiss in Petržalka and the south-of-the-river area.

At the moment, the Most SNP bridge crowned by its UFO restaurant is the only real access to the south side of the river for pedestrians or cyclists. When finished, Starý Most will make strolling or pedalling over to the south shore much more conducive.

And the south shore is currently very under-developed (unusual in a city as thirsty for development as Bratislava normally is). This is partly a great thing, of course – you can lose yourself in woodlands almost immediately on the other side. But the beauty is counter-balanced by a lot of derelict buildings and construction sites. Room for improvement: yep. And coaxing that improvement along? Well, a large number of classy places already exist on the south side – a really good theatre and a few good restaurants (more on these in other posts).

Could all this pave the way for a rebirth of the Danube’s southern shore akin to the makeover of the South Bank of the Thames in London? Some readers may give a knowing laugh, but crazier things have happened…

Anyway, for now it’s RIP Starý Most.

See Petržalka in relation to the Old Town on a map.