The sleeping giant
If the town of Druskininkai was a room, Sanatorium Nemunas would be the elephant in it. At 12 stories tall, the giant concrete complex towers over the other hotels and sanatoriums in the area – and there are many in this iconic spa town famous for its supposedly healing waters. But while those fine institutions attract visitors all year round, nobody has visited Nemunas in some 20 years. Not to get a massage, anyway.
I inevitably discovered Nemunas last year when first visiting Druskininkai during All Hallows’ Eve and All Souls’ Day. While this might sound like a strange time of the year for a spa break, in Druskininkai it’s as good as any. People have been flocking to enjoy the town’s delights since the 1830s, when Czar Nicholas I of Russia designated it as an official center for health and well-being.
This is not to say that the local tourism industry hasn’t had its ups and downs. The ruin of Sanatorium Nemunas is a relic of a bygone time when bigger meant better: the vast, standardised sanatoriums of Lithuania’s Soviet era were built to serve workers exposed to various daily health hazards. I was about to get a very different spa experience from what I had come to Druskininkai for.
I have later been back to Nemunas with some company, but this first time I explored it alone. The experience was unusually relaxed, even tranquil. With children’s voices emanating from the outside and the bright afternoon sun lighting up the empty halls, it was easy to let go of the typical (and, shall I say, addictive) adrenalized anxiety usually accompanying solo explorations. I discovered a sports hall, various therapy rooms, lounges and even a library with Soviet and world literature in it. The open roof offered scenic views over Druskininkai.
Nemunas is one of a handful of now-defunct sanatoriums built in Druskininkai between the 1950s and 1980s adhering to a Soviet one-size-fits-all approach to spa culture. Whereas in the West weekends at the spa were often considered a luxury, in the Soviet Union they were more accessible to the general population. It was not only the state’s good will that guaranteed sponsorship to these institutions: it was the belief in health and hygiene as matters of collective survival and therefore instrumental to the realisation of the great socialist dream.
”Either the lice will defeat socialism, or socialism will defeat the lice,” Lenin famously argued in favor of improved health care. I don’t doubt that here, in the peace and quiet of the West Lithuanian countryside, it was the lice that were defeated.
The fall of Nemunas
The collapse of the Soviet Union didn’t change the Lithuanian people’s love for spas, but it did change the market. For one, there suddenly was a market. Once the economy started improving after the initial downturn, new businesses began to emerge. They were often smaller than the old Soviet sanatoriums and offered rich menus of varied spa experiences for individual tastes. This quickly became the new norm.
What happened next will surprise absolutely nobody. After several years – just how many I have not been able to find out – of declining demand Sanatorium Nemunas was closed down. It is owned by the town, but the town doesn’t want it and it appears that nobody else does either: the building has failed to sell multiple consecutive times. Currently, nobody knows what its fate will be.
Towards the end of my two-hour exploration, it started to rain. The golden-bright October afternoon had turned to evening and the light had vanished without a trace. I said goodbye to the building, put my camera away and made for the next item on my agenda: an end-of-the-day massage at one of the smaller sanatoriums that, many years ago, became the downfall of Sanatorium Nemunas. No regrets.