Freezing in the name of beauty

7. December 2006

Mat Smith dons breathing mask, mittens, shorts and clogs to brave freezing his body in temperatures of -120°C. Slovakia’s extreme cryotherapy craze proves men and spas can mix

The doctor finished taking my blood pressure and unwrapped my arm. “Excellent. You are – how do you say in England – as healthy as a horse? Here in Slovakia we say you are as healthy as a fish! Ha ha ha! And now we go – to freezing!”

Bewildered, I tried to laugh along with the doctor in order to appear polite, but in truth, I was quite alarmed by the concept of what was about to happen. Being reduced to -120°C for two minutes inside a box the size of a lift is no laughing matter. More serious, though, is what would happen if you didn’t leave on time. Apparently, after four minutes, you would enter a euphoric, trance-like state, closely followed by death, which I wasn’t really all that keen on. But the doctor reassured me that two minutes would be fine, and – perhaps foolishly, given his earlier comment about fish – I agreed.  First developed in eastern Europe to treat the stresses and strains of high-performance athletes, cryotherapy has since taken off as the latest in beauty treatments, based on the idea that being reduced to very low temperatures for short periods can promote physical healing. It is available in London at over £30 per session, but is on offer for £10 at the Aquacity resort, in Poprad, Slovakia, where it has proved a popular addition to the hotel complex’s selection of spas, thermal pools and water slides.

Into the chamber

Wearing a stylish combination of headband, breathing mask, mittens, shorts and clogs – supplied by the cryotherapy centre, although I expect you’d be welcome to bring your own – I passed the preliminary medical examination and was led into the cryocentre itself, a kind of futuristic sauna room. I watched with interest as the temperature readings on the doctor’s computer reached their maximum levels. As the charts touched -121°C, he gave me an unreliable grin, pulled the lever to open the massive steel door, and ushered me in.

You don’t just leap straight in to the coldest room, though – presumably immediate exposure to -120°C would cause all kinds of technical, life-ending problems. Instead clients are initially introduced to an intermediate ante-chamber, chilled to a mere -60°C. After 30 seconds, the doctor pulls another lever, and, in a burst of fog, the door to the main chamber is opened. Enveloped by the mind-bending cold, you are then encouraged to walk clockwise around the chamber for one minute. Then, after the doctor’s announcement is bellowed from the PA system (‘Are you happy? Yes? Now we change!’) you change direction, and walk for a further minute before exiting and running immediately away to a much warmer gym for vigorous exercise to heat up again. Yes, two minutes in the chamber is pretty chilly, but there is very little moisture in the chamber’s atmosphere. So it isn’t as bad, say, as running around outside in the snow naked, which would feel worse, and could cause unnecessary tension between you and your neighbours.

Why do it?

So why would anyone willingly do this? It is said that cryotherapy can treat sporting injuries and alleviate symptoms of arthritis, but for many, it is the rejuvenating effect on the skin that is the prime motivation. Because the process cools down the skin, the only warmth comes from the bloodstream, shrinking the size of the body’s cells. Then, when exercising afterwards, the cells expand again very quickly, causing blood to pump vigorously around the body, thus removing toxins and revitalising the cells.

A number of sessions are recommended to see the full benefits, and after four I can report that I certainly felt different – relieved to be alive, yes, but also invigorated, and with a skin tone closer to what might be considered normal than my usual, slightly haunted look. Even now, a week of night shifts later, I still look a bit less weird than usual, and feel quite lively, so it seems that our friendly doctor was right after all.

Still, if being daily frozen to a ridiculous temperature doesn’t appeal, there are plenty of other amenities on offer at Aquacity. The recently frozen may find solace, for example, in Vital World, a section of the complex housing steam, sauna, tanning, rest and relaxation rooms.

Green credentials

The appropriately named Aquacity resort has nine geothermally-heated pools, ranging from the Blue Diamond indoor pool, with a variety of underwater bubbling jets and a poolside bar, to the Olympic-sized indoor pool for more serious swimming. Outside, the aquapark has fountains, showers, and two water slides to keep families entertained. Using all of this hot water might seem hugely wasteful but Aquacity’s problem is not a lack of water, but an excess. The resort has been built on the site of a huge borehole, which means that not only is the hot water in plentiful supply, but the energy produced by the heat from the water is used to power between 60-80% of the whole complex, with a view to becoming entirely self-sufficient by 2008. The futuristic steel-and-glass facade is also part of the environmentally-friendly construction. As you walk through the corridors of the hotels, the lights switch themselves on and off. The swimming pools are built not from concrete, but almost entirely from stainless steel, thus causing much less pollution during construction. Aquacity is a certified Green Globe sustainable development, which is the highest eco-tourism standard available, and is the first resort in Europe to be awarded ‘the Green Hero’ title in recognition of its eco-friendly status.

Being green, however, does not appear to mean going without. There are two decent hotels within Aquacity: the three-star Seasons and the four-star Mountain View, which both share the bars, cafes and all water-based facilities of the complex.

Beyond the resort

The High Tatras restaurant within the complex offers a good selection of Slovak and international dishes. However, just 10 minutes walk up the road is the historic village of Spišská Sobota, home to the Sabato pension and restaurant, widely reputed to be one of the best in Poprad. For comparison purposes, a lavish three-course meal with excellent wine comes to less than £15 per head. Visible from the hotel are the Tatra Mountains, which can be reached either by train from the nearby Poprad station – itself a staggering piece of communist architecture – or by car in around 10 minutes. Up in the mountains you can go skiing, tobogganing, hiking, and mountain scootering. The mountains are dotted with traditional chalet-restaurants, which serve up excellent local delicacies such as Halušky – a potato dumpling dish, covered in melted sheep’s cheese and bacon – and Tvaroc, a dessert pancake filled with sweet cheese.

The low-cost airline SkyEurope currently runs two flights a week to the ambitiously named Poprad International airport – think Little Chef, but with passport control – making Aquacity easily accessible. Air Slovakia are also planning a service from Birmingham, which is due to start this month.  Aquacity is by no means your average spa: a futuristic, eco-friendly resort set among the relics of communism and the picturesque Tatra mountains. But for cutting-edge spa treatments at bargain prices you need look no further. Even if the idea of being frozen in a box each day of your holiday doesn’t appeal, there is much in Poprad to keep you busy and the area is uncrowded by tourists while within easy reach of the UK. And for £10 a pop, it would be a crime not to give the cryotherapy a go. Go on, I dare you.

Od 1.11. je okres Poprad v čiernej farbe regionálneho automatu a stredisko AquaCity Poprad je z dôvodu nariadení zatvorené. Pozrite si aktuálne COVID - 19 OPATRENIA. Od 1.11. je okres Poprad v černé barvě a středisko AquaCity Poprad zavřené. Viz aktuální COVID - 19 OPATŘENÍ. From 1.11. is Poprad in black colour and the AquaCity Poprad is closed. See current COVID - 19 MEASURES. Od 1.11. AquaCity Poprad jest zamknięte. INFORMACJE DLA ODWIEDZAJĄCYCH – AKTUALIZACJA COVID – 19 ИНФОРМАЦИЯ О ПУТЕШЕСТВИИ - COVID 19