“Your medical consultation is at five.” I dreaded this part, but it was a prerequisite to the treatments at the Thermia Palace spa.. “Thanks, that’s perfect.”. Besides, a quick blood pressure check seemed a good idea after 18 months of eastern European fried and salty food. The doctor was a grandmotherly woman, tiny and about 80, with a toothy smile and German accent. “Blood pressure 110 over 70, das iz goot.” “You have no heart problems, no?” “You have sore back and neck, yes?” I was cleared for anything. As I stood to go, she added a recommendation. With her hand raised and index finger pointing in a “Eureka” style gesture, “Mud packs vood be goot.”
Our weekend on Spa Island in Piestany had begun. The Thermia Palace was built in 1912 during the last years of the Austro-Hungarian empire. The hotel stands as a reminder of this age of opulence: marbled walls, crystal chandeliers, gilded mirrors. The back of the hotel opens to the hills of the small Carpathians which are framed by floor to ceiling windows. Since moving to Bratislava 18 months ago, I’ve wanted to try a spa weekend. With our move to Budapest imminent, now seemed a good time.
Our treatment series started Friday evening; thermal pool, mud pool and massage. An attendant escorted me to the treatment area. “Please, robe off, shower, 15 minutes in the pool.” Every few minutes she popped her head in, “Everything OK?”
The pool was large – bigger than a backyard swimming pool – and filled with hot sulfur water. Alone, I paddled from end to end until I was asked to sit still and relax. A prompt fifteen minutes later – “Time’s up.” Next was the mud pool where I repeated the same procedure.
The only difference between the mud pool and the thermal pool was six inches of silky mud covering the bottom. It squished through my toes – initially a bit unsettling though ultimately feeling good. Someone on the other side of the divided center coughed. “Hey Pat, is that you?”. “Shhh, I can’t talk. I’m in the relaxation room.” The attendant returned, signaled time was up, and led me to my own relaxation room where she swaddled me into a sheet and blanket.
The evening ended in the massage room which felt more clinical than spa-like with a paper covered examination table and bright lighting overhead. The masseuse stood by while I de-robed. There was no fluffy, warm blanket under or over me. “This might hurt, but it’s good for you.”, she warned. Her fingers could crack walnuts. She grabbed the skin and muscle on the top of my shoulders and shook. She was right. It did feel kinda good even though it did kinda hurt.
Back in our hotel room, I relaxed on the bed and leafed through a pamphlet of treatment descriptions. Many were on our agenda, some I would never consider (generally involving needles and injections of gases), and others I hoped I wouldn’t need (ex. “Cardio Pulmonary Resuscitation”, which at 70 euros for 30 minutes was pretty cheap).
Given Slovak insurance companies reimburse these procedures as medical treatments, they are, by design, not completely vacation like. Saturday morning began early with a 15 minute soak in a neck-deep whirl pool tub, followed by a swaddled nap, and lastly a face and foot massage. A twenty-something year old man with spiked black hair and tattooed legs walked into the room. I whispered a silent prayer, “Please, don’t let this be my masseur.” That prayer lay unanswered as he started to massage my feet. Although well qualified, I tensely griped my robe closed through the entire 20 minutes.
That afternoon, we walked to the end of the island to our highly anticipated mud pack appointment. I was warned this would not be a 5 star spa (mud pack treatments were sold out at the Thermia Spa). The mud room looked like a bathroom in a stadium – a row of 15 or 20 royal blue stall doors leading to small changing areas which opened back into a series of beds. Half walls divided one area from the next. A woman led me to a bed covered in plastic with a two foot diameter pile of mud. “Sit, lie back, don’t move.” She then pressed my shoulders down more deeply into the mud and sprayed mud on my knees and feet from a high-powered nozzle hanging on the wall. Lastly, she wrapped me in a rubber sheet and covered me with a blanket.
The mud was pleasantly warm everywhere but my feet, which burned for a minute or so. “Lay still, relax, 20 minutes.” I looked at the cracks running up the wall towards the water stained ceiling. The woman periodically checked on me and wiped the sweat from my face. Perhaps this sounds uncomfortable, and it in a way, it was. But it was also my favorite treatment. The squishy heat of the mud, the power nozzle applicator, the squalor of the location and the smiling – but broken English-speaking – attendant underscored we were in an eastern European spa. I came here to experience exactly this.
The woman reappeared wearing yellow rubber gloves and wiped off the mud as best she could before leading me under the high-powered shower. Some minutes of scrubbing, the mud washed down the drain, and I was ready to go. Pat snapped a photo of our attendant – who patted her hair into place, pulled off the mud soaked apron (not realizing that was exactly what I was after) and smiled. We asked if she grew up in Piestany – but her English was limited. We thanked her and waived good-bye.
Our final treatment was Sunday morning before leaving for home – the salt cave. The cave floor was covered with a few inches of salt pebbles and salt stalactites hung from the ceiling. Water dripped over an herbal bath in the center. We wrapped ourselves in sheets and relaxed in reclining chairs. The cave was cool. For 45 minutes soft music played while a light show flickered in the darkness. People started to blow their noses – this being a respiratory treatment. As I lay in the semi-darkness, I thought over and over – “I am sitting in a salt cave in Slovakia.” We ended the treatment with a 15 minute hot soak.
Shortly after noon we boarded the train back to Bratislava. I can’t say I felt cured. Then again, I never felt sick. We met a couple who come from Israel each year for two weeks of treatments. That will never be me. Still and all, I am glad I went. I sat in a salt cave in Slovakia and had a woman spray me with mud from a high-powered hose in a grungy communist style locker room. It was like nothing I have ever done – which was exactly what I hoped it would be. .
Categories: Central/Eastern Europe