Following the hysteria concerning refugee quotas that has possessed Central Europe recently it is no surprise that I have approached my trip to Piešťany (a spa town in Western Slovakia loved by Arab tourists) with trepidation. It was not my first time in the town, count in an extended weekend with my parents aged 9 and numerous day trips since. But this time I came with my own kids who are used to roaming streets of Birmingham, UK and a husband whose olive skin and accent immediately place him into a category of a foreigner.
Located on both banks of River Váh and surrounded by hills of Považský Inovec you could forget the fact that Piešťany springs provide a constant flow of natural mineral waters, muds and sulphur soaks to treat all kinds of musculoskeletal diseases. You could ignore its rehabilitation centres run by top physiotherapists. You could just spend the day walking the promenade, fishing in the shade or sipping coffee in one of many Austro-Hungarian style confectioneries.
And whilst I did enjoy all that and got my modest dose of massage, cinnamon wraps and jacuzzi…walking the town Centre every evening, my mind was drifting to potentially one of the most interesting intersections of cultures in the heart of Central Europe.
First of all, it is very obvious, from the moment you step into this town in summer, that Arab speaking visitors feel ‘at home’ here. Many come not only for a short-term spa retreat but own their own apartment in the town or rent a villa that allow them to bring extended families. The amount of children and teenagers driving around on bikes and scooters or just enjoying the water sprinklers near the restaurant quarter is staggering. Add Russian speaking, Turkish, Israeli and German tourists into the mix, mingled with rather cash poor Slovak pensioners and you have an interesting model of a 21st century rehab/spa town.
There are not many studies that cover the subject though I have managed to find one (bottom of the page) that tells a history of two Arab travel companies bringing people into the town since 1970s. These companies sprung up when links between the socialist block and Middle East were particularly strong. Since 1990s, wealthier clients from Kuwait, UAE and Saudi Arabia got interested too and helped to prop up luxurious hotels on the Spa Island.
But there are other interesting phenomena too. ‘Gangs’ of Muslim girls and women who, despite obvious stereotypes, feel free to enjoy picnics on the park green or lavish birthday parties in one of many high end restaurants without chaperones of their husbands or fathers.
My impressions, however lighthearted, are not without understanding deeply entrenched stereotypes (some might say grievances) that Slovaks often feel towards Muslim faith. After all, this is the only country in EU that does not have an official mosque. In the 17th century, considerable parts of Central and Southern Slovakia became vassal provinces of the Ottoman Empire. Long before that, during the period referred to as Dark Ages in Europe, Arab scholars and explorers visited the region and even wrote about ‘cultural habits’ of Western Slavs. It was a well known fact in those days that many Slavs were captured and sold as slaves to Muslims in North Africa as well as Middle East. Hence the origin of the word ‘slave’ – Slav.
The sense of injustice is documented in folklore and many legends concerning beautiful women who had to leave their ‘sweethearts’ behind and became victims of slave trade. On the other hand, unfulfilled love between a Muslim and non-Muslim were also part of the repertoire. My friend later mentioned that there was a trouble in the town recently, two teenage non-White boys wanted to get attention of some Slovak girls in the bar and when turned down, splashed them with a bottle of water. The incident got ‘frenzied’ attention of social media, to the extent that Slovak Militia (a self-appointed defence force), felt it necessary to do their own appearance in the town. To be fair to the Militia, after their own investigation, they published a statement in which they admitted that the incident was grossly misinterpreted by press. In the end it looked like a rival bar fuelled the rumours of ‘major race relations trouble’ in order to undermine the owner of the bar in which the incident took place.
And so, filled with mixed feelings, on the last day of my holiday, I happen to be walking past an outdoor stage – the one that hosts a myriad of performers every summer. A 1930s vintage brass orchestra was preparing for their first song. Many Muslim men, women and families took seats in the front. Some Slovaks were already seated. I joined the crowd. And guess what…A cheerful love song was played about Zuzka, little Zuzka and after that – another one, about Ottoman invasion, slavery and longing for freedom. The Muslim visitors were oblivious to the words, they seemed to like the tunes and we were all united in our determination to enjoy that fleeting moment of free entertainment.
And so I say: “Long live Piešťany and long live the tourists who spend their money in your town!”