I'm crouching in a pink enamel bath in rural Poland as a matronly lady with a pressure hose stands alongside. My wrists rest upon a leather strap while my hands are clenched around iron bars. Matron opens the taps to guide tens of litres of steaming mineral water to the base of my spine. I sigh as the pressure of 12 months of train-riding, shopping-carrying and hunching over my computer is relieved in 10 minutes flat.
This thermal therapy is costing me the equivalent of £2, the price of two pints of Polish lager in the spa resort's bar. But given the choice between beer and mineral water, I'd elect to stay in the bath all night.
While others swear by a winter spa break in Switzerland, my wife and I frequently choose the budget option instead. Our low-cost method to beat the winter blues is to visit the archipelago of sanatoriums dotted across Eastern Europe. Stern-faced masseurs from Bulgaria to the Ukraine have pummelled my knotted muscles. But to attain that "five years younger" feeling, the Polish thermal resort of Cieplice near Jelenia Gora tops the lot.
It's clear during our first evening meal that Cieplice's waters work wonders. The communal dining room is like a scene from the movie Cocoon, where a group of retirees are rejuvenated by an alien species. Some of the diners are well into their 70s and 80s, but all are sprightly, buoyant and alert. As I rise to the dinner buffet – chicken in aspic followed by vegetable broth – one bronzed gentleman who looks uncannily like the late Michael Winner gives my wife a dirty wink.
The Polish national health service swears by this sanatorium too. Although there's a 12-month waiting list to take a cure at Cieplice, many patrons (including ourselves and a number of German tourists present) have jumped the queue by paying a daily rate of 135 Polish zloty (£27).
This price includes all meals, two daily spa treatments, access to the thermal baths and accommodation. Hardcore sanatorium-goers can bolt on as many extra treatments as they like. The truly brave can indulge in water electrostimulation (10 zloty/£2), liquid nitrogen cryotherapy (20 zloty/£4) or a peat enema (30 zloty/£6).
After dinner we ascend to our balcony room in a period manor house, one of several Belle Epoque "pavilions" set around the ancient spa resort. We're in bed by 6.30pm and set our alarms for a sweet 12 hours of sleep.
The following three-day schedule planned for us by the resort's doctor looks to be, quite literally, punishing.
After a breakfast of herbal tea and eggs in horseradish sauce, we're told to report to Dr Robert for a massage at 7am. As we walk to our appointment through the snow my wife is dreaming of Thai massages, Indian head rubs and hot-stone therapy. She'll have to dream on. Dr Robert is a big lad. By pushing, pulling, stretching and kneading, he loosens my crabby shoulders, ankles, neck and spine.
I stare fixedly at the concrete floor through the hole in the Swedish massage table. The doctors are playing Poland's equivalent of Radio 2.
"Orinoco Flow" by Enya is followed by "Always A Woman" by Billy Joel. If that's not relaxing massage music, I don't know what is.
As he cracks my ankles in a circular motion, Dr Robert exclaims that my right leg is shorter than my left. Indeed, I carried 14 boxes of bathroom tiles upstairs last month and have been limping slightly ever since. Dr Robert gives my hipbone a marrow-crushing 20-second squeeze. After a faint "pop" I sigh gently, and later step off the massage table an inch taller than before. Later that day the doctor notices a pinched nerve on my wife's handbag-carrying right shoulder, and unblocks that one too.
Aside from the odd caffeine-withdrawal headache, the next 48 hours fly by. We follow a routine of walks in the forest and thermal treatments, including a 30-minute turbo Jacuzzi administered by yet another matron. The schedule is punctuated by time-honoured Polish meals such as barley-flecked blood sausage, pork and onion faggots and potato soup. It's a step back in time, but its simplicity is utterly relaxing.
By night we soak in the mosaic-bottomed communal thermal baths. But like a Soviet Center Parcs, the latter pool is also closely administered, so no funny business is allowed. One middle-aged couple are chastised for the ultimate swimming-pool crime of "heavy petting": a clear message that this is a Polish sanatorium, not a Canary Islands spa.
On our final day, I sit down with the sanatorium's director, Dr Moskwa. He explains that Cieplice is arguably the oldest thermal resort in Europe, rejuvenating tired bodies since 1281. Some treatments, he explains, are timeless, like the mineral cures for rheumatism and osteoporosis.
Others are novel, such as the mineral water ophthalmology treatments that treat the very 21st-century ailment of "dry-eye syndrome", exasperated by pollution, stress and staring at computer screens.
Does Dr Moskwa use the treatments at Cieplice himself? While he doesn't mind his staff seeing him in Speedos, he prefers to take his family to the resort's sister spa of Polanica-Zdroj due south of Wroclaw instead. This classic sanatorium offers additional beauty treatments and a massive swimming pool. Dr Moskwa also explains that most guests stay for a week or more to receive a winter-beating body boost. Given that seven days here costs 945 zloty (£190) all-inclusive, you can feel 21 again for the price of new pair of shoes. He also urges me to return in spring, when the nearby Karkonoski National Park opens up for hiking and mountain biking. If I can convince my family of the benefits of a peat enema, I'll bring them along.
The writer travelled with Railbookers (020-3327 0800; railbookers.com) which offers return packages to Jelenia Gora (a two-mile taxi ride from Cieplice), for £489 per person. Flight options from the UK to Wroclaw, the nearest airport, include Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com) and Wizzair (0906 959 0002; wizzair.com).
Three-night stays at Cieplice Resort (00 48 75 75 51 880; uzdrowisko-cieplice.pl) cost 135 zloty (£27) per person per day. The price includes three daily meals, two daily sanatorium treatments, thermal spa access and en-suite accommodation.
Central Europe's top spa spots
The most iconic of Budapest's many spas is the Gellert (00 361 466 6166; gellertbath.com). Before you go in, sip some water from the circular spring outside and take a look at the stained glass in the hotel (bit.ly/Gellert) that shares the premises. B&B from €114.
Over 80 piping-hot thermal springs surround the age-old Bulgarian spa resort of Velingrad. The Grand Hotel Velingrad (00 359 884 770 287; grandhotelvelingrad.com) sits atop its own thermal source and boasts a half-Olympic indoor pool, aroma steam room and outdoor plunge pools. B&B from €92.
Karlovy Vary, Czech Republic
The elegant spa resort of Karlovy Vary formed the backdrop for the poker playing scenes in Casino Royale. The Spa Resort Sanssouci (00 420 353 207 113; spa-resort-sanssouci.cz) has three-day packages including massages and half board for €150 per person.
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