I started my first afternoon in Slovakia blanketed in mature homogenized sediment, otherwise known as mud. Jan, a white-jacketed attendant, spread the 113-degree, buttery substance on a bed and motioned for me to lie down. I slid in, teeth firmly gritted, as Jan slathered on more mud and wrapped me mummy-style in sheets. "Das ist sehr gut," he said in German, telling me that all was well.
Standard spa fare, except I was doing it in a grand art-nouveau enclave in the Slovak mountain city of Piestany. In pre-World War II Europe, the Thermia Palace -- a riot of marble floors, crystal chandeliers and gilded columns -- was the "it" place for dignitaries in search of physical therapy and a break in the country. The guest book, dating back to the 1912 opening, includes entries from U.S. silent-screen star Lillian Gish, Bulgarian Czar Ferdinand I and envoys from such far-off locales as Burkina Faso and Malaysia. One photo shows the maharajah of Bhopal arriving in 1934 with an entourage that included his cook and personal physician.
At the Irma spa, adjoining the Thermia Palace Hotel in Piestany, Slovakia, visitors can relax in the thermal pool, which is adorned with stained-glass windows and other ornate fixtures.
(Photo Slovenske Liecebne Kupele; Illustration By Steve Mccracke)
The Thermia's atmosphere of faded elegance is hard to resist. But these days, there's an even better reason for an American to take the waters there: Its daily rate of $101 includes a room with deluxe amenities, three meals and as many as four spa treatments. At U.S. spas of this level, a 50-minute massage alone would cost more than $100. With my $380 round-trip airline ticket to Vienna (a 1 1/2-hour drive west), I could even raid the mini-bar of $1.50 demi-bottles of Karpatske, one of Slovakia's finest brandies, and still come in at well under $1,000 for a four-night stay. While many American spas emphasize pampering, facials, manicures and other beautification rituals, their counterparts in Slovakia and elsewhere in Central Europe focus more on medicinal "cures." At the Thermia, most of the procedures are based on treatments from the natural thermal waters that rise up from beneath the earth, or on mud rich in sulfur and other minerals culled from the Vah, the river that runs through Piestany, and fermented in vats.
Although English is not widely spoken in Slovakia, most of the hotel staffers and other service workers know enough of it that a traveler who speaks only English can manage without a problem. But patience and a good Slovak-English phrasebook will make life easier.
And after all, another good reason for Americans to visit Slovakia is that they will not bump into many other Yankees. The patrons are mostly European retirees, rheumatics, arthritics and others suffering from ambulatory ailments. Regulars testify about the benefits of the Thermia with evangelical fervor. "I could hardly walk from leg pains when I first came," Jaramir Lovil, an 82-year-old Czech-born pensioner, said in English. He was here with his wife for a fifth stay. "But after a couple of weeks, I could almost think about doing a waltz."
Not the spa-going kind? Not to worry -- Slovakia has bargains for every kind of traveler. A country of 5.4 million, it is roughly the size of New Hampshire and is surrounded by Austria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Ukraine. In 1993, Slovakia and the Czech Republic split up in an amicable settlement. The "velvet divorce" left the Czechs with the spectacular city of Prague. But the Slovaks took pride in claiming a vast region covered with mountains and medieval castles.
Although it joined the European Union last May, Slovakia is still waiting to become a part of the stronghold of countries where the euro is resilient and the dollar weak. It is scheduled to switch to the euro in 2009. Meanwhile, with Slovak korunas, the cost of attractions still lingers blissfully circa 1948, when, as the southern part of the former Czechoslovakia, the country was dragged into the Soviet bloc. This translates into real deals for Americans. A full-day lift ticket at Donovaly, a peak rising grandly near the dazzling low Tatra Mountains, costs just over $13. A festive night of cocktails, blackjack and other games at Mamut, a lively Bratislava casino, comes to about $10. A four-course gourmet dinner at Patricia, a wonderful traditional Slovak dining spot in Piestany, runs $12.
Before heading to the mountains, I spent a day wandering the Slovak capital of Bratislava. Although the city's odd mix of baroque and Stalinist-era buildings means that it lacks the architectural stature of Prague (200 miles north), it compensates with warm, fun-loving locals and a rich medley of places for eating, drinking and general revelry. Other attractions include the elegant Bratislava Castle, the world-renowned Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra and a concentration of baroque cathedrals.
I ended up at the Slovak Pub, a beloved Bratislava restaurant on Obchodna Street. Soon I was tucking into a hearty meal of Slovak specialties: onion soup served in a bowl made of thick bread; a platter of pirogi, dumplings filled with cheese and meat; and, of course, a mug or two of Zlaty Bazant, a favorite local beer. The bill was all of $8.
The next morning, friends drove me 45 minutes northeast to Piestany. While Lubor steered, his wife, Kveta, and college-age son, Lubor, offered a mini-lesson in Slovak. In this country where English is not widely spoken, I was happy to learn a few phrases in the native tongue.