Close to Prague lies the Czech Republic’s best kept secret – Karlovy Vary, a spa town with natural hot springs and a stream of international celebrity visitors.
Usually, the conventional beauty of the city of Prague overshadows this little spa town when it comes to international tourist preferences. Though there’s no way that Karlovy Vary is lesser known for it is regarded as ‘the’ spa destination of Europe. It is also the one that attracts the crème de la crème of world cinema to its annual International Film Fest. Becherovka, the liquer of international repute, owes its origin to Karlovy Vary. As does Moser’s luxurious crystal-ware that has Louis Armstrong, Sophia Loren and Robert Redford among its elite club. The name Karlovy Vary literally translates into Charles Spa.
Legend has it that Czech King Charles IV chanced upon a hot water spring on one of his hunting expeditions. Using the water from the spring he was able to heal his injured leg. Impressed, he ordered to build a town around the miraculous spring. That was during the mid-14th century. Since then Karlovy Vary (formerly Karlsbad), found on the confluence of the Teplá and Oh e rivers, has healed many. The Czech spa tradition is an integral part of the European cultural heritage.
While the spas came into existence and developed in the 18th century, the 19th century saw them prospering. Spa buildings were being finished and renovated, many new healing methods were introduced and spa procedures started to specialise. New forms of relaxation, regeneration, beauty and anti-stress programmes suitably supplemented with a wide range of sports activities – golf, cycling, hiking and tennis – came into being. In fact, the most famous of 35 traditional spa towns is the triangle in West Bohemia: Karlovy Vary-Marianske Lazne-Frantiskovy Lazne. The town itself has 79 water sources with different yields, 13 of which are used for drinking cures.
Through the centuries, the spas have been visited by famous international personalities including Mozart, Beethoven, Gogol, Goethe, Kafka, Freud, Edison and Marx. There’s an unmistakable Victorian air in the town. Surrounded by beautiful forests, the town has five colonnades dating back to the 19th century – the Mill Colonnade, Park Colonnade, Market Colonnade, Chateau Colonnade and Hot Spring Colonnade. The Mill Colonnade is breathtaking in its own right. Built in Neorenaissance style, it is 132 m long and has 124 columns. It is home to five hot springs though not all springs are open to tourists. If you want to get a taste of the curative spring water, walk down to the Hot Spring Colonnade. At its centre is a 14-metre high natural fountain.
A lot of tourists can be found sipping the water from traditional Karlovy Vary cups. Nothing symbolises Karlovy Vary better than the spa drinking cup. With a drinking straw right in the middle, these cups have accompanied the drinking cure for centuries. Take your pick from porcelain, glass or stoneware cups. Just be careful that the temperature of the mineral-rich water hovers above 70 degree Celsius anytime of the year!
Roman Catholic Cathedral of St. Mary Magdalene
Close by is the Roman Catholic Cathedral of St. Mary Magdalene. Built in 1737 on the site of a former Gothic church, it is one of the most important Baroque monuments in the entire Czech Republic.
The town has several other museums and observatories and can keep one well-occupied for a few days. In fact, the best view of the town can be had from the Diana Observation Tower. There is a catch though – the 35-metre tall tower is located on a hillock. But the view is well worth the exercise. There are several premium properties including Hotel Pupp and Hotel Imperial that offer comprehensive spa treatments and wellness programmes for various digestive, metabolic, locomotive and oncologiocal diseases.
A bus from Prague will get you to Karlovy Vary in around two hours (there are no convenient trains). From the bus station, it is about a 20- minute walk to the colonnades.
Must Try at Karlovy Vary
• Melt-in-the-mouth spa wafers made with the curative hot water of the springs.
• Becherovka, the traditional herbal liqueur. Made from Karlsbad water, alcohol, sugar and a mixture of herbs and spices, this is a bittersweet classic among Czech liquors.
• Watch the master glassblowers produce stunning tableware at the Moser factory.
By Vartika Kaushal
About the Author
Vartika Kaushal loves to travel and pick up new cooking recipes on the way. She is an inveterate shopaholic and loves collecting souvenirs from her travel.