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Slovenia's First Design-Hotel and Spa

Slovenia Travel: Spas for Relaxing

by Amanda Castleman

One therapist massages me with hot oil, the next smears me with chocolate. "Rinse, but don’t scrub in the shower or use soap," both instruct. "Let the mixture absorb slowly."

I smell like a donut. But the Slovenes are much too polite to mention this.

Sweet as clover honey, I explore the Olimia bath complex, including the nation's first design-hotel, which debuted in 2006. The resort stands close to the eastern border of Croatia, an oasis among the crags, wooded valleys and storybook villages.

Hotel Breza

The architecture here charts the last hundred years of history: a wooden village, two Soviet-Bloc-style hotels, the pools' modernist pavilion (reminiscent of Denver's Airport), and the chic, minimalist Hotel Sotelia. The 145-room building is a wide, long brick-red streak, roofed in sod.

Bamboo and grass are recurring motifs: screened across windows, clumped around columns, printed onto the tables. Spa Armonia, inside the new hotel, continues this back-to-nature philosophy. Each treatment room evokes a new element, as the ancients saw them: earth, air, water and fire.

The décor romps around the globe, too. The "air" room has a traditional low Thai bed and dreamcatchers on the ceiling. The aquatic-themed couple's chamber has a waterfall, flower-strewn hot tub and pool, complete with floating candles.

"After all," laughs Sabina Stipcic, manager of wellness and the swimming pools, "we live in an international world."

The spa's list echoes this cosmopolitan, broad-church ethos, stretching even to Tibetan gong treatments. The clear-eyed, beaming therapist places bronze-colored cauldrons around my body, then taps them with a padded mallet. Apparently the "singing bowls" are harmonically aligning my aura. Later she vibrates pressure points directly.

I'm torn. "Some tart's banging pots on me," the Monty Pythonesque part of my brain trills. On the other hand, the process is quite soothing. My ever-tense shoulders shiver and relax. I even doze a bit, which delights her.

"Your energy really flowed there," she says.

No. I just binged on wi-fi last night and only managed four hours of sleep, I think. But I'm as discrete and serene as the Dalai Lama. Smiling, I sip my mint tea.

East and West. Who said the twain shan't meet? At Spa Armonia, the process seems to be coming along nicely.

Spa Armonia at Hotel Sotelia

An underground labyrinth connects all the hotels to the thermal baths, known as Terme Olimia. Renovated a few years ago, the impressive facility has nine saunas and tepidar-ia. A waterfall and several hot tubs flank the grand central pool, which has swim-through passages to the exterior pool. A current sails visitors around a circular detour, especially popular at nighttime.

Again, the approach is cultural pick-and-mix: a hammam, a Kneipp juice bar, even a freestanding Scandinavian cedar-sauna. Some "sets"– like the red-marbled Turkish bath – work better than others. The Japanese room, for example, is merely a standard dry-heat, wood-benched chamber with Oriental characters on the wall.

But points to Terme Olimia overall for a playful international twist, a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down. The Mary Poppins attitude, ironically, has a long tradition here, dating back to the Pauline monks of the seventeenth century.

For centuries, local religious orders have concocted healing draughts. The most famous – Patrove Kapljice, which translates "drops of the fathers"– incorporates 28 herbs, much alcohol and, of course, sugar. The mixture supposedly aids the digestion of folks who can stomach such a bitter aperitif.

Just few miles away, Pater Ernest and two other Franciscans still brew this and other herbal tinctures at Europe’s third oldest pharmacy, a frescoed chamber inside the fortress of Minoritski Samostan. Terme Olimia encourages all its guests to stop at the monastery, savoring Slovenia's treatments, both old and new.

This sense of connection is part of a larger trend. The nation's spas – as a group – are stressing medicine and tradition, rather than thermal entertainment: 2005 saw a five percent growth in guests, out of which 7.3 percent were foreigners.

"We've seen an increase in tourism here," Mojca Esih, a marketing officer, confirms. "Italians, Austrians, Germans … the Russian market's beginning too. They have money, travel a lot and find our prices acceptable. You may be the first American here, though."

Spa Armonia Treatment

Small wonder: the complex lies in a narrow, remote valley, near the town of Podčetrtek, five train transfers from Ljubljana. That’s a strength, however, according to Eish: "We have no highway here, but that's good: no industry, no pollution, no rush. It's truly a place to relax."

Former Yugoslavia – recovering from the last decade's strife – is still new territory for many travelers. But the Croatian coastline and islands are in vogue at the moment. And it’s only a matter of time until tourists stray inland to Slovenia.

"The country is small, but it's cute," Eish declares.

And now Spa Armonia and Terme Olimia are adding a dash of serenity and sophistication to the mix.

The future smells sweet.

IF YOU GO...

Travel
Wizz Air connects Brussels and Ljubljana, while EasyJet flies into London Standsted. Adria, the Slovenian national carrier, flies to 25 major hubs in Europe, Asia and the Middle East. Buses run about once an hour to the city.

From Ljubljana, take a deep breath, then a series of trains to within 100m of Terme Olime. Affordable and scenic, the 2.5-hour trip usually detours through Zidani Most and Celje to Podcetrtek. In rural areas, Slovenes speak more German than English, but happily shepherd lost travelers to their connections (a written itinerary aids this).

Stay
Accommodations gird the Terme Olimia , from a camping village to the four-star Hotel Sotelia (Zdraviliška cesta, 24
3254 Podčetrtek, +386 3 829 7000).

Learn
The Rough Guide to Slovenia leads the travel pack. Robert Kaplan's Balkan Ghosts traces the modern region's history, while Rebecca West chronicles further back in Black Lamb and Grey Falcon.

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