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Modern tourism has reduced health to a commodity that is bought and sold. ‘Wellness’ breaks focus on massages and other treatments that promote a feel-good factor. But central Europe still boasts a wonderful range of historic spa towns that long predate the modern craze for pampering—and many offer remarkably good value.
The famous Czech spa at Karlovy Vary (often styled as Carlsbad or Karlsbad in older travel literature) traces its origins back to the 14th century, and the curative properties of the thermal springs have underpinned a healthy spa trade ever since. Peter the Great twice came to Karlovy Vary (in 1711 and 1712), and a steady stream of Romanovs and other well-connected Russians followed in his wake. Grand Duchess Elena Pavlovna of Russia visited no less than seven times.
A handful of spa communities claim to predate Karlovy Vary. One of the most interesting is Bardejovské Kúpele which lies in the hills of northern Slovakia. It was by all accounts commended by the Hungarian royals as early as the mid-13th century. Bardejovské Kúpele has pulled its share of titled visitors too, even including a Russian czar. Alexander I visited in 1821, taking time out to consult local doctors over his health. The spa at Bardejov was in the premier league of European spas in the 18th and 19th centuries, regularly attracting clients from the most distinguished families of Poland and Hungary.
Today Bardejovské Kúpele has slipped slightly below the horizon, although its merits are still very much recognised among the Slovakian and Russian guests who make time for a cure at Bardejov. It has all the appeal of more celebrated spas (like that at Karlovy Vary), but without the crowds. We spent a weekend last month at Bardejovské Kúpele, and it was an excellent short break.
All traditional spas have an other-worldly quality, and Bardejovské Kúpele captures that to perfection. The classic spa town offers a retreat from the realities and stresses of everyday life, and the location of Bardejovské Kúpele assists in that quest. It is tucked away in a side valley that drains down into the River Kamenec. The city of Bardejov, which boasts a fabulous town square, is just ten minutes away from the spa by regular local bus. But to take the bus from Bardejov up to the spa is to move between two worlds. One trades in modern Slovakia and the pressures of life for a quieter, simpler world: one where the tempo is notably slower.
There is no noise of traffic, but just the church bells and birdsong. There are well-marked walks through the hills, the rhythm of spa life and hushed conversations in long corridors. It is an oasis of peace. Ten different mineral springs are the spa’s key asset and, water therapies aside, a wide range of other treatments are on offer: from peat wraps to phototherapy. And all this comes at a fraction of the prices prevailing at a new generation of posh resorts in western Europe that play the spa card.
The competitive pricing extends across the full range of facilities. We stayed at the Hotel Ozon, where a glass of wine with dinner costs less than one euro. You can splash out and buy a whole bottle for five euros.
Bardejovské Kúpele has one thing that you’ll not find in other spas. It has an outdoor museum (locally known as a skanzen) with a very fine collection of buildings from the Carpathian region. It includes churches, farm buildings and houses that together showcase the range of local vernacular architecture. The skanzen buildings are mainly constructed of wood—a material so wholesome, so brimming with virtue, that it just adds to the feel-good factor that surrounds life at Bardejovské Kúpele.