By Agata Chabierska
Although widely known as the summer capital of Poland, out of season the renowned Sopot Spa is a true mecca for peacefulness and natural beauty seekers.
If you pop in there in July, you will find a lively vibrant town crowded with international tourists and joyful street musicians. Travel in winter or early spring and you will get lost among deserted beaches, melancholic alleys and little cozy cafes.
I was fortunate enough to be rewarded by a fluffy snow layer on an early morning of mid-March in Sopot – something not completely unusual for the northern outskirts of Poland.
Believe me that a walk on the beach with sun reflecting from white glistening piles and snowflakes landing playfully in bustling waves can make serious competition for Hawaii-style strolls.
The history of Sopot Spa dates back to the era of the Napoleonic Wars, when one of the French Emperor’s physicians, following the ill-fated Grand Army soldiers to Russia, found out this small fishing village on the southern coast of Gda?sk Bay.
After discovering the healing properties of local saline waters, he decided to settle in Sopot and opened the first treatment facility.
He also built the first small wooden deck ashore that later on grew to 511.5 meters long Pier – the longest such construction in whole Europe.
In the beginnings of the twentieth century, Sopot’s glory traveled far beyond shattered Polish borders and due to its huge popularity among German citizens of the nearby Free City of Gda?sk, the spa turned into a fashionable luxury resort attracting rich clientele from all over the continent.
Hotels, casinos, restaurants and health facilities sprang up one after another among newly constructed mansions and stylish tenement houses.
I am watching with amazement meticulously carved verandas, fancy neo-baroque balconies and brightly stained glass windows, thinking what sort of aristocracratic dramas and love affairs these walls must have seen.
Walking your own fairy tale
Whatever you decide to go for in Sopot, as far as leisure activities are concerned, you definitely have to walk. There is no better way to discover all the charming corners and natural wonders of the town, especially since the winter aura is not the best for cyclists and roller skaters.
However, for reporting accuracy, I have to mention that local forest biking trails and beachside skating lanes, though now unfrequented, must make heaven for wheels fans when the first April sun beams warm up the air.
As a lucky girl, on the first day after my arrival, before the snow attack, I got the chance to try out rollerskating with a view on the sapphire sea – and effort worth having your nose nicely chilled and red.
Traditional strollers can choose from a vast variety of postcard landscapes tracks – from secession-style architecture jewels and old fishing village hamlets to the picturesque forest paths named after easy-to-spot, local beasts: squirrels, deer, hares and wild boars.
The wild boars can sometimes make your adrenaline run up high – I had a personal eye-to-eye encounter with one huge one, right on the pavement in the middle of the day. I don’t know which of us was more scared.
There is gossip in the air that, pressed by hunger, wild boars are not-so-rare visitors to the beach in the summer! Probably and sadly, they have already learned how much trash people can leave behind.
Source of local magic
Wherever you walk, all the ways in Sopot inevitably lead downhill to the Pier – local pride, landmark and… healing facility. Indeed, it has been proven that the amount of ozone at the end of a half-kilometer long deck reaches therapeutic levels and all the local spa patients are advised to inhale as much as they can.
Just beside the entrance, there is an old historical Balneology Hospital [balnelology – the science of baths or bathing] with a “magical” fountain in front of the main door.
On such a cold day, all the benches around are empty, but they say that during summer you have to fight tough to find yourself a place within the healing distance of spraying saline waters.
In summer, you will spot elderly ladies coming here with big plastic bottles and fueling on the unique chloride and sodium potion. It is supposed to be the best brine for preparing traditional Polish pickled cucumbers!
There is another picturesque mushroom-shaped fountain a few hundreds meters further and lots of opportunities to soak in the healing brine in the Balneology Hospital and two old era sanatoriums.
They are not of very high quality, and I get a bit distressed watching communism decadence style parlors but they offer a wide range of therapies for all sorts of allergies, rheumatologic and cardiac diseases performed by professional medical staff.
And, at least they will not ruin your travelling budget, unlike modern spa facilities springing up every season and drilling deep inside tourists pockets.
More information about Sopot spas, visit Sanatoria.com and you can also contact them directly: The Le?nik Sanatorium (tel: +48 58 551 72 63, email) or Sanatorium “Helios” (tel: +48 58 551 12 28, email).
When jogging in the morning towards the ozone-full deep-sea Pier outpost, I surprisingly find myself in the middle of a huge construction site.
As a matter a fact, what was decades ago a fancy and posh bath House with multiple leisure facilities, during the negligence of the communist era in Poland turned into a shabby off-putting barracks.
That is why local authorities undertook a large investment to revitalize this most historical part of the town. By the end of 2008 new a five-star Sheraton Hotel along with a spa and conference center, shopping gallery and an underground tunnel hiding traffic will be built.
Today, in spite of heavy snowfall and cold wind, construction workers move like ants around huge blocks of concrete and iron. I am watching their chores imagining what this place will look like in six months.
Will modernity eclipse the amazing intimacy of the old-fashioned sanatorium sites? Will this romantic place surrender to globalized “McSpa” frameworks?
There are already hundreds of better-off refuge seekers that come to Sopot to stay in the most exclusive hotels like the 80-year-old Grand Hotel, recently branded as Sofitel (tel.: + 48 58 551 00 41), or the very modern Hotel Haffner (tel.: + 48 58 550 99 99) and having their indigenous treatments in form of… exotic guamo wraps or Polynesian massages.
Make sure you check up the spa menu carefully – it’s really all about mud and brine baths here!
Acting like locals
As an old proverb advises doing as Romans do, when in Rome, you might win some more of Sopot’s charms by spying on locals a bit. And if you think that just living in a health resort should be enough to keep your soul cheerful and body ever young, you obviously miss the essence!
Every Sunday noon, from October till March, a thirty-something group of swimsuit-dressed people ranging from 7 to 80 years old, with an enthusiastic “hurrah,” storms into the cold waves.
The water temperature varies between 1 and 4 degrees C (34-39 degrees F), but those “walrus” folks, as they are called, obviously do not mind.
On the contrary, each of them will tell you their personal story of how this arctic ritual helped them to overcome chronic illnesses, frequent colds or joint pains. And to make it all even more unbelievable, there a few recognized doctors among them!
How does it feel? I tried myself and, truly, it is hard to imagine anything more reviving and boosting blood circulation than those thousands of invisible tiny needles pinching your red skin when you get out of the water and are standing amazed on the snow-covered beach.
The bath itself takes only two to three minutes, but it is enough to make your senses go crazy and your appetite for the extreme mount new peaks!
Places worth sinning
Another effect this cold swim had on me was an urgent necessity to grasp a mug of something hot, sweet and indulging.
Fortunately, you don’t have to search long in Sopot to find a place with good hot chocolate, delicious Polish cheesecake and bohemian atmosphere.
In fact, for the last several decades, when crowds of tourists had already left with last days of summer, this little seaside town has attracted artists who hoped to find inspiration and privacy among crying seagulls, humming waves and fresh blended coffee aroma.
I start from Monte Cassino Street, the main pedestrian drag, leading straight to the Pier and literally lined with cafes and restaurants, some of them located in the capturing Gaudi’s style Crooked House – another sign of the town’s crave for charisma and originality.
There is homemade cake with amazingly dense hot chocolate in the cozy Café Za?cianek, creamy gelato produced for more than a half century by an Italian family at Milano de Marco, seventeen sorts of cocoa potions by the best Polish brand at Wedel’s shop and all the traditional aromatic stuff you might dream about on a seaside trip – hot wafers with whipped cream, pancakes, roasted nuts, hot spiced wine, tapped beers…
Reason to come back
Visting Sopot is certainly not about seeing the Pier, Forest Opera hidden among pines and spruces or the historical horse race track and shooting a few souvenir pictures.
Nor is it just another health-repairing refuge subtracting a few years and pains.
Breathing local fresh air full of ozone, romantic history and tranquility makes me want to come back here every season to watch the trees surrounding the beach passing through all the painter’s palette of colors.
And certainly the icy bath of New Year’s Day would make a good omen for a healthy and joyful next twelve months!
Agata Chabierska is a natural born writer and addicted traveler working as a freelancer for different organizations and portals. She lives in the Czech Republic with her boyfriend, Jakub Pavlinec, a photographer and best travel companion.
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