Water treatments are scattered in my literary memory. My Austrian babysitter read to me from Heidi. In the opening pages, Heidi’s Aunt Dete takes a job in the baths leaving Heidi to live with grandfather in the Swiss alps. Heidi’s invalid friend, Clara, visits the same baths, Ragatz, with her grandmother in search of a water based cure. Until I moved to Slovakia, I thought “taking the water cure” was exclusively a literary reference.
In 18th century Europe, the spa emerged as a popular treatment option for the upper class. The movement gained popularity during the 19th century when health spas devoted to the “cure” became well-known medical institutions for the rich, especially those with lingering or chronic illness. These spas contained baths built on top of thermal pools. The treatments involved both soaking in, and drinking, the curative waters. In today’s Slovakia, spa treatments are covered by insurance with a doctor’s prescription. Spas are considered a form of medical center.
During the summer, we bike from Bratislava to a nearby Austrian town, Bad Deutsch Altenburg. This village is known for its baths. We go for the Austrian strudel. As we eat, the elderly, white bath-robed spa clients shuffle back and forth between their hotel and the treatment center. Some push oxygen. It troubles me that such an unwell group is leaving the spa so apparently uncured.
During lunch with a Hungarian friend, we chatted about the spa influence in Central Europe. Budapest houses more baths than any city in Europe. Many are centuries old and built during the Turkish occupation of Hungary. My friend asserted “You Americans don’t believe in the water cure.” My first thought was “Wow, of course not, do you?” I swallowed my glib reaction as an idea began to percolate. Maybe a spa weekend could be interesting.
An hour train ride from Bratislava is the village of Piestany. The town was built around a network of underground natural thermal pools. In 1889, Alexander Winter plowed all his money into developing resort hotels on an island in the Vah River. Today, that island is known as Spa Island. As you cross the Colonnade Bridge to the island, you are greeted by the statue of a man breaking his crutch. This statue is the face of Piestany. The largest of the spa hotels on the island is the art nouveau Thermia Palace built-in 1912 .
We have booked a trip to the Thermia Palace this weekend. Our package includes a list of cures preceded by a “medical consultation”. I am not sure what to expect either from the consultation or the subsequent “treatments”. I guess that’s why we need to go – to explore and find out.
So, we are off taking the cure. I’m packing light – my bathing suit and flip-flops and toothbrush. I will leave my American sensibilities and prejudices back home although I’m sure one or two will sneak along with me. Next week, I will let you know how it turns out.
Categories: Central/Eastern Europe