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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

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Piešt’any: In the Footsteps of Beethoven

Slovakia has only been a nation twenty-three years. Before that it was a region within regularly chopping and changing borders: Turkish, Austrian, Hungarian, Czech, German, Russian: all have had a stab at meddling with the frontiers here. And so, through the ages, a huge diversity of famous personages stopped by for one reason or another: people you never would have associated with Slovakia. One of these was Beethoven. We’ve already detailed in our post on Hlohovec how the great composer famously stopped off for one night in the town and performed for them. He was stopping off en route to Piešt’any: and there he stayed some time.

Ludwig was hastening here for the spas of course: Piešt’any is a spa town and the obvious reason to come is to take the waters. But there are other things to do besides luxuriating in the healing mud treatments. There are now, and there was then, and Beethoven has a lot to do with it.

It’s not recorded for precisely how long Beethoven stayed, but most sources reckon it was during the winter of 1801-1802. He resided in Villa Bacchus, a grand still-standing but currently unused building in the hills north of the town, and popularised the culture of winter sleigh rides between the villa and Piešt’any’s spa island (great fun on the way there, as it is all down hill, but tough, quite possibly, ascending again from Piešt’any.) The composer was lucky enough to visit Piešt’any pretty much at its zenith: its glamorous status of the age helped no end by the most eponymous of the Erdödy family, Jozef, who had owned the spa town since 1789 (his family, in fact, since 1720).  Jozef Erdödy liked beautiful things (I know this from reading a plaque in the Balnea Esplanade Hotel), had Hlohovec Castle lavishly redecorated with treasures from the corners of the known world, and took his state-of-the-art (then) sleigh (adorned with dragon’s heads to symbolise power) up to see Beethoven at Villa Bacchus whilst the composer was in town.

As we set off on a chilly spring walk from spa island, we didn’t know any of this. We just fancied a leg-stretch and, having already walked the lengths of the River Váh in both directions from the town centre, decided on heading up into the hills directly above the Thermia Palace hotel (into the lower reaches of the Považský Inovec uplands).

A blue-marked trail twists up into the woods from just left of the road bridge across the Váh. At this point it’s a concreted path, and hung with gas lamps (signs of a lovelier age that we pondered upon on the climb). After perhaps 20 minutes of walking you cross a road at a large castellated ruin, which looks impressive (if slightly malevolent) and a branch-off path to the Koliba Restaurant (where there’s good rustic Slovak cooking and nice views back down over spa island and the town).

But the blue trail, also a yellow cycling route, continues on a gorgeous path through woods and then, unusually for a Slovak trail, cuts across farmland. The scene is surprisingly reminiscent of the English South Downs. A tree-lined path through open fields with gentle patchwork quilt-type landscapes falling away on one side and a vast reservoir rearing into view on the other. Not previously knowing anything about the landscapes on this side of Piešt’any both the Englishness and the reservoir (Nádrž Slňava, where a country music festival takes place in the summer) were a surprise.

The one thing we did know at this stage was that we were following a route to Villa Bacchus which, in the biting January wind, assumed almost mythical proportions for us. There would be a beautiful cosy restaurant there, we fantasised. With a crackling open fire, we guessed. Surrounded by beautiful vineyards, we hoped.

The vineyards appeared first. Then, maybe 1km further on, after a ridge route above the reservoir, the scattering of houses which must surely contain Villa Bacchus reared into view, crouched below the higher hills of the Small Carpathians looming behind. In the distance, you could spy the summit where Tematín Castle sits. On a sunnier day, we would have kept walking. From here, beguiling hill hikes both south to Hlohovec and north to Tematín await. But it was cold, and it seemed we were to be disappointed: Villa Bacchus was no longer operational as a dignified lodging house that hosted the like likes of Ludwig. But then, in the lee of the hill, a striking yellow building appeared, with smoke coming out of the chimney. Every one of our fantasies about a cosy place to retreat from the weather were, bizarrely in this out-of-the-way spot, about to become reality, in the form of Restauracia Furman (just down from the old Villa Bacchus).

So a 2km hike from Piešt’any can conjure up some rather wondrous surprises. The best route back to spa island is by returning the same way and there we discovered the sleigh that could very well have been the one Erdödy rode on to call on Beethoven in along the very hike described here. At least, as the plaque alongside conceded, it must have been one very similar…

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A Quick Guide to the Other Content We Have on the Piešt’any Area:

Places to Go: Piešt’any’s Best Thermal Pools

Places to Go: A Great Castle near Piešt’any

Places to Eat & Drink: A Great Restaurant in the Hills Above Piešt’any

Places to Eat & Drink: Piešt’any’s Best Cakes

 

MAP LINK

GETTING THERE: Piešt’any is on the main train line between Bratislava, Poprad and Kosice; this walk kicks off right from spa island (Kúpeľný ostrov).

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: Continue 23km north by road from the end of this hike at the Furman Restaurant (and a few km less if you’re hiking through the hills) to reach the dramatic ruins of Tematín Castle

NB: Round off the Beethoven tour with a jaunt to see a memorial dedicated to his stint in Piešt’any, in the town park: it was finished in 1939 by Ladislav Ľ. Pollák, a prominent sculptor.

35-degree waters - image y www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Piešt’any: the Pick of its Thermal Pools

Whether in summer, for a well-earned languishing and luxuriating session, or in the colder weather for a quick warming dip, Slovakia’s spas – and one in particular – are an absolute must-visit.

The best bathing spots in the country, of course, are much easier to narrow down if that country doesn’t have a coastline. In landlocked Slovakia, bathing is all about spas: there is a stunning variety of therapeutic thermal waters flowing under the earth here, and a clutch of great spa towns for those with a desire to take the waters.

But it’s Piešt’any that is Slovakia’s number one spa town. The quality of services is higher and, located on the serene “spa island” alongside the pleasant town of Piešt’any, the spa buildings with their ornate neoclassical design help create the dignified spa atmosphere of bygone centuries more atmospherically than other spa towns around.

Over the bridge on spa island itself, the most lavish building is the five-star Thermia Palace Hotel (now part of the Danubius group). Adjoining this is the Irma Spa – and what many people don’t know is that the treatments are available to non-guests, and not at so very high a price. There is no need to stay here if your wallet doesn’t stretch. BUT hotel guests do understandably get first priority and therefore there is no way to book in advance the delightful outdoor thermal pool which probably qualifies as Slovakia’s best. You have to turn up and hope that it’s not full (this puts many people off from so doing). But full it almost never is.

Thermia Palace & Irma Spa from the Outside

Outside Thermia Palace & Irma Spa – image by www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Turn right along the corridor inside the entranceway with its stained glass scene of rural Slovak life at one end and its mural depicting the thermal currents flowing under Piešt’any on the other side. Check at reception for the number of spaces at the outside thermal pool that you would like (12 Euros per person, but for as long as you wish). Then you’ll be guided along to the entrance to the pool. You can go out and put your things by the pool first, then change after (there’s a poolside custodian).

The changing rooms themselves are few but spacious, with high wooden park benches to put clothes on (not quite up there with my favourite Slovak spa changing rooms, the prize for which goes to the glamorous 19th-century hammam at the Trenčianske Teplice spa just outside Trenčin, but still very nice).

And here’s the shocker. This beautiful pool, with a temperature of 35 degrees in summer and 38 in winter, surrounded by the ornate environs of one of Slovakia’s loveliest spa hotels, and abutted by an old English garden replete with statues, is almost always virtually empty – even at weekends. The only people in the know seem to be a steady stream of visitors from the Middle East – but even they are only sporadically in evidence at the pool itself. For 12 Euros you can stay as long as you like here, bring a picnic to munch on the beds around the edge in if you want or wander along the path to the equally refined cafe-restaurant in the Thermia Palace Hotel – with outside tables overlooking the English garden.

If you’re used to Europe’s better-known spas, like Széchenyi in Budapest, you’ll be amazed by the quietude of Piešt’any. The surrounds are not quite as glamorous as Széchenyi but it’s a fair trade-off for having the water almost to yourself. The best thermal pool in Slovakia? Quite probably, yes.

Other Treatments…

That is of course in addition to having the luxury of 60+ treatments involving the famous Piešt’any sulphurous mud, including the indoor mud pool with its lofty domed roof, right nearby. For an insight into the treatments available, check the Thermia Palace website’s list of treatments. And a tip: the hot water churns into the pool right on the left-hand side below the steps in and is the cosiest place to hang out.

A Quick Guide to the Other Content We Have on the Piešt’any Area:

Places to Go: Hiking in the Footsteps of Beethoven Around Piešt’any

Places to Go: A Great Castle near Piešt’any

Places to Eat & Drink: Piešt’any’s Best Cakes

Places to Eat & Drink: A Great Restaurant in the Hills Above Piešt’any

 

MAP LINK:

GETTING THERE: Trains run from Bratislava’s Hlavná Stanica Station to Piešt’any every one to two hours. Costs for a ticket are 4.30 Euros.

ADMISSION: 12 Euros

OPENING: 10am-7pm

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From Piešt’any’s spa island, it’s 26km north to Beckov Castle and 20km south to Hlohovec

Piešťany: the Very Best Cakes

Many people know about Piešťany, Slovakia’s most famous spa. But what to do when you’re done with a dunk in the pools? Well, the answer is of course an exploration of the town and when you’re done with that (it won’t take too long to explore the town itself) you want a cake. Right? No? Then don’t read on. Yes? You’re in the right place.

Monsalvy may not be the fanciest place in Piešťany. But, to follow an adage adopted worldwide, save the lavish-looking but often unremarkable (cuisine-wise) bigger restaurants for the tourists and save the quality coffee and delicious cakes for the locals, which make up the majority of the clientele here. Another testimony to the place’s quality is that lots of the other cafes in Western Slovakia hanker after Monsalvy’s sweet treats to the extent Monsalvy has to supply cakes to many of the region’s other outlets.

A huge counter of cakes awaits when you push back the curtains and enter into this refreshing retreat from the nearby blandness of Aurpark shopping center. But there’s a snug cafe area stretching both back behind the counter and also in front (if you want a street view). It focuses on supplying locals and local businesses with high-quality cakes which are particularly enticing if you are a fan of cakes with fruit on (fresh cherries, kiwis and grapes feature prominently).

Presentation is key at Monsalvy, who are best known as chocolatiers. The chocolates, especially the pralines, are highly recommended and are displayed on top of the counter as you walk in, but there is one offering that combines the best of the chocolate and the fruit together in one divine helping of goodness: the chocolate košik, or basket. A crumbly chocolate base (the basket part) is filled with a chocolate cream filling up to about half-way. Then on top of these are arranged slices of different fruits, just as if they were positioned in a mini fruit bowl. Try a couple of them alongside a coffee better than the spa restaurants offer and a complementary handmade sweet.

There is no finer treat for your (sweet) taste buds than wiling away some time at this cafe, particularly when winter hits Piešťany and it’s cold out. In a serendipitous turn of events, Monsalvy also serves as something of a wine bar, with a good selection of Slovak wine fave tokaj, and does lunches and dinners too (these are not vouched for by this review but look pretty tempting).

A Quick Guide to the Other Content We Have on the Piešt’any Area:

Places to Go: Piešt’any’s Best Thermal Pools

Places to Go: Hiking in the Footsteps of Beethoven Around Piešt’any

Places to Go: A Great Castle near Piešt’any

Places to Eat & Drink: A Great Restaurant in the Hills Above Piešt’any

 

MAP LINK: 

LOCATION: Teplická 10, Piešťany

OPENING: 9am-9:30pm Monday-Thursday, 9am-11:30pm Friday-Saturday, 10am-9:30pm Sunday

BEST TIME TO VISIT: Get the shopping done across the road in Aurpark, then head here for elevensies!

LAST UPDATED: April 2017

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: 800m southeast on spa island, Piešťany’s best thermal pools await