I think I’m in good company when I say that my health and wellness often take a backseat in my typical Western life: I’m too busy to go to the gym and it’s too expensive anyway, just like the healthy meals I know I should cook for myself, which take too long as well. I can always find some excuse not to do it today, because I can always start tomorrow. Then there’s our relationship with rest and relaxation, which we also portray as a waste of time. There’s a really pernicious idea floating around these days that if you’re not always doing something, then you’re stagnating, or even lazy ― no two ways about it. The standard work ethic tells us that we’ll rest once we’ve earned it, whatever “earning it” looks like.
Take the example of a spa day: I would say it’s considered an extravagance somewhere like the U.S. or U.K., something to be done once a year or gifted to a significant other. It’s certainly not a regular occurrence, let alone daily activity like visits to Finnish saunas or Russian banyas. But why? Relaxation is not reserved for the rich or retired, especially when it’s no more expensive than regularly blowing off steam at the bar on the weekend. It depends where you go in the world, but generally speaking, I think this relationship with our bodies begins to change the further East you go, towards an acceptance of the regular need to recharge. I recently discovered that Poland might just be the turning point in this journey.
To illustrate the Poles’ devotion to their spas, I point you to place names: the word for spa or spring, zdroj, appears in the names of towns and villages across Poland to designate their history and purpose as havens for anyone seeking a retreat and respite from daily stresses. Naturally I want to compare this to my native way of life in Tennessee, where it’s impossible for me to imagine towns like “Hendersonville-Spa;” we have Cool Springs in Nashville, but that’s a mall. Anyway, many of these towns are rural, and take advantage of their naturally soothing and picturesque surroundings. When I arrived in Wałbrzych in Lower Silesia, I knew my hotel at Aqua Zdroj was attached to a recreation center, but the reality still blew me away.
Uncharacteristically, I woke early in the morning to use the gym. My proactivity was rewarded by the sight of the morning sun lighting up the sprawling mountains and forests outside the windows that my treadmill faced. I couldn’t help but think that anywhere else in the world, that kind of view in a gym so well-equipped would be ridiculously hyped and costly to match. Yet in this quiet corner of Poland, it’s a modest fact of life. It’s worth mentioning that a lot more people showed up to this gym that early in the morning (6 a.m.) than I’ve ever seen do so elsewhere, though admittedly I’m not usually amongst them, if they are there.
While these in Wałbrzych were state-of-the-art facilities, the Polish resort towns themselves are steeped in tradition and make use of their geography in the same way that first earned them renown hundreds of years ago. One of the oldest in the country, Iwonicz-Zdroj, was founded in 1578 and gained fame for its properties even outside of Poland in the 1700s. These are not the kind of places to gouge you with designer exfoliating masks or bizarre, trendy treatments that leave you feeling more confused than relaxed; from top to bottom and start to finish, these resorts are intentional and sustainable, and have been since long before it was cool. Many were established in forests and geologically active areas because of the microclimates these conditions produce, with fresher air and more minerally-rich earth.
I had the chance to visit the charming Polanica-Zdrój, one of a chain of spa towns that run along the border with Czechia in the very southwestern corner of Poland. While I didn’t make use of the gym or spa at Hotel Polanica, it still managed to surprise me when my companions and I were informed of the bowling alley attached. Despite my earlier preaching about blowing off steam at the bar, that’s exactly what we did while we bowled, and it made for a really pleasant night. There’s a time and a place for everything, after all. A stroll through the town earlier that evening took me through lush gardens, a quaint town center alongside the river, and the train station that makes this remote getaway easily reachable from elsewhere in Lower Silesia.
Polanica-Zdrój is also a great stepping-off point for other outdoor activities in the surrounding area, including hiking and skiing available at Śnieżnik Landscape Park. The same goes for the other resort towns nearby, like Duszniki-Zdrój and Kudowa-Zdrój to the west. While all these towns are of course known for their health traditions, they are multi-faceted destinations that offer more than just what the name implies. In the former, I visited the Museum of Papermaking housed in one of Europe’s oldest paper mills with intact 17th century roofing and parquetry on the second story. About ten minutes outside of town, there is a very affordable and popular Ski Resort at Zieleniec, with plenty of slopes for beginners. The mountains in this part of Lower Silesia are often covered in snow 8 months of the year, making for picturesque hikes and perfect slopes.
In Kudowa, you’ll find one of the most offbeat and curious scenes in Poland, and maybe all of Europe. In fact, it’s one of the six ossuary chapels in Europe, which for our non-Latin speakers means that the interior walls and ceiling are lined with human bones. Perhaps a visit to this appropriately named Chapel of Skulls will leave you with a new appreciation for a healthy life, which is always within your reach in these towns. Both Kudowa and Duszniki are close to another national park, Table Mountains, home to some breathtaking scenery that stands out from the near-ubiquitous flatness of Poland (a name which means “land of the fields,” by the way). Erosion of the unique sand and limestone composition of the mountain range has created fascinating and dramatic rock formations like ravines, labyrinths, and cliffs that offer panoramic views of the Silesian countryside. Whether you want to relax at the spa or get out amongst the elements, Poland’s resort towns have you set.
If you’re interested in more recreational activities during your time in Poland, be sure to check out our outdoor guide to the country!
Header photo by Krocmokocour on pixabay.