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Back to the future in enigmatic Slovakia

Going on holiday in Slovakia really is like going back to the future.

On the one hand time stands still, sometimes deliberately and sometimes because there  simply has been no reason to change it.  On the other  Slovakia  has the proud Tatra Tiger, the nickname of its burgeoning economy. And of course it also has its incredibly successful hi-tech motor and aviation industries.

But there is no doubt that Slovakia remains the beating heart of European history with its ancient cities and towns, its boiling underground lakes and its snow-capped mountains where great bears and wolves still roam like antediluvian shivering armies

It is a small enigmatic country, bordered by Poland, Ukraine and Hungary, and is so ancient that you can taste history in the air … the smell of  Kapustnica soup cooking on a stove in a witch’s hat of a hillside  Koliba or the sulphur of the great Poprad River flowing from the Carpathians.

         And then of course there is the world’s greenest  and technologically astounding hotel, AquaCity,  Poprad, Central Slovakia, a town which now in so many ways brags the best in the ancient and modern.  The hotel was built by reknowned British and Central Europe visionary Dr Jan Telensky.

History has made Slovakia what it is today …  look at the stone tools dating back to the Ice Age and the Venus of Moravany, a female figure  carved out of  mammoth tusk  dating to 22,800 BC. The ivory figure was dug up by a farmer in 1930 in  Podkovica,  less than two hours from Poprad.

Sometimes in Eastern Slovakia you will come across the remains of hill forts standing against the skyline. Some date back to the First Century and are stark monuments to the Celtic invasion at the first documented turn of the pages of history.  Name some eastern forts

Yes, the history of the glorious little country just goes on and on. It is rife with tales of invasion and revolution. The Romans, the Huns, the Mongols, the Bohemians, Hungary, Poland and Germany have all wanted to steal a piece of it.

And then of course  in November 1989 there was  the Velvet Revolution which led to the downfall of Communism in Czechoslovakia and finally showed the way to the independence Slovakia had battled so hard to win.

The final revolution of course was in 2004 when it   joined the EU and was placed firmly on the international tourism map.

So, here we are in the first quarter of the 21st Century with politics and the economy, hopes and aspirations taking on an  entirely different complexion.

Eastern Slovakia is a wonderful and evocative place to be, with its hills and mountains  and,   its lowlands with its sublime vineyards. Tokaj is probably the most famous wine fermented there.

Poprad is likely to be your first experience of the mountainous country of the East, it is the closest city to the High Tatras Mountains and boasts the region’s major transport links, trains, buses and planes.  There is Poprad airport which was renovated and updated a few years ago and a there is a plethora of taxis waiting there to take you to the ancient city centre or indeed AquaCity, quite simply the place to stay and be seen.

Poprad is alive with quaint and charming bars and restaurants and is the gateway to the Tatra Mountains. But it has its own ‘hidden gem’, Spišská Sobota, a village less than ten minutes walk away which is a conservation site boasting Baroque burghers houses, merchants and artisans houses and a beautiful market square with a 15th century church and Renaissance bell-tower.

The real draw in the region though has to be AquaCity with its saunas, Olympic swimming pool, outdoor pools, centres of well-being, laser light shows, bars, restaurant, cafes, sumptuous rooms and its cryochamber. Amazingly the  hotel is powered by a  geothermal lake and the sun itself.

It’s the place to be to take part in all the things the mountains – described as the teeth of Slovakia – offer from dog sledding, skating on the mirrored lakes, snowboarding, horse riding, climbing and even golf.

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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