Old-School Sanitas Per Aquam | Bankya, Bulgaria

Apparently, the claim that the word spa is an acronym for the Latin phrase Sanitas Per Aquam, meaning ‘health through water’, is wrong. That is rather a “backronym,” or a phrase constructed to match an already existing word. In fact, the term for the curative use of spring water is derived from the name of the Belgian town of Spa, famed for its healing hot springs, which during Roman times was called Aquae Spadanae. It, incidentally, is also the birthplace of Agatha Christie’s fictional detective Hercule Poirot.

The Bulgarian spa town of Bankya, located on Sofia’s western outskirts, doesn’t have a long-winded story about its name origin but it has produced at least one character who is as epic as, if not more than, Monsieur Poirot. Also boasting healing mineral springs and baths, the town’s name is quite obviously and directly derived from the word banya, meaning ‘bath’.  And it is the birthplace of a character who is not fictional but who nevertheless has the same capturing effect as any fantastic personality on the imagination of many Bulgarians: the former fire-fighter, karate player, ex-communist leaders’ and kings’ bodyguard, police general and Sofia mayor and current Prime Minister of Bulgaria, Boyko Borisov.

Due to its numerous healing water springs and baths, Bankya – a former village, which in the late 1970s was declared a part of Sofia, really blossomed as a spa town during communism. It was given the status of a national center for the rehabilitation of heart disease patients. Former communist leader Todor Zhivkov – the same one Borisov guarded after he was deposited, had a residence built there, and lived in it during the last decade of his rule. (Which used to explain the good condition of the road connecting Bankya to the capital.)

And although the trip from central Sofia to Bankya, located in the skirts of the Lyulin Mountain, isn’t long, it sometimes seems to transport one into a former period, whose traces have been gradually erased in most other places around Bulgaria. The town has retained an air of a sleepy spa resort of the Central European type from a century ago, sprinkled with a taste of communist aesthetic that I remember from my childhood. In spite of renovations, some of which seem to be done with a view to retaining this retro feeling, the occasional café blasting chalga and the enormous and flashly houses built in the hills outside the center, as a whole it hasn’t yet lost its quaint, provincial charm and the feeling of blissful small-town stagnation.

It remains to be seen what will become of the huge pit in the town’s center – currently a sign on the fence around the construction site announces plans for an “apartment hotel with a balneological center, open-air swimming pools and underground parking.” But for the time being, taking a walk through the park that surrounds it is like wandering into the long-gone glorious times of sanatoriums, when breathing fresh air and bathing in mineral water was the way to cure any illness, from tuberculosis and heart disease to arthritis.

Although I have never made use of Bankya’s spa facilities – of neither the old-school sanatorium kind nor the more fashionable  pampering and stress-reduction variety, I often spend time at my parents’ house, where I go to relax and get some rest. And although the fresh air and the rustling trees do have somewhat of a therapeutic effect, the city-addict in me finds the nights – when the dogs’ barking is the only sound interrupting the complete silence, a bit maddening.

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