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One of the oldest spa towns in Poland. The springs were known already in the 12th century, however the first bath was built in the 15th century and it gained the importance as one of the best resorts in Central Europe. Besides being a great health resort it is also an important tourist destination and starting point for trips to the Karkonosze Mountains.
April 21, 2002
In a Polish Spa, Mineral Water and Mud
By ANN PRINGLE-HARRIS
Cieplice Health Resort, Poland.
As I lay on my back, a brisk, capable-looking woman scooped up from a large tub what looked like the darkest, richest of fudge frostings, virtually black, and slapped it onto my neck, shoulders, chest, midsection, arms, hands, legs and feet.
What came from the tub was mud, the same mud I was lying on, but when its thick, moist texture began to solidify I felt as if I were chocolate coated — a condition that might be thought kinky or yucky, depending on one's inclinations.
I found it wonderfully satisfying. Also surprising, because although I had been looking forward to thermal baths and massages at the Polish spa I was visiting, I hadn't expected to be keen on mud. Yet here I was, luxuriating in a heat that penetrated my pores, warming and soothing me from the surface of my skin deep into my body. I felt simultaneously rested and energized — and disappointed when the timer buzzed after around 15 minutes and an attendant led me to the room where I was to shower off the mud. No foamy gel there — I'd brought my own soap and towel for this ritual, as I had been cautioned to do.
The spa, Cieplice (pronounced chee-PLEET-suh) had been described to me by a friend as spartan-simple and amazingly inexpensive, but with excellent mineral waters and mud. According to legend, the springs region was granted in 1281 by Duke Bernard of Lwowek to the Knights Hospitalers, who cared for patients there. Later, Polish royals and nobility went there to cure their ills. Diseases of the joints, motor system, respiratory and urinary tracts were among the conditions said to respond to the anti-inflammatory properties of the treatments. All that health history, plus a round-trip flight to Poland for $368 from Paris, where I had sublet an apartment for July, made Cieplice seem a good place to shed some of the stress of my New York life and prepare for a busy Paris vacation.
I had taken a taxi from the airport in Wroclaw (formerly Breslau) to the bus station. From there I had traveled about 70 miles west to the town of Jelenia Gora; Cieplice (formally Cieplice Slaskie-Zdroj) is a suburb. At the information desk of the bus station, the clerks spoke no English. I wrote down my destination and they wrote down the number of the platform I was to look for. Outside the mass of buses was parked in no logical order, but about two minutes before my scheduled departure I spied a bus with the name Jelenia Gora on the front and climbed in.
The bus passed through the Wroclaw suburbs, then through meadowland and forest, and finally into the low, rounded foothills of the Karkonosze Mountains, which surround Jelenia Gora. A short taxi ride from the bus stop took me to the Hotel Cieplice, a five-story, off-white structure built along the lines of 1960's and 1970's modern and set on a residential street near the sanitarium. My room, smallish but adequate, was decorated in white and pastels with light wood furniture, and had a spotless tiled bath with a shower but no tub. Five minutes after I entered it, though, I was back at the desk, my leg bleeding in two places through an improvised tourniquet. In removing a somewhat strident print bedspread I had cut my leg on the projecting sharp-edged bed frame hidden beneath it. I didn't think to ask at the desk for a doctor, and the desk didn't suggest one. (I probably should have had stitches, and I still have a scar.) Instead, I got gauze, adhesive tape and antiseptic, and switched to a room with no menacing beds.
Washed and bandaged, I walked through the main street to Mama, a cozy little restaurant the hotel had recommended. There I had bigos, a Polish specialty of spiced cabbage with minced pork, vegetables and fruit, served with delicious herb-toasted bread. After tasting the sweetish house wine I chose Polish beer, which was very good. By that time it was nearly 11 p.m., and dark, but I could see that the town was rather pretty, with a fountain plaza and a large park bordering one side of the main street, Plac Piastowski. I could hear my heels click on the pavement, and I was alone on the street, yet I felt perfectly safe.
I started the next morning, Saturday, with the hotel's buffet breakfast: cereal, juices, cold cuts, a variety of cheeses, white and brown bread, jelly-filled rolls, sliced cucumber and tomato, cottage cheese and chives, yogurt, jams and honey, and eggs. The coffee was hot and suitably strong; tea and hot chocolate were also available.
Four young people took turns during my stay as hotel receptionists; three spoke English and one spoke French. The one on duty that morning didn't know where the spa building was or where to get the required medical permission for treatment. But I had the address on a brochure containing a small map with a spot marked Sanitarium, a large building set back from the main street a few minutes' walk from the hotel. This turned out to be the treatment center, Uzdrowisko Cieplice.
"Do you speak English? Parlez-vous Français?" I asked the woman at the front desk. "Sprechen Sie Deutsch?" she replied.
This exchange was a constant throughout my Cieplice adventure. Almost no one spoke English or French, but almost everyone spoke German as well as Polish, partly because of the proximity of the German border and partly because the region around Jelenia Gora had been German before the Second World War.
The people of Cieplice, I found, were patient. I pointed at words in my English-Polish dictionary, wrote down numbers, enlisted help (a man at the treatment center who did speak English volunteered as interpreter) and eventually was able to explain to the desk attendant why I was at Cieplice and the kinds of treatment I desired.
By that time I was more than willing to sample the entire therapeutic menu. And then I got the bad news: no treatments on weekends. I would have to squeeze into two days and part of a third what I had planned to do in four full days.
Disgruntled at first, I came to feel that this had actually been a serendipitous delay. I window-shopped in the small stores along the main street, visited the Catholic church with its gilded Baroque altar, strolled by the Kamienna River that runs through the town, read, and listened in the early evening to the popular music and vaudeville-style skits at the band shell in the park — laughing at the punch lines though understanding not one word. Absent the cut leg I might have tried to arrange one of the mountain walks mentioned in the brochure, but I wasn't eager. Enforced repose, I decided, is an important part of what "taking the cure" means.
Signing up for treatment on Monday wasn't exactly a breeze. Cieplice Health Resort (its formal title) caters to visitors whose therapy regimens may last from eight days to several weeks. My desire to do everything in short order seemed odd, even impossible, to them, and my inability to explain in language they understood didn't help. Still, I managed to make clear to a nurse that I was booked on a flight just three days off and that before I left I wanted to try the mineral baths, water massage, regular massage and mud packs. She led me to Pavilion Lalka in the park, which houses medical offices, explained my needs to one of the doctors and secured a prescription sheet detailing the treatments I was to have.
When I took the sheet back to the sanitarium desk, I saw that it marked me down for 10 days of treatment. Did the nurse misunderstand or did she suspect the doctor wouldn't have approved a minischedule? I never found out, and it didn't matter; with firm exclamations of "drei Tage" ("three days") I got what I wanted.
The sanitarium, clean and serviceable but definitely no-frills, has long corridors of individual cabins and treatment rooms on two levels. One can drink the waters from a fountain on the main level. Massage, tub, mud and shower rooms are a level below. The other clients there, mostly Polish and German, included young adults, middle-aged and elderly people.
I began with what I think was a water massage, where an attendant led me to a small room containing a kind of large sink where I dipped my arms up to the shoulders in buoyant water that kept lifting them back up again like inflated rubber toys.
For the mineral bath, I went to a slightly larger, brighter room where I lay supine in a tub of water that was hot but not too hot, had no smell and remained at a perfect temperature throughout the entire bath. Again, I noted the restorative effects of being idle and self-indulgent for justifiable reasons of health. The spa also has larger baths shared by several women, I was later told by my friend who has visited on several occasions, but since I wasn't aware of them on my visit, I didn't try them.
My masseur, a wiry man whose steady stream of conversation would doubtless have been informative if I had understood it, kneaded, pummeled and manipulated bone, skin, and muscle with thorough professional skill and a good amount of determination. At one point his knuckles dug into my neck so vigorously that I thought I might never turn it again, yet after a few fluttering movements of his fingertips it felt as light and supple as a plant stem.
My heart felt equally light when I picked up my bill at the reception desk. It amounted to what I might have paid for a fairly normal New York lunch.
Travelers looking for luxurious surroundings, an elegant atmosphere and sumptuous pampering will not find them at Cieplice. In addition, English-speaking visitors with no command of German will have to use a dictionary and a certain amount of ingenuity. That said, Cieplice has a tranquil village charm and offers what seemed to me to be friendly, competent care at a small fraction of what it might cost at an upscale spa.
And the mud. For that alone I would go back and revel like Polish royalty in the warmth and richness of that glossy black substance. Recalling that scene, I still see the mud as fudge frosting, but fudge frosting that's good for you.
Wroclaw, served by LOT, the Polish airline, and three other European carriers, is the nearest airport to Cieplice, now part of Jelenia Gora. Flying from Paris, I changed planes in Warsaw for Wroclaw and took a taxi to the bus station ($10 in a metered cab). Buses to Jelenia Gora run every two hours, take about two and a half hours and cost $6. A car from the airport costs $96.
Lodging and Dining
My room at the Hotel Cieplice (Ulica Cervi 11, 58-560 Jelenia Gora, (48-75) 755-1041, a small but pleasant double with a bath — shower, no tub — included a large buffet breakfast, at a cost of about $40 a night.
At Mama, Plac Piastowski 21B, (48-75) 755-9112, a traditional meal of appetizer, grilled pork or a similar main course, with beer, costs around $10 to $12.
The spa at Cieplice (Ulica Park Zdrojowy 2, (48-75) 755-1003, fax (48-75) 755-2557, prices treatments such as mineral baths, mud packs, and massages separately. On one of my days there I had a massage, two types of baths and a mud pack for $44, figured at 4.167 zlotys to the dollar. For those with more time, treatments would normally be stretched over several days.