A day out on Slovakian Railways, dining in the restaurant car, visiting Spa Island and Trenčín Castle
“Yuck!” My first taste of spa water was not pleasant. It tasted of warm rotten egg. On Spa Island in Piešťany, Slovakia, there are fountains with steaming healing water that you can help yourself to. It is free of charge and is supposed to be good for you.
As if to prove the life giving qualities of the water there are ponds with giant water lilies and heaps of fish. Gangs of cats hang around the ponds, mesmerised by the fishy activities.
The traditional accompaniment to the water is a “spa wafer”. I found a wafer shop where I had to bend right down to a small window and poke my head through to get served. Inside a woman was operating a noisy contraption that had moulds where the wafer mixture was poured and then pressed. They look a bit like a crêpe and taste like the wafers you get with an ice cream sundae.
My second sip of the water was slightly better, perhaps aided by a bite of wafer. By the fourth taste I really quite liked it and I felt that it was helping my cold.
People come to Piešťany to be cured. At the bridge crossing to the island there is a bronze statue of a man breaking a crutch over his knee. Whatever ailment you brought with you over the bridge it would be gone by the time you left the island- this is what Alexander Winter promised his customers when he created Spa Island in 1889. It was well-known throughout Europe and had a worthy client list, including Ludwig van Beethoven. The treatments are largely aimed at those with rheumatic and arthritic conditions, so this is not the type of spa where you can expect hot stone massages and blissful relaxation.
Despite this medical functionality the island is furnished with elegant buildings. The 1912 Thermia Palace steals the show with its marble, chandeliers and Art Nouveau styling. It is an expensive hotel, but there are also cheaper accommodation options which are housed in 1970s communist era concrete blocks. It is an odd jumble of architecture, but the greenery, pathways and river views make up for it.
It was the peace and quiet of the paths with an occasional linger at a bench that I will remember most about this place. I strolled by tennis courts, a golf course and thermal pools with clouds of steam. I dug into the chocolates that I had bought inside one of the treatment centres. Yes, there is actually a chocolatier on this island of health! It is housed in a building with neo-classical columns.
Another un-spa observation was in a café where I paused for a sandwich. The table next to me was occupied by a group drinking beer. It was 11am.
But then beer drinking in the morning seems quite normal in Slovakia. On the train I took here from Bratislava I shared a compartment with two suited and booted businessmen drinking cans of Šariš . The train is the ideal way to reach Spa Island and takes around one hour.
My tip is to get to the restaurant car. Slovakian Railways excel with the quality and value of food. Main meals cost around five Euros. I had pancakes with pineapples and cream for breakfast, chicken sauté in a potato pancake for lunch, chicken risotto for dinner and yes, a couple of bottles of Šariš beer. Eating in the restaurant car of a train is one of the great pleasures of travel. The motion of the train, gently vibrating crockery and a constantly changing view of the world whilst enjoying the delights conjured up within the confines of a swaying kitchen- there is nothing quite like it.
The train stations along this route are concrete and functional, although Piešťany has a colourful socialist realist mural depicting a volleyball game and people enjoying the spa. Forty minutes down the line is the second town of this day trip- Trenčín.
Prettiness at first sight. That is what Trenčín is. It has a castle on a hill that overlooks an old town square with a long row of immaculate pastel buildings. Trenčín must join the ranks of the many castle towns unoriginally described as “fairytale”.
I had to constantly remind myself that the castle was built for war because it is so charming with a white facade, square windows and trees growing all over the limestone rock it sits upon. The castle dates from the 11th century and was so effective that it was never successfully taken by attack. To reach it there are narrow, twisty, steep roads that approach the first gatehouse. From here I walked through another gatehouse to courtyards and views of the Strazovske vrchy hills from the battlements.
The castle’s most famous owner was Máté Csák, a Hungarian count living in the fourteenth century. I wondered where he ranked Trenčín in his property portfolio- he had about 32 castles. During my visit most of the site was closed for renovation, but you can normally view the art galleries and collection of armaments.
The best view of the castle, the one on the postcards, is from the fifteenth century city gate tower. From up here you get the castle and the old town square laid before you. A Latin inscription on the tower says: "Unless the Lord guards the City, the watchman stays awake in vain“.
There are many cafes with outdoor seating, so I plonked myself down in a sunny spot. I waited ages to get served. Nobody came. I gave up and went to find another cafe, but then I remembered that there was no need. I knew the perfect place where I could get a comfy seat and be served a nice meal with a beer- the restaurant car on the train back to Bratislava...
Trenčín and Piešťany can both be seen in one day trip from Bratislava. Using the restaurant car on the train will maximise your time in the towns as you will not need to stop for food.
- Bratislava to Piešťany takes around 50 minutes .
- Piešťany to Trenčín is 30 minutes.
- Trenčín back to Bratislava is just under one hour and 30 minutes with some express trains covering it in just over one hour.
- Use the excellent Slovakian Railways website to plan your trip: https://www.slovakrail.sk/en.html
Where to stay
This was a budget trip for me, so I stayed at Hostel Possonium in Bratislava (Šancová 20). It is ideally located for daytrips using the train as it is only a three minute walk from the station. Rooms have the names of countries, like “Croatia” which is a ten bed dorm with posters extolling the virtues of various Adriatic towns. Breakfast, consisting of an apple, croissant, cereal and tea/coffee, is free and you can have it in the garden. There is also a horror movie themed bar. From 9 Euros per night in a dorm.
Alternatively you could treat yourself to Thermia Palace on Spa Island (Kúpeľný ostrov, 921 29 Piešťany). You can choose from treatments as diverse as diadynamic stimulus current therapy, royal four hands massage and salt cave. From 170 Euros per night for a standard room.