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

Trnava: A Touch of 1920’s Paris at Thalmeiner

There are a few things that can really make a regional town proudly independent from its big city rivals. A thriving arts scene (a theatre, perhaps), a particular point of interest… or just maybe an exceptional restaurant or cafe. Such things can create a buzz, generate an aurora of sophistication, stick a middle finger up at the big city and say “thanks, but we can do very nicely without you.”

Trnava, on paper, on your map as you unfurl it in the car on the drive east out of Bratislava, is a regional town: it’s close enough to Bratislava to commute for locals, it is not far enough away from Bratislava to waylay tourists with limited time bound for the wilder adventures of the Slovak mountains beyond. On paper. The tourist board makes much of the town’s exceptional churches, quite rightly, as a way of attracting visitors. But perhaps Trnava’s most obvious attraction is staring everyone in the face, gracing the side of the main square there: one of Slovakia’s most elegant cafes. One which will impress you even when compared to Bratislava’s, or indeed Vienna’s selection of coffeehouses.

I walked through the door of Thalmeiner and I was transported: the stylish Art Deco-style prints on the walls, the abstract tiled tabletops, the burnished brass old coffee roaster, the suave waiters. This is the type of joint far-bigger cities than Trnava (Bratislava and London included) would love to covet and no wonder – I can think of very few places in Bratislava or in London to compare with here. Thalmeiner transplanted to either place would be overcrowded, with weary, curt staff and probably queues out the door. And when I go in someplace for coffee, I don’t want curt staff or queues. I want to lose myself in the atmosphere, people-watch, order a damned good macchiato, and sketch out a scene in my novel, write that article or that shopping list without hassle but with a smidgeon of the old-fashioned glamour so regrettably absent from the world these days. Which makes Thalmeiner and me pretty well suited.

The Decor…  

One would be content to sit quite some time without even ordering, and just checking out the decor. Thalmeiner’s specific and finely-honed style is an intelligent Art Deco-ising with its original artwork: even the town’s water tower is made into an iconic print here, with a larger-than-life chess piece advancing across an imaginary board in front of it. Or take the cafe’s flagship image: a thundering old steam engine with a cup of coffee emblazoned across the foreground and a sign proclaiming “EXPRESS” (a clever play on old express trains and espresso). The gleaming old coffee grinding machine might waylay you on the way in, too, as will choosing your nigh-on obligatory cake from the counter.

The Vibe…

I took a pew out back in the covered leafy courtyard, because there were no seats free in the main part. I took a look around me. What I liked was that clearly all types of Trnava folks (not just the law students or the middle-class artsy types) were descending on Thalmeiner for their caffeine fix. Not that there weren’t a fair few intense-looking younguns tap-tapping away on their laptops, there were. But there was none of the cliquishness that exists in some cafes and bars intent on creating a certain ambience: there were grizzled locals, too, even a group of very macho-looking men you wouldn’t expect to see in any type of place other than the nearest krčma (pub)! The service overall? Ultra-professional and friendly, rather than over-the-top and condescending.

The Coffee – Presentation Honed to a Fine Art

And when that coffee comes – ah! Presentation, as with everything else at Thalmeiner, is integral down to the finest insignia on the saucer.

Drinks come on chunky silver cups with more of the Art Deco imagery on the sides. The condiments are all Thalmeiner-brand. A glass of water and a small chocolate cake come with the coffee.

I always look forward with relish to that moment when the fruitiness of a well-made coffee hits the back of your tongue, and Thalmeiner, unlike many places that make far greater claims, does not disappoint. The crema here is soupy-thick but the taste doesn’t go overboard with the bitterness. But it is strong enough to leave the sipper needing to take their time (perhaps that is the intention).

The coffee on offer each week at Thalmeiner changes, too, to keep you on your toes, and at least one brew on the menu will be roasted by Slovak coffee roaster, Komarno-based Green Plantation (thus the coffee is always fresh-roasted).

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The Extra Mile…

Perhaps it’s giving that extra thought into how they source their ingredients which is what I was most impressed by at Thalmeiner. They make an evident effort to utilise local suppliers and local recipes for their cakes and sandwiches (a nice touch) and, in the absence of local produce, they at least try to be a bit ecological about where they get their food from (for example, those with a sweet tooth will, like me, also be tempted by Thalmeiner’s hot chocolate – with chocolate sourced from the Mexican plantations).

At any rate, what is guaranteed at Thalmeiner is a sophisticated respite from the real world, with the whiff of glamour in that decor of theirs redolent of… Well. Surely it’s not just writers who get excited about coffeehouses that hark back to those Montparnasse cafes of 1920s Paris? You know, ornate interior, Bohemian types scraping together their last few centimes to buy the next drink that will eke out their stay, animated conversation, ideas being formed…

MAP LINK: (it’s on Trojičné námestie – number 4)

OPENING HOURS: 8am-10pm Monday to Thursday, 8am-midnight Friday, 10am-midnight Saturday, 10am-10pm Sunday.

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From Thalmeiner it’s 46km south-east to another of Slovakia’s best cafes, the Antikvariat in Nitra.

Nitra: The Antikvariat

It happened like this. We were wandering around Nitra, on a snowy evening in December,  checking out log baskets on the Christmas market (a present for my father). They had a great deal of choice. The selection process took some time. We were cold and exhausted in the way that only shopping for presents can exhaust you. Our car, for some reason, was parked far away. We struggled off, basket-burdened, down Kupecká, one of the pedestrianised streets that fans out from Nitra’s circular Námestie.

And there was the Antikvariat (aka antiquarian bookstore) – pretty much the only welcoming light on an otherwise dark wintry street. In we went, based on afore-mentioned tiredness primarily but also because wherever I am in whichever city, I’m always happy to give secondhand bookstores a browse. And based also, perhaps, on the fact that the welcoming signs on the glass (come read on our terrace, come speak a little English at our speaking table – speaking table is not quite as fairytale like as it sounds, but the phrase Slovaks give to weekly foreign-language practicing sessions) gave the feel of the place a certain something that whetted our curiousity.

The Antikvariat, or to give it its official name, Pod Vrškom, is far more than any old secondhand bookstore. Temporarily, in fact, as you come through the door you temporarily forget about the books because you find yourself in a rather elegant (and I mean the word in the hipster sense, “hipster” being the term by which most cool, alternative places run in a kinda counter-culture way by young people are known) cafe. Cafe Libresso. Yeah. Ancient standard lamps lean gutterally to provide subtle lighting over the kind of creaking old coffee tables you’d expect at your grandmother’s house. Books and magazines pile against one wall hung with photographs of trees. The ceiling when you look up is a huge abstract mural. The counter when you look down again is full of temptations (three types of cheesecake, several types of homemade biscuit, genuinely alluring baguettes – and anyone who has spent long in Slovakia will know that as a rule baguettes sold in kiosks and cafes are the very opposite of enticing) that made me think of Kerouac gushing about the sweet treats on offer in a diner when he walks into one, cold and hungry, in the dead of night at the beginning of Visions of Cody.

Cosy...

Cosy…

The speciality coffee came thick and rich and strong (they bring it with water to dilute but have it without and it’s Slovakia’s best coffee experience). Or you could have your brew Pod Vrškom style, that is, with banana and whipped cream. The chocolate cheesecake, if it’s on, is pretty much essential – er – eating. And the ambience – the cafe part of Pod Vrškom only opened in 2013 – is just what you want for a respite from a chilly winter’s evening.

The secondhand bookshop out the back is another delight – a veritable Aladdin’s cave of books with one of Western Slovakia’s best record selections (they’re expensive, mind but the selection is good-quality). All told, it’s couple of hours you could while away here.

And the BUT? For me, the Antikvariat is a wintertime place – perhaps because of this first, favourable impression. A summer visit recently did not feel quite the same. Perhaps because, on this occasion, I mis-remembered what type of coffee I’d gone for before. Perhaps because they didn’t have on any of the promising homemade cider. Perhaps because it was a different and less-friendly waitress serving. Perhaps because the bookshop/record shop was closed (it closes daily at 6pm, although the cafe goes on until 9pm). The summertime street front seating area has been done very well – a delightfully disordered mix of leather sofas, garden benches and beat old wooden chairs for the seats, some books to peruse).

But you know how it is. Ever been back to that lovely restaurant you lounged on the terrace of in summer in, I don’t know, Greece? Then gone back on a cold rainy day, necessarily wanted to sit inside and found the ambience somewhat lacking. Some places have an outside ambience but no indoor ambience. And Cafe Libresso is the opposite. It’s indoors where you want to be and that’s not so desirable in summer.

I’ll be back. But I’ll leave it until dusk on a November afternoon when I want a pick-me-up. Before 6pm, of course, so I can buy some vinyl and some old dusty volume too.

MAP LINK: 

LOCATION: Kupecká 7 – that’s not the main pedestrianised shopping street leading off from Svätoplukovo Námestie but the next one round in a clockwise direction.

OPENING: 9am-9pm (cafe); 9am-6pm (bookshop/record shop)

BEST TIME TO VISIT: 4pm-5pm on a winter afternoon

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From the Antikvariat it’s 30km east to Arborétum Mlyňany

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