Spa Baths, Naked Women, Massages & Caves
05 February 2009
Douglas Lindsay has moved on to working on editing The Cutting Edge of Barney Thomson, for re-issue later this year as The Barber Surgeon's Hairshirt (Book 2). The following first appeared in his Letter From Belgrade on 5th March 2005:
Last week we pitched up at a waterside hotel at Lake Bled, Slovenia. The Grand Hotel Toplice is a five-star spa hotel, ideal for a long weekend for a couple with no children. It was at such couples that my wife and I looked upon with envy in the dining room, as we got involved in the type of hand to hand combat with our kids that was required in the streets of Stalingrad in 1943. Children, of course, care nothing for luxury, elegance, style and hand-crafted, three hundred year-old waiters. They heard there was a swimming pool in the hotel, and so that immediately became our first port of call. The spa area of the hotel is attached to the sinister sounding Wellness Clinic, an organisation which is spreading through Europe like a virulent rash. Wellness is the most horribly contrived word, making these places sound like they're straight out of 1984 or Terry Gilliam's Brazil, or they're a front for Ernst Stavro Blofeld's latest attempt to take over the world.
We barged in, all family-of-four completely out of place in a posh hotel, and were immediately hit by the nauseating scent of aromatherapy candles. Impossible, after all, to feel well without the smell of lavender or bergamot in the air. The baths are appointed in the usual Roman manner, as if it's impossible to have a spa without doing it in the style of those who invented it. The Romans may have introduced sanitation to the world, but we don't all still shit into a trough, so why is it that spa baths feel the need to have columns and grapes and marble arches? We changed, we let loose the dogs of war, and the kids charged off towards the water. They touched it, they realised instantly that it wasn't heated, and they retreated quickly to the sidelines for a massage and the half-time oranges.
Soon after, as we were all coming to terms with the temperature of the water, we noticed another feature of the whole Roman bath/Wellness clinic ambience. There were naked Germans everywhere. The saunas attached to the baths had a strict no-clothing guideline, and there were some people coming straight from the sauna to step into the thermal pool, forgetting along the way to put on a stitch. As me and my wee lad were standing on the steps at one point, a woman walked down past us into the water, wearing only a thong. Without going into too much detail, she was clearly in possession of the right body to be seen in public wearing only a thong. However, to my horror/amusement/paternal pride, the wee fella starts ostentatiously pointing at her with a huge smile on his face. I, while being pleased that he'd noticed, started doing the finger across the neck, shut up! shut up! abandon ship! sign. He stopped pointing, raised his eyebrows and said, 'She's a nice colour.'
Funny thing nudity. We forget how comfortable the Germans are with it, and the minute they see a sign ordering them to strip off, they can't wait to be first to throw their tackle to the wind. The German army has no summer uniforms. The second the temperature goes above twenty-five degrees centigrade they have an official nudity policy. Americans, on the other hand, are a much more puritanical and staid old bunch, and in the time we were there, we never saw any hint of one of them obeying any signs to take their clothes off. They left those swimming trunks and bathing suits on when they entered the saunas. We, being British, were caught in our usual mid-Atlantic confusion. Could see both sides; had the conflict of wanting to go naked but being uncomfortable with it. Eventually, however, we gave in to the inevitable, and started going from the Finnish sauna to the Turkish sauna to the infra-red sauna to the Govan sauna, completely starkers. Got so used to it that by the following morning we were on quite chummy terms with our German cousins. 'Good morning, how are you doing? Great to see you! Fantastic tits! So are your wife's.'
We spent two days at this hotel, before moving two streets back to the Golf Hotel, as it had a better swimming pool complex for the children. The Golf also has a Wellness clinic. They're taking over. After a few days in Lake Bled, my wife had detached herself from the children and I several times, to visit the saunas, have a massage, a mud bath, and something weird done to her eyebrows. Why do women have to do things to their eyebrows? I wish they'd just leave them alone. All right, you don't want any woman to look like one of these eighty year-old guys with two massive, interconnecting forests on their forehead, but your average woman's eyebrows are fine. They all have this obsessive eyebrow gene. Where's your study on that at USC? Anyway, after indulging in all these Wellness treatments, she was feeling a bit guilty, and so ordered me to have a massage. And you know, when your wife puts pressure on you to go and have your legs covered in oil and rubbed erotically by a young woman, it's best not to complain. (I never for a second considered the horrible prospect that it might be a man covering me in oil and rubbing me erotically, and thank god, when it came to it, it wasn't.)
So one afternoon I trudged a little uncomfortably into the Wellness clinic, breathed in the delicious scents of pine, cinnamon, and mince and pea curry, and handed myself over to the authorities. I was going for the classic massage, having eschewed the other more radical treatments, such as massage with hot stones, lymphatic drainage, lemon gloss, raindrop aromatherapy - a popular one on the west coast of Scotland - algae pack, hay bath, grape-skin pack, Cleopatra bath, body feeding cream, wire brush scrub, upper thigh leech therapy, all-acid cellulite clearance and hot wax penile enhancement. Wait, maybe I'm getting mixed up with my junk e-mails. I was then shown to the male changing room and given a large white robe, which could only be described as bouffant.
Putting on the robe, in this fragrant, hyper-clean environment in Eastern Europe, I was reminded of many a James Bond movie. Barely five minutes ever went by without Connery slipping into a robe, on his way to a massage or some other kind of therapy. Sure he got into a lot of scrapes and adventures and had to shoot people on a regular basis, but the fundamental basis of any Connery Bond flic, was the big man getting his robe on and then quickly taking it off again shortly afterwards for some compliant collection of Asian women.
I sat in the waiting room, listening to the soothing sound of water dribbling over rocks and the standard eastern music tape that usually plays at the Peking Palace, before my masseuse came to collect me and usher me into a small room. She handed me a sheet, asked me to get undressed, lie down and cover myself, and then excused herself for a couple of seconds. I thought at first she was being discreet, but when I heard the lock click on the door I realised there was something amiss. Suddenly I became aware of the white smoke flooding into the room through the vents in the skirting board. I leapt to the door and tried the handle. Locked, right enough. I pulled at the door frantically, but it was never going to budge.
The smoke was already beginning to get to my eyes and the back of my throat, and I began to cough. With only seconds to live, I knew I had to act fast. It was then that I noticed the large vent in the ceiling. I leapt up onto the table and pushed the vent open. The cover came off easily - too easily - but I still had to haul myself up into the vent, not an easy task given how weak I had already become with the effects of the acrid, choking smoke, which now seemed to fill and pollute my body, like a burning, fetid cancer. Straining for breath and grasping at the merest particles of oxygen remaining in the room, with all my muscles stretched to the very limit, I finally managed to lift myself into the vent. I turned quickly left, where I was suddenly presented with a shaft rising straight up, an access route which I immediately took, to get as far away from the smoke as possible. The next fifteen minutes were a hellish trial of strength, as I was led through a bewildering succession of vents and pipes, in the course of which I had to endure burning metal, venomous spiders, poisonous scorpions, a tidal wave, more smoke, snakes, killer centipedes, two S Club 7 videos, being plunged into a freezing pool, and having to fight three gorillas called Eric. Suddenly, crawling through another vent on a seemingly endless trail of insanity, I could hear the familiar cackle of children's voices, and the next vent I came to led me back to my room. 'You all right, dear?' asked the wife, noticing my bruising, scald marks, hair loss and broken leg. 'Hell of a massage,' I replied.
Lake Bled is Slovenia's number one tourist destination. Number two are the caves at Postojna, which comprise one of the largest cave systems in the world. Hundreds of kilometres long and plunging deep into the heart of central Europe, the origins of these mysterious and magnificent caves remain shrouded in time. Some say they were carved out by the dwarves of Middle Earth, centuries ago, during the time of Orcs, when the world was shrouded in darkness. Others claim that they were constructed in 1984 for use in location filming on Steven Speilberg's action flic, Indiana Jones & The Temple of Doom. Certainly the railroad track remains in operation. More far-fetched still, there is also a body of opinion that suggests that they are a naturally occurring feature, created by underground rivers and the movement of the earth over thousands of years.
Whatever their origins, the caves are high on the list of things to see in Slovenia. A train ride takes you into the heart of the caves, whereupon you walk around for an hour through tunnels and caverns, across the Russian bridge - so called, because at any moment it's likely to fall apart and break down into its constituent pieces - and into the dark, cavernous, mysterious depths of the planet. There are many cave systems in Slovenia, of which Postojna is the most well-known and most exploited. It's the beginner's guide to caving, with the train and concrete walkways and the man-made tunnel, but it is spectacular nonetheless. And if you are looking for caves in a more natural, untouched by human hand condition, there are plenty of those in the country too.
The great beauty of Slovenia is its titchiness. Forty minutes out of Ljubljana in one direction and you're at Lake Bled with its surrounding mountains and ski resorts, forty minutes in another and you're at the caves, another forty minutes you're at the Adriatic coast. And you could throw a stone into Italy, Austria, Croatia and Hungary in the same afternoon, if you were of such a mind.
Slovenia, for all your family holiday needs.