Eastern Europe's best budget spas, by Tristan Rutherford
The Guardian, 18 January 2020
1) Karlova Studánka, Czech Republic
The Hapsburgs littered this Alpine valley with hunting lodges, log cabins, saunas and kiosks for good reason. Mineral-rich air from peat deposits grants Karlova Studánka the cleanest air in the Czech Republic. West of Prague, spas like Karlovy Vary (Carlsbad) rekindled their links with capitalist Europe in the 1990s. Not so Karlova Studánka, near the Polish border, which remained a stalwart of the Czech NHS thanks to its reliance on hard-core wellness solutions. Read 46°c peat wraps (£11) and magnetotherapy (£10), where AC and DC currents jolt blood circulation. Quite literally buzzing. The resort’s setting is sylvanian. Century-old hotels are ringed with Alpine wilderness. Two cycle routes (eBike hire available) and a long-distance hiking trail run to the Bílá Opava waterfalls.
* A luxury package including private spa, sparkling wines, massage treatments and four nights half-board accommodation costs £174pp. (+420 554 798 111, horskelazne.cz)
2) Banjisht, North Macedonia
Karst rocks form an underground aquafier high on the Albanian-Macedonia border. From here 39°c waters, each litre alive with 4000mg of minerals, bubble up into bucolic countryside. Pulmonic punters have drifted in since the 18th century. Although during the 1970s, foreign scientists designated this Yugoslav borderland as one of Europe's most healing spas. The Banjisht Resort still majors on fangotherapy (where thermal mud infuses vitality, then pulls out toxins as it dries). Plus electrotherapy to cure muscle spasms and increase circulation. Nowadays a 'beauty and wellness' department assists with 21st-century treatments including waxing, detox baths, fruit facials and teen facials, which extract blackheads and whiteheads. Nice. The rambling resort hotel is ringed with a botany of tree species attracted by the sun-blessed microclimate.
* A four-night package, including several daily treatments and all meals, costs £122pp. (+389 46 831 092, bdcapa.com)
3) Cieplice, Poland
For eight centuries the waters around Cieplice have treated the cream of Central European society, including Polish princes, Prussian aristocrats and American ambassador (later President) John Quincy Adams. Such nobility demanded frescoed dining salons, broad parks and splendid swimming pools, all of which remain today. The thermal springs are particularly rich in sulphur, iodine and radon. While the 70 treatments have manifold benefits, the focus is particularly strong on rheumatology, urology and dry-eye syndrome, the latter a modern complaint in our screen-led world. Each therapy is a no-nonsense bargain. Fifteen minutes of paraffin therapy costs £3.50. Eye rinsing with thermal aerosols cost £3. Although the peat enema is priced at an eye-watering £12. However, accommodation in century-old buildings is pretty basic given the grand surrounds. A contemporary attraction in this classic spa town is the Ceiplice Aquapark (entrance £7), with outdoor Jacuzzis, lazy rapids and the 'Anakonda' waterslide.
* A seven-day spa package costs from £233pp including 18 treatments, three meals a day and a medical examination. (+75 75 510 57, uzdrowisko-cieplice.pl)
4) Truskavets, Ukraine
On the Ukraine border near Lviv, the healing benefits of Truskavets were first prescribed by a Polish doctor in 1578. Successive empires, from Austro-Hungarian to Soviet, basked in waters rich in sodium, sulphur and organic matter. Truskavets is one of the few thermal water resorts that encourages visitors to drink tankards of the stuff to flush the liver, stomach and kidneys from mucus, stones and other toxins. Even more modern resorts like Chale Graal (a fancy hotel with its own pump room) feature treatments as old as time itself. Read speleotherapy (breathing inside a salt cave to extract moisture from lungs) and hirudotherapy (leeches to you and me). Modern treatments like computer-aided traction of the spine, which slowly unlocks the vertebrae, are also offered.
* A seven-day package including medical consultations, three mineral baths and a colonic hydrotherapy session costs £161pp. (+38 096 662 557, chalegraal.com)
5) Istarske Toplice, Croatia
Istarske Toplice is the ne plus ultra of Croatian thermal spas. Situated beside the truffle'n'booze capital of Motovun (an Istrian hilltown that requires a detox in its own right), the waters have been soothing rheumatic joints since Roman times. Istarske Toplice is big on hot water bathing, inhalation and 40°c curative mud. All can help clear lung complaints and dermatological disorders. A full-body wrap costs £20. An hour of lymphatic draining massage will set you back £25. While cryotherapy (which will literally make you cry with cold) costs a paltry £3. This being Istria (Croatia’s answer to Tuscany), wine and truffle treatments also proliferate. Three fabulous cycling routes pass nearby.
* A four-night ‘managers special’ package costs £235pp half-board in the superior Sveti Stjepan hotel including a massage and unlimited use of saunas. (+385 52 603 000, istarske-toplice.hr)
6) Sanitorium Ozerny, Belarus
In service terms, most Belarussian sanatoria are back in the USSR. Not so Ozerny, set in a virgin woodland of birch, boxwood, spruce and juniper on the shores of Lake Beloe. The resort even has an indoor aquapark and a summer-time pedalo fleet. Treatments however are still on the Soviet side. Read microwave electrotherapy, ozokeritotherapy (intense heat wraps) and a focus on soothing organic mud. Plus endearingly titled treatments including ‘Magnetic stimulation of pelvic organs' and 'Life without gout'. Belarus’s policy of visa-free travel has encouraged EU spa tourists to railroad in. The sanitorium sits 20 miles from handsome Grodno, ‘the most European city in Belarus’. It’s a one hour drive from Druskininkai in Lithuania, or a two- and a half-hour train ride from Bialystok in Poland.
* From around £50 per day for guests undertaking the Beauty & Health program. Extra massages cost around £7; honey or cranberry wraps around £15. (+375 152 798 510, ozerny.by)
7) Baile Herculane, Romania
The Romans put the life-giving waters of Baile Herculane on the map. The 15 thermal springs, named after deities like Diana and Neptune, were equally beloved of the Hapsburgs, who added splendid rococo lodges. Soviet health-seekers adored the Vichy-like waters as well, so rich in sulphur. They also added giant concrete blocks where much resort accommodation is based today. The Grand Hotel Minerva offers an affordably classy blowout. Inflammatory, spinal and neurological conditions can be soothed by ozone therapy, magnet therapy and herbal plant baths, as well as complimentary access to thermal pools and saunas for all package guests.
* The Grand Hotel Minserva Spa offers a five-night half-board package, including four daily therapeutic procedures such as massages, mud packs and thermal wraps, for £258pp. (+40 770 941 511, hotelminerva.ro)
8) Bükfürdő, Hungary
Hungary is Europe’s undisputed hot spring heavyweight. Life, love and leisure revolves around the nation’s 1,300 thermal spas. Which means visitors can choose to soak in the glitzy (Budapest’s Gellért baths) or the rural (Héviz, a massive thermal lake) or opt for sulphurous, salty or joint-soothing carbonic waters. Many resorts were raised by bath-loving Ottoman occupiers. Bükfürdő, near the Austrian border, was discovered in 1957 when oilmen drilled for crude. They produced a 70m-high gushing geyser of potassium and calcium rich waters instead. The resort is among the largest and most family-friendly on this list. Some 30 pools, plus manifold saunas (Finnish rock, herbal cabin) and slides (shark cave for tots, Kamikaze chutes for kids) sit alongside mobile homes and a thermal campsite. Euro-priced treatments aren't cheap. A 25-minute goat milk mud bath costs €22. A 60-minute wellness massage costs €41. The resort is particularly strong on osteoporosis regeneration programs, using Alpine hay smoke, remedial gymnastics and thermal massages to strengthen bones.
* A seven-night preventative care package, including 10 traditional treatments and unlimited spa access (but not accommodation) costs €229pp. (+36 94 558 080, bukfurdo.hu)
9) Atomska Banja, Serbia
Spa resorts stretch the length and breadth of Serbia. Any town with the word ‘banja’ in its name is a legacy of thermal worship from Romans (like gorgeous Vrnjačka Banja) or Ottomans (Novopazarska Banja). Atomska Banja dates back 2,000 years. Its radioactive content, which infuses traces of uranium and radon into waters rich in sulphur and sodium, has left visitors glowing ever since. Hydrotherapy is Atomska Banja’s USP. Massage, lymphatic drainage and electrotherapy also feature strongly. The forest surrounds of white ash, linden, oak and elm offer a final dose of health. Serbia’s spas rank among the least expensive in Europe.
A resort stay costs £14pp per night full board. Treatments like hydromassage cost £2.50, while kinesitherapy is £3. (+381 32 822 063, atomskabanjagornjatrepca.rs)
10) Spa Dudince, Slovakia
Slovakia hosts 21 thermal resorts. These range from rococo classics (like Bardejov) to medical spas (Brusno) and family-friendly aquaparks for snow and sunshine frolics (Thermal Corvinus). Spa Dudince offers the best of all three. Its thermal springs, which mirror the famed life-enhancing properties of Vichy in France, are partnered by 70 procedures ranging from underwater massages to peat baths. Outside a water park offers an Iceland-style mix of mineral bathing, jet pools and slides, alongside giant chess, volleyball and summertime animation for kids. The resort offers bike hire for jaunts into the surrounding Stredoslovenská wine region.
* A half-board stay including initial medical consultation, two daily treatments and pool access costs £44pp per night. (+421 45 550 44 44; kupeledudince.sk)