Slovakia is leading the way when it comes to health and wellness travel with a huge focus on spa breaks, fitness and adventure and even medical tourism, so when I got the chance to supplement the physical sports and adventure activities Slovakia was offering me with a range of activities focused on mental and physical wellbeing I jumped at the chance! The only problem is no one told me I would be spending a significant portion of it naked!
Slovakia is not well known for health and wellness tourism, but it really should be! The focus on health and wellness in Slovakia moves far beyond the expensive luxury treat as it is seen in most of the western world, and is far more culturally ingrained here. Health and relaxation is stressed as part of a holistic, balanced lifestyle and spas and resorts devoted to the pursuit of wellness are both plenty and affordable.
Like in other parts of Europe, the spas and clinics in Slovakia don’t just focus on indulgence and relaxation, but are a restorative and necessary part of medical and clinical treatment, specifically focusing on respiratory, digestive, cardiovascular and other similar medical conditions, with many of the spas having a specialty in one or more of these ailments.
Aiding this focus on health and wellness, Slovakia has a vast underground system of registered thermal springs and geysers, and with very few exceptions is one of the largest and most concentrated sources of natural healing water in Europe. This vast network of springs feeds the dozens of specialised spa resorts, fitness centres, pools and health and wellness clinics throughout the country, allowing you to take advantage of the natural minerals instead of chlorine and other chemicals.
Because of this, the natural therapeutic effects of the mineral water and mud treatments, as well as the climate provided by the mountainous terrain, Slovakia is the ideal European health and wellness destination, and with a huge focus on affordability as well, there was no way I could pass up the opportunity to take advantage of it while I was here and look after my physical and mental wellbeing a little.
A holistic approach to my physical and mental wellbeing.
I had already been in Slovakia a couple of days before I got the chance to really discover the health and wellness opportunities open to travellers. I was here initially to throw myself into the many adventure travel opportunities in this ruggedly untamed country, and I had already spent my time hiking through mountains, throwing myself through white water rapids and searching for wild bears in the countryside, but what I didn’t know before I came is just how focused Slovakian culture in general is on health and wellness, and just how many spas, fitness centres and medical clinics they had readily available for travellers to enjoy a spot of health and wellness tourism.
Many destinations already offer a range of adventure activities and sports that give travellers a way to boost their fitness as well as their adrenaline, and spas are pretty commonplace everywhere, but in Slovakia they are taking that to the next level.
Now I love adventure travel, I love pushing my body to the limits and exercising my muscles by pitting myself against nature, but a huge part of that is the rest and relaxation side too. Like anything in life it is all about balance, and to enjoy the physical demands of the adventure you also have to let your body and mind heal, rest and relax.
And once I found out I had the chance to enjoy one of Slovakia’s many spas, I did not need any persuading at all!
Slovakia really does have an absolute plethora of spas, medical centres, health and wellness clinics and a whole host of other health and fitness resorts devoted to letting you look after yourself, and the spa resort I found myself in not only had an Olympic size swimming pool and impressive gym set up, a huge spa fed by natural springs and natural salt water pools but it also had an entire medical clinic offering elective medical procedures for anyone who wanted or needed them. Seriously if I ever needed any medical procedure I couldn’t imagine a better place to rest and recuperate!
But since I wasn’t here for that I resigned myself to spending my time improving my health and fitness in the gym and the impressive pools, and although workouts are definitely much harder now than they were in my prime twenty years ago, there is still nothing better than a relaxing day of exercising and using your muscles.
But it was the spa itself I was really eager to try out!
European spa culture.
Spa culture in large parts of Europe is very different than it is in much of the rest of the world. With a few exceptions such as Spain and the UK, large parts of European spa culture is mixed gender, where men and women sit and mingle together and nudity is an absolute requirement. Wearing shorts or a swimsuit and sweating into them is actually considered unhygienic, although to be honest with you no one has been able to give me an actual clinical reason why, it just is.
Some countries do allow for a sheet to be wrapped around the body and most require you to sit on a sheet or a towel to avoid skin touching the wood. Some keep the genders separate and there are even one or two with rules around headwear. The actual fine print and nuance of spa ettiquette does change from country to country, but on the whole Europe has a wholly different and open attitude to nudity.
Walking into the changing rooms to the dedicated sauna, steam room and jacuzzi facility, I was handed a robe and a sheet by the staff and subtly reminded that unlike the main outdoor and indoor pools I had been enjoying all morning, bathing shorts or clothes were not allowed at all in the sauna or the jacuzzi pools. As if this reminder wasn’t enough, they had also placed not so subtle signs all over the changing rooms and seating area.
I stifled a sigh and tried to act unfazed, as if walking round absolutely bollock naked was the most natural thing in the world.
God damn it. I would have to get naked again.
Now I’m a bit of a strange paradox when it comes to things like this. I generally have an unfazed, gung ho attitude to most things, and very few things make me pause to consider if it is a good idea or not. I have jumped out of planes, abseiled down waterfalls and scaled sheer mountain faces without a second thought or a moments hesitation. I have wandered brazenly through active conflict zones and faced off countless emergency situations without breaking a sweat. I’m not one who is normally prone to indecision or nerves.
It’s certainly not as if I haven’t been naked in public before, but that is another very long story involving a certain Army barracks in Scotland, too much Malibu and a great bar brawl. A story for another time.
And I don’t even have that many personal hang ups about my body either. Sure I’m not always happy with it as I am sure most people aren’t, there are certainly parts I’m not happy showing off and I don’t think I am great looking but I’m not exactly Gollum from Lord of the Rings either. I am certainly far too old now to give much of a damn of what anyone else thinks of me too. I’m not exactly proud of my scarred, battered and aging body but at 40 years old I’m not ashamed of it either. I like to think that is a generally healthy and balanced personal outlook on body positivity.
So why does being naked in public still fill me with hesitation and doubt?
It is that primal feeling of being completely vulnerable, completely unshielded from the world around me that still sends out klaxons of alarm in my internal sensors.
After all I’m still an Englishman goddamnit! Hang ups about our bodies are as ingrained into our national psyche as deeply as the stiff upper lip! Even visits to the Doctor are met with mumbled innuendo and embarrassed euphemism as you desperately try and not look directly at each other when talking about bodily functions.
I wasn’t alone.
What made this situation even worse was that I wasn’t alone on this trip. I had been naked in spas before of course, in Austria, in Germany and even in a Japanese onsen, but in all those times I was either completely alone or with a group of complete strangers who just happened to be there with me, which shouldn’t make a difference but it does!
This time I was with friends.
Not just friends, friends of the opposite sex. People who knew me. People who I would have to continue to work with once we were far away from the spa.
What could go wrong?
So what did I do?
Well I ignored all the doubts and insecurities that were suddenly plaguing my mind and did what any good soldier would do. Sucked in my gut, whipped off my towel and waded into the sauna with all the self confidence and false bravado of a big swinging dick in a changing room.
And no one cared.
Everyone did the same and didn’t bat an eyelid!
Well that made me feel like an absolute idiot. The self consciousness, the doubt, any feeling of insecurity or nervousness or any hesitation brought about by the instinctive and deeply ingrained need for clothing all disappeared. Because no one gave a damn.
Everyone was there in the same position, everyone was absorbed in their own world as they relaxed, and no one gave a damn that I was there or gave me a second look.
It was actually quite liberating and refreshing. There were men and women of all ages, sizes and imperfections all sat around naked. Some had thin sheets wrapped around them, others didn’t, but no one cared.
Enjoying the saunas.
The dozens of saunas and steam rooms all had their own unique focus. Some were herbal saunas with aromatherapy fused steam filling the room, others concentrated on using infrared chromotherapy with colour changing lights for physical, mental, emotional and spiritual healing. There was even a cold sauna to provide a contrast to the heat and give a huge boost to your bodies recovery.
I have seen many amazing spas around the world but this one was seriously impressive. I have never seen such a large facility specifically devoted to health and wellness!
All of these steam rooms and saunas were connected by a system of interconnected pools and private jacuzzis, and I just had to try them all! Purely for research purposes, you understand. I spent a few minutes in each before showering and relaxing in one of the jacuzzis or swimming in the small pools, the dimly lit, coloured LEDs creating a relaxing grotto effect that supplemented the healing minerals found in the natural springs that were feeding water into the whole spa.
I even found a waterfall shower that sent a powerful cascade of water down onto you that pummeled your shoulders and back better than any massage! I have showered in natural waterfalls in the middle of jungles and mountains many times, and this was at least the equal to those experiences!
The naked stripper show.
I had been in and out of a number of saunas, steam rooms, jacuzzis and hydro pools for most of the afternoon at this point. I never wanted to leave and it was very likely it would get to a situation where they would have to drag me out at closing time kicking and screaming.
Until the naked stripper show happened.
I have been in spas throughout Europe and was a little familiar already with the largely German tradition of Aufguss, which loosely translated by my basic high school level German means infused. This is a wellness/purification ritual performed by an Aufgussmeister or sauna master, and involves water mixed with essential oils and herbs onto the hot sauna stones, ‘infusing’ them with the steam, and then the Aufgussmeister directs and fans the flow of the hot air toward you by whirling a towel around.
I had seen this show in Germany and Austria before and it had always been impressive, with the Aufgussmeister’s control of the towel on a par with Bruce Lee’s Nunchaku.
This wasn’t that.
It started out that way of course, but then the guy whirling the towel got way too into it.
I was already surrounded by a ton of naked people, a fact that up until that point I had been shrugging off as normal, and the Aufgussmeister was doing his thing, pouring infused water on the hot coals and whirling the towel over his head causing waves of hot air to wash over everyone.
But then, wearing only what can generously be described as a small towel no bigger than a loin cloth, he started dancing. And gyrating. And whipping off the loin cloth.
And suddenly I felt as if I was in a really uncomfortable strip show. Okay, fine. Maybe that’s how they do it here, I’ll just divert my eyes. No, not that way that is a naked old guy, I don’t want that image in my head. Nope, not that way either, I doubt the naked lady would appreciate my head turning directly at her.
I’ll look at the floor. Great. That will do The floor was actually really interesting. Nice tiles.
And then the sauna stripper danced over to us all and tried to come in for a hug.
Nope. That’s it. I’m out.
I’m all for health and wellness, I can even do it naked, but I draw the line at naked man hugs!
Out of the frying pan, into the freezer!
Making a swift exit out of the spa I quickly showered and changed, and decided to head down to try one of the other treatments on offer. This resort really did have everything and I could genuinely spend weeks here just focusing on my health and wellness.
As well as the gyms, the Olympic pool, the obligatory massage centre and seriously impressive spa, they had something that I had always wanted to try but had never had the opportunity to.
A full body, minus 125 degree cryotherapy chamber!
Cryotherapy is a treatment that involves subjecting the body to extreme cold temperatures of minus 120 degrees Celsius for a few minutes, followed by a session of vigorous Kinesiotherapy exercise to bring the body temperature back up.
Heading to the medical centre where the cryotherapy chamber was, I prepared myself for stepping into the extreme temperatures, and I found that I was genuinely excited! Even the warning from the doctor that any longer than the allocated time would lead to my body shutting down and death, delivered in a solid ‘we have to tell you this so we can’t be sued’ monotone, only led to my brain silently yelling ‘bring it on!’
I think I may be at least a little bit masochistic!
At least I would be wearing some clothing for this treatment, or so I thought at least.
Before seeing the Doctor for a quick check up and all clear, Instead of the normal swim sorts and gym top that I was wearing I was given the skimpiest, flimsiest pair of shorts I have ever seen and was directed to a changing room to put them on. Great. I may as well have been naked again.
At least I was allowed to add some boots, a pair of gloves and a headband to the outfit before I actually stepped into the chamber. It’s a good job I really didn’t care what I looked like at this point!
The initial chamber lulled me into a false sense of security, being a balmy minus 61 degrees Celsius. I was directed to move around a little for three minutes and my body acclimatised quite quickly to it. I actually didn’t think it was that bad. I am English after all! If I can withstand nights out in the middle of winter in Liverpool and Newcastle in nothing more than jeans and a T Shirt then this was a cake walk! I was just starting to think I was handling this quite well when a voice came over the intercom and directed me into the next room.
Suddenly the full force of minus 125 degrees hit my almost naked body like a ton of ice dropped from a great height and my face twisted into what I can only describe as a hideous mask of shock and pain as my brain started screaming ‘what the hell are you doing to yourself you idiot! This was a bad idea!’
I began to walk around in a blind circle, swinging my arms to try and keep at least some blood flowing. The fog from the dry ice had blinded me completely, I couldn’t even see the walls of the chamber as I moved around, and each passing second seemed to last longer and longer.
By the end of the allocated three minutes I could feel the cold start to shut my muscles down painfully and I was glad to hear the doctor call out that the time was up and to step outside. It felt good to step back out into the warmth of the waiting room, the dry ice hissing around me like I had been released from carbonite.
The whole experience was definitely a test of endurance and not one that I would call pleasant, but I was so happy I managed to see it through for the full allocated time and I felt absolutely amazing afterwards. I didn’t feel any negative after effects from the cold and my muscles recovered quickly once I got on the exercise bike and began to pump blood around my body again. They honestly felt like they were twenty years younger again and could have easily gone a full ten rounds in a professional fight.
Now it was time to go and relax in one of the main pools again!
Everyone needs a health and wellness focused break from time to time.
Slovakia is the perfect health and wellness destination, and even though I was there to focus on a whole bunch of adventure travel activities, the chance to take a break and look after my health and wellness was more than welcome and absolutely needed.
I had an amazing time during my truncated health and wellness focused break and I only wish I had longer there to take care of myself a little more. Even though I spent more time naked in public in one day than I have in years, it wasn’t as eye wateringly embarrassing as I thought it would be and I loved the whole experience.
Health and wellness tourism is a growing trend in all travel sectors, and even if you are not specifically travelling for medical tourism or an elective procedure, or even if the entire focus of your trip isn’t specifically around health and wellness, there is nothing wrong with taking a little time out of your overall itinerary to look after yourself and treat your mind and body to a little rest, relaxation and rejuvenation.
Even if you just take a day or two in between awesome bucket list activities to let your body rest and heal, you really won’t regret it. In fact with facilities as good as you can find in Slovakia it can be seen as a bucket list activity in and of itself! I had certainly ticked trying out a cryotherapy chamber off my own list!
Slovakia really is a perfect place to focus on yourself for a while, with spa treatments being more about holistic health, wellness and rest alongside medical treatments than the more luxury pamper sessions that they tend to be associated with in the UK, and a huge focus on affordability, there is no reason at all why any backpacker or independent traveller shouldn’t take the opportunity while they are here, no matter what their budget is.
Did you enjoy this article? I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below or on my Facebook or Twitter pages and please feel free to share it with any or all of the social media buttons. If you want to get more great backpacking tips, advice and inspiration, please subscribe to updates via email in the box to your right.
This article was written in partnership with Adventoura Slovakia and with spa treatments provided by their local partner Aquacity Poprad. The views and opinions expressed are entirely the authors own based on personal experiences when travelling and are honest and factual without any bias.