It does not smell good, taste good or look good. And yet for centuries, this yellowish water with a slight taste of crude oil attracted wealthy patrons to mineral spa resorts in western Ukraine. Distressed by regular stomach cramps or aging livers, noble patients of yore took steam trains or travelled by horses from the Austro-Hungarian Empire to “take in” the water. That meant, along with bathing in healing mountain springs, they had to drink it.

It was the dawn of medical tourism. The advance of modern pills, creams and x-rays could have all but ended the water drinking rituals. And yet the green pine resorts, now a part of Ukraine, still lure thousands of people looking to treat minor and serious conditions in gastroenterology, metabolism and urology. The most popular is the town of Truskavets, only a night train trip away from Kiev, the capital of Ukraine. With more faith in nature than in their local pharmacies, Russians, Poles, Hungarians and Ukrainians flock to these budget spa towns year round.

It appears to be urban legend come alive when you see hundreds of people converge on a whitewashed, one-storey pavilion three times a day, carrying mugs looking like little clay hookahs. But they are serious about the health retreat and often book two-week breaks by the springs.

Hotels offer pools, saunas, steam baths, massages and salt caves to help tired souls rejuvenate in the cedar and pine tree valleys at the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains. These services usually come much cheaper than many Western spa centres. 

If you are brave enough to try the water, all you need is a mug. In the pavilion that looks like a large bathroom decorated with house plants, there are sinks with taps where you can pour yourself a drink. The decor has not changed since Soviet times, nor have the prices: the water is free. According to locals, it loses its power in two hours, so no one is trying to fill buckets with it to take home.

Doctors confirm the water is rich in hydrocarbons, magnesium, calcium and petroleum carbons, an explosive composition good enough to attract a major hotel and medical development to the region where businesses enjoy special tax breaks. With less than one year before the Euro 2012 soccer championship, development is booming in Truskavets. Once you feel revived (or if you arrive symptom free to begin with) there are dozens of organized excursions to the mountains, ruins and villages.

Compared to Western spa resort towns like Germany’s Baden-Baden or Czech Karlovy Vary, clinics and hotels in Truskavets charge bargain prices. For Hr 85, for example, a gastroenterologist in the Med Palace modern clinic will examine you and prescribe the times and quantities of the “magic” water. For Hr 150, you can get an ultrasonic scan of your liver and stomach. Do not forget a dictionary to aid the verbal exchange because signs “We speak English” often fail to live up to the claim. As a general rule, the pricier hotel you book, the more English you get.

Founded during the Austro-Hungarian rule, the town features neat wooden villas resembling alpine architecture from the early 1900s, when the first railroad connected Truskavets with Berlin, Prague and Warsaw. The Soviet occupation changed some of this landscape starting from 1940s. Sometimes, behind the charming, ornate wooden porches of the villas in which you stay, you will find squeaky floors, old furniture and gaudy bed covers. They too, though, can be a part of the charm.

But hackly Soviet-built sanatoriums are now outnumbered by private spa hotels.

Prices range from Hr 320 for a standard double in the budget Stary Viden right next to the drinking pavilions, to Hr 1,500 in Rixos-Prykarpattya, one of the most expensive spa hotels in town, about 20 minutes away from the water point. If you are following a water drinking regime, you could be making as many as a half a dozen trips to the well each day.

Khizhina Spa is a nice budget spa hotel resembling a Balinese resort with stone floors and woodwork everywhere. For as little as Hr 400 per room, you will get to enjoy a steamy Roman spa and a sizzling hot Russian sauna, aroma and salt caves, and a 10m swimming pool.

Truskavets residents patron the many spa parlours as well. With major salt reserves in this part of Ukraine, salt caves – small rooms for up to five people with walls covered in salt – are in great supply. With dim lights, comfortable chairs, relaxing music and a slightly pungent smell, they cater to people with asthma and other respiratory diseases.

Another local specialty is baths with mountain wax, ozocerite, mined right in the Carpathians. Melted in warm baths, some claim this wax helps soothe aching joints and boost the immune system.

The range of bargain spa services is wide, from exotic chocolate massages to pearl baths (infused with oxygen). The Russian massage is deeper, more stimulating and vigorous than a Thai massage and as affordable as they are painful. If you feel sore the next day, give it a day to heal, jump in the relaxing sauna and come back for more.