This year, I spent three weeks at a Slovenia Spa. Every day, I was confronted with difficult decisions. Should the oil for my massage be grape seed (antioxidant effect), almond (softens the skin), or herb-infused oil (detox benefits)? Did I prefer classic, Hawaiian, Tibetan, Indian, or Thai style? What was my preference for duration: the choice ranged from 20 minutes to 90. Making these decisions was so stressful that I wondered if 90 minutes would suffice to dissipate the tension.
But I needn’t have worried. I was in a professionally run spa cum wellness facility in southeastern Slovenia, and the Slovenians are experienced when it comes to health. This small country of slightly more than two million people is rich with mineral springs, and 15 facilities are government certified, meaning they have medical expertise on staff as well as the expected talents of masseuses, PTs, beauticians, and the like.
My husband and I had decided to spend three weeks at one of these 15 –, one of the largest and best equipped in the country, a three hotel complex with multiple indoor and outdoor pools and Jacuzzis, tennis courts, sports fields, a mini 9-hole golf course, a Nordic walking trail (the first of its kind in Slovenia), several fully equipped indoor gyms, and all the bells and whistles that one expects of a world-class spa these days. The thermal waters of Šmarješke Toplice have drawn visitors since the latter part of the 18th century, and a wooden outdoor pool built directly over the original spring (32° C!) is still in use.
The water here is NOT to drink. Its mineral properties are deemed especially therapeutic for some cardio patients (but not all – you must be checked by a doctor) and for people suffering from motor impairment or back problems. But the water can be stimulating for everyone. Children love it because of the pleasant temperature. Athletes revel in its tonic effects. Burned-out businessmen and women love to soak in the Jacuzzis and practice the art of dolce farniente. My husband was enrolled in a weight loss program. I had come to keep him company and to take advantage of the mineral pools and gym, and the spectacular parks and walkways surrounding the core structure.
Why Slovenia? Why not a spa or thalassotherapy resort in France or Italy? For one thing, the programs in Slovenia’s certified thermal spas can be more serious than those of a typical French or Italian spa. In France or Italy, you may have a doctor on staff to nod or wink, but the spas are usually focused on mud and massages rather than calories and calisthenics. You don’t necessarily have a professional dietitian to cross-check the diet for which the patient has signed up. For example, my husband is a diabetic. When the dietitian saw his meal plan (a standard one for his program), she went ballistic and immediately changed it to something more appropriate for his age, weight, and medical condition.
Šmarješke Toplice has an added claim to seriousness. It is one of five spas owned by Krka, one of Slovenia’s largest pharmaceutical companies. Krka’s headquarters are located nearby and one of the outings proposed by the spa is a visit there. Other weekly outings may include visits to a local beekeeper, a 200-year-old flour mill still in operation, a ceramic maker, and rural orthodox churches.
Slovenia is close enough to major travel hubs in Italy, Germany, Switzerland, and Austria that you can drive there by car. The airport of Ljubljana, the capital of the country, is less than an hour away; some guests rent cars or take taxis from there. France is a longer drive, but there were French guests throughout our stay, and clients from the Netherlands, Scandinavia, Belgium, Russia, Israel, and Canada, as well as the above countries. No Americans while we were there, but language is not a problem. All the service staff at the hotels and spa speak English, and in many cases their English is remarkably idiomatic. True, the housekeeping staff does not speak English but the front desk can convey any requests one might have for them.
A major reason to come here is cost. Slovenia’s currency is the euro, just like western Europe, but room and board at a four star hotel are about 1/3 to 1/2 less expensive than equivalent lodgings west of the Slovenian border. As for the treatments, if you have a concrete medical condition, your insurance may cover some of the recommended therapies — soaking in the thermal springs, taking Pilates or aerobic classes, lymphatic drainage or personal sessions with a physical therapist. If available, this coverage is a welcome contribution, since specialized therapies push up the overall bill . . . but it will still be less than a US or western European equivalent.
Food may be more sophisticated west of Slovenia, but there is no doubt that Slovenian spas take “zero kilometers” to heart in their food sourcing. Most of our fruits and vegetables seemed freshly-picked, the eggs were protein-rich, and the non-dieters like me had a choice of local dishes (polenta, vegetable strudels, yogurt sauces) for every meal. Breakfast includes a table with “bio food”, and local honeys, jams, and breads feature prominently. Anyway, what’s the advantage of haute cuisine when you are trying to lose weight, reduce cholesterol, control diabetes, or address other diet-related conditions?
My husband’s menu was specially prepared for him, and the chef knows a thing or two about how to make 1,400 calories look and taste like a million. To burn off these calories each day, dieting guests have a full program of activities, including: Pilates, cardio-fitness, water aerobics, Nordic walking, and optional biking and hiking excursions. More indulgent massages, mud baths, salt scrubs, and the like are also available.
With all that daytime energy, evenings are calm in Šmarješke Toplice. Live music is played once or twice a week, more often in the summer and when the spa’s 162 rooms are close to fully booked. It is Slovenian-tinged, but if there are large groups of Italians or Germans, say, you will hear songs sung in the languages of those countries . . . and well-known English pop standards as well. Every Friday guests are invited to one of the indoor pools for a night swim with a glass of sparkling wine.
Bingo happens once a week, which gives you some idea of the age of those guests who come for medical treatments courtesy of their government’s health care system. But this is far from a geriatric ward. Yes, there are older people in wheelchairs and on crutches, but there are also biking teams, weight lifters, soccer players, and individual athletes striding through the halls as buff as can be. The main lobby looks like a nursery playroom on Saturday evenings in July and August for the families who have come here to take advantage of the setting and the tranquility – benefitting parents as much as children.
The grounds are gorgeous. You can work out in the pool or the gym, but hours spent strolling the sprawling expanses of lawn, woods, streams, and a pond with Europe’s only cultivation of Indian lotus flowers may be equally therapeutic.
At least that was our experience. My husband lost about seven pounds during our stay, fat not water, reduced his circumference by three inches, and improved all his baseline indicators for cholesterol, triglycerides, and blood pressure. I was not on a program but did a lot of daily walking on those expansive lawns and pristine woods, and lost a couple of pounds almost in spite of myself. Maybe sloth trumps sweat in Slovenia?
Written and photos by Claudia Flisi for EuropeUpClose.com