The Polish Spa Town That Time Forgot

The Polish spa town that time forgot.Set in the pine-laden Beskid Sadecki mountains in southern Poland and not far from the Slovakian border, Krynica attracts hordes of tourists. The town’s long promenade is the center of action: flanked by the usual 19th-century Central European spa town Art Deco and neo-classical architecture, the promenade is frequented by water-sipping strollers, purple-haired geriatrics who like to pass out on park benches, and mustached men trying to convince passersby that they really want a photo-op with a sad-looking monkey on a chain or a depressed miniature horse. There are no backpackers or even flashpackers or jetsetters here.

Nearly all of the hordes of tourists in Krynica come to parade their diseases down the promenade, sipping the apparently healing mineral water that bubbles up from springs, and awaiting their next spa treatment. The reason? This town of 11,000 people is one of Poland’s most popular heath resorts. The Polish spa town that time forgot.

How many Poles does it take to make a spa town flourish? In the case of Krynica, the answer is just one. When Jozef Dietl, the father of Polish balneology (the science of the medical application of baths) declared in 1856 that the town’s natural mineral springs were curative, Krynica became the center of sanative relief for this Central European country. It’s not a place for the young, or even the young at heart. The nightlife scene, for example, is mostly limited to several dancehalls, where visitors party like it’s 1949.
I didn’t have a disease, but I did have an assignment from a magazine editor who was working on a European spa package article. When she found out I was going to be in Poland for another assignment, she came to me with orders: “Just go to Krynica and spend the day getting spa treatments.” I’ve never been into spa travel. I usually go somewhere for a singular reason: to eat (and then write about it) or just because I’m curious about the place, but I never gravitate toward this kind of pampering.

But here I was, sitting on a bench reading a brochure about what was in store for me. Krynica-Zdroj, as it’s officially called, is historically known for treating illnesses of the stomach, diabetes, menstrual cycle disturbances, and, according to the brochure, “states after conservative operations of genital organ.” As I watched geriatric spa goers limp by on the promenade, I feared the worst.

Taking my editor’s orders, I marched into the spa at the ’70s theme park Panorama Hotel and steeled myself. I scanned the menu of treatments, many of which seemed incomprehensible and some almost seemed like a threat. Measurement of Pressure? The President’s Armchair? The Scottish Whip? I didn’t want to ask. Instead, I blindly pointed to a small handful of treatments on the list.

A frumpy women in her early 60s whisked me into a white-tiled room and fired a slew of Polish orders at me. I only understood her hand gestures: disrobe. When I got down to my boxers, she put up the palm of her hand to halt right there and then waved me to stand against the wall. Ten seconds later, this granny was blasting two high-pressured water streams at me. I felt less like I was getting treated for a disease and more like I was a victim of the Sluzba Bezpieczenstwa, the communist-era secret police. After a few more minutes of punishing high-pressure water, I was escorted into a massage room. The strapping, blond Zoltan explained he was going to give me a “sport massage,” which in Polish massage speak meant he’d be punishing my back and shoulders for 45 minutes. As Zoltan pounded and punched away, grunting and breathing heavy, his sweat dropping on me, I wondered who was getting more out of this: me or him. When he was done abusing my back, he let me go to a hot whirlpool so I could soak off the pain that was just inflicted on me by the water-firing granny and Zoltan. Eventually, my spa day ended with the President’s Armchair: a leather chair with what felt like a bowling ball inside moving up and down my back, as speakers in the headrest blasted Polish rock.

Celebrating the end of my day’s worth of torture, I ate surprisingly artery hardening, yet delicious pork-stuffed potato pancakes and cheese-filled pierogis.

I hopped back on the bus to Krakow early the next morning hoping that I never come back to Krynica. Or, rather, that I never have a real reason to come back.