One of the many wonderful things that makes Europe so absolutely fascinating is the complexity of its long & sometimes harsh history, making it almost impossible for anyone to keep up with the past, the architecture, the monuments, & the different periods of war in the last centuries in many of the changing regions & lands. Imagine just how much has gone on since the Middle Ages, and Europe has a very special way of reminding us of each tragedy or triumph with a statue or a monument, or simply through the still-standing amazing architecture itself. No matter how big of a city, such as Paris or Budapest, or how small of a spot, like Brugges or Heidelberg, Europe has a certain magic that enchants all who walk its aged paths.
As I looked over options for a quick & much needed getaway, I thought to myself how wonderful it would be to just take some days off and enjoy the relaxation of an all-inclusive spa resort. No big city stress, no kids, no nothing! As I looked for the many wellness options here in Germany, I found myself falling down the rabbit hole of the incredible world of European spa towns. All over, there are little resort towns based on a mineral spa, or developed mineral spring where people come to ‘take the waters’ for their health (and relaxation) benefits. The word spa itself is derived from the name of a town in Belgium with just that purpose, and a popular discourse written by a famous English doctor in 1668 brought the health-giving properties of the waters to the attention of the aristocracy, who started to partake in them soon after. These towns soon became famous for their soothing hydrotherapy, which can include cold water or mineral water treatments & geothermal baths. Today, not only patients are welcomed to enjoy the benefits of the wellness infrastructure, but oodles of men, women, families, & romantic couples focusing on relaxation, detoxification, & anti-stress treatments, head into the towns to take a dip.
For many, the name Karlovy Vary – or Karlsbad in German – doesn’t ring any bells. Located close to the German border in the Czech Republic, it’s very well-known among Germans & Czechs, as well as to those in the movie scene, famous for its annual Film Festival that takes place every year in July. It called out to me like a seducing siren and I immediately booked my own personal spa town getaway. And so, it is with much, much joy that I introduce to all of you the beautiful & delightful spa town of Karlovy Vary, among the oldest & most visited in the world.
It’s named after Charles IV, Holy Roman Emperor & King of Bohemia, who founded the city in 1370 – it literally means Charles’ Bath for those of us lost in translation. To make a long, old story short, the Holy Roman Emperor organized a deer hunting expedition into the forests surrounding the modern day town. On the site of a bubbling hot spring, he established a spa and the location was subsequently named after him once he had acclaimed the healing power of the hot springs, at least that’s the story according to legend. Thanks to many publications by famous physicians, the city developed into a famous spa resort in the 19th century and was visited by many members of European aristocracy & world famous celebrities.
As is with history, wars came & went. At the end of World War I in 1918, the large German-speaking population of the then-called area of Bohemia was incorporated into the new state of Czechoslovakia. Tourism ceased completely during the period of World War I and the city sadly never regained its former glory. These areas that remained mainly German-speaking later became part of Nazi Germany in 1938 and after World War II, the vast majority of people of Karlovy Vary were forcibly expelled from the city because of their German ethnicity and replaced with Czech settlers, leaving the German culture & heritage of Karlsbad behind.
In the post World War II years, Eastern Bloc travellers discovered the town and it soon became a destination for the proletariat. On doctors’ orders, most workers would enjoy regular stays of 2 or 3 weeks, letting the mineral waters ranging from 43°C (109°F) to 72°C (161°F) from the town’s springs heal their tired & broken bodies. Even now, a large number of spa guests are here on doctor’s orders and many of the luxury ‘spa resorts’ that are seen are, in fact, upscale hospitals. Since the end of Communist rule – a.k.a. ’40 years of neglect’ – in Czechoslovakia in 1989 and the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, the presence of Russian businesses in Karlovy Vary has steadily increased and a barrage of renovations continues to restore the spa’s former glory, so don’t be surprised to hear Russian on the streets more more frequently than English o German!
With such a complex history, this tiny little town shows a vast array of colorful & whimsical architectural gems. Its setting alone in the green valley of the river Teplá gives it a glorious atmosphere of beauty & peace. The town has been recapturing its former glory with its Baroque & Art Nouveau buildings being restored and people from all over rediscovering all the town has to offer. Hardly anyone misses the famous colonnades during a visit. In town, it’s really impossible not to notice them!
If you are here for a particular treatment, you will stroll here daily on your way to the curative thermal water, with the drinking cure prescribed by the spa physician. Anyone can drink the peculiar tasting water, and tradition is to have a special porcelain cup and help yourself with the warm water, which in my opinion tastes really delicious. However, it might just as well be an acquired taste, according to the many I saw cringing at the taste. The cup is especially made for facilitating drinking the hot water without burning your mouth. They come in different colors and sizes, and are sold all over town in souvenir kiosks & shops. If you look hard enough, you will surely find a famous Karlovy Vary product among the many cups: pink porcelain…famous worldwide, you might just choose a sipping cup in the romantic color for old times sake!
I would definitely describe Karlovy Vary as one of those dreamy fairy tale European towns. It’s a collection of pretty colorful buildings, hard to pick a favorite for us architectural geeks! You find yourself photographing every single one, and luckily the stroll around town is short enough so you don’t get tired, but entertaining enough for it to be wonderful & enchanting. There are a couple of churches that stand out beautifully. St. Mary Magdalene’s church is a beautiful baroque church, best example in the region, and the beautiful Orthodox church of St. Peter & Paul, with its impeccable golden domes, was inspired by a church near Moscow, with its lavish construction supported by generous gifts from Russian spa patients. The spa buildings are also grand & majestic structures: The Emperor’s Spa is a breathtaking building from the dawn of the 19th century, unfortunately slowly deteriorating. The Láznê III is an imposing structure along the canal, and the Elisabeth Spa, or Spa V, is located on Smetana Park, opened a long, long while ago in 1906 to celebrate the Empress Elisabeth – sadly, it shows.
I have to say I was much more fascinated with the many – oh, so many! – boutique luxury spa hotels than with the grand spa structures. Each has their own amazing façade, sometimes limited to a width of 3 meters, but grand nonetheless. The Grandhotel Pupp is one of the most impressive buildings I have ever seen. It’s size & grandeur impressed me as an architect (impossible to photograph in one shot) and I must say it is quite the gem in this precious town. The movie ‘Casino Royale’ was filmed here at the end of the spa promenade, so be sure to take a break in ‘007 style’ with some hot crème chocolate at their impressive corner café! Although these are a few of the magnificent structures, all you have to do is simply look around and enjoy the unique atmosphere of this gorgeous city!
Although the region itself is well-known for its spas, 12 hot mineral springs pop up naturally within Karlovy Vary alone. The water is said to have amazing curing powers, reducing problems related to metabolism, normalizing the sugar levels in the blood, reducing cholesterol & other fats, as well as resting the mind, body, & soul. The waters are rich in sodium, bicarbonate, and sulphates and are very similar to each other, differing only in temperature & the amounts of CO2.
The spas are visited not only by Czechs, but also by people from the rest of Europe, Russia, Israel, and North America. The town’s visitors over the years have included grand people like Tsar Peter the Great, Wagner, Tolstoy, Karl Marx, Casanova, Beethoven, Mozart, Franz Kafka, Goethe and many, many other representatives of the world film industry who come as guests of the International Film Festival every year. And most recently, moi.
After some days in the town, I became familiar with all 12 hot springs. The Vridelni kolonada houses the Vrídlo geyser of hot mineral water that issues at 72°C (161°F), and is usually referred to as the symbol of the city. It’s a unique natural phenomenon with the flow of 2,000 litera of water daily and, due to the high water pressure, a total height of 12 meters. In the first half of the 17th century, a communal bath was organized around the geyser, and later a baroque spa was built. Today, there’s a modern structure housing three different springs, part of the architectural array of the town.
In a place famous for its spas, one cannot and should not leave without having some relaxing time in any one of them. Taking a bath in thermal waters, mineral baths, having a hot stone massage, and getting into a salt cave, are among the many treatments offered by the infinite number of local spas. Most hotels combine your stay with wellness & spa, but it’s also possible to get treatments even though you’re not staying at any particular hotel. There are many hotels in town, and many cater for pensioners who treasure their weeks (plural) long stay. I booked my hotel online, and was delighted with my overall experience.
The Astoria Spa Hotel & Sanatorium is very conveniently located in the heart of the spa district in the vicinity of one of the most beautiful colonnades of all. It consists of five interconnected buildings with beautiful balconies to the colonnade plaza that have all undergone extensive refurbishment & modernization. It offers a great wellness and spa care center with the option to purchase certain medical procedures and receive in-house recovery treatments. They strive to continue the overall tradition of the therapeutic spa care provided by the many hotels in town.
Karlovy Vary is also very famous for its spa wafers – or oblaten – a food item from the region that was awarded protected designation of origin (PDO) status by the European Commission in 2011. The wafers are sold at street stands, and can also be purchased at grocery stores around the country. Their history goes back to the beginning of the 19th century, when cooks prepared them for the spa guests. Originally served with just sugar powder, over time new flavors, spices, & techniques emerged: hazelnut, apple-cinnamon, chocolate, coconut, mint, and even lemon! The first bakeries specializing in the spa wafers eventually popped up and have enjoyed huge popularity in the town ever since. They are delicious and make for a great souvenir gift! U Jáchyma on the main spa promenade is a grocery store that sells boxes of the delicious wafers and offers fresh, warm oblaten to go. Be sure to get one for a lovely stroll down the promenade!
Another popular menu item is, of course, venison. Since the origins of the region trace back to Charles V’s deer hunting days, it’s no surprise that most traditional Czech restaurants boast venison as a top choice in their menus. Venison usually refers to the meat from any part of the deer, so long as it can be consumed, including the flesh and internal organs. After a stroll around the Russian Orthodox church and surrounding amazing villas, including the magnificent Russian embassy, I strolled along down to the recommended traditional old Czech-style Slovansky Sklípek, where I enjoyed a most delicious platter with a juicy skewer of venison, caramelized onions & apples with a side dish of fried Czech cheeses, with a delicious cranberry sauce to dunk it all in. Paired with a delicious St. Laurent grape wine, locally called Svatovavrinecke, it was such a delicious meal in such a great Czech tavern. Too bad the service was absolutely dreadful…I still don’t comprehend the amiability of most European waiters.
There’s a so-called 13th spring that people also come here to enjoy: the locally invented liquor Becherovka is a herbal bitters similar to Limet or Fernet Stock, often drunk as a digestive aid, produced by the Jan Becher company in town. A bitters is traditionally an alcoholic preparation flavored with botanical matter such that the end result is characterized by a bitter, sour, or bittersweet flavor. Often described as having a gingery or cinnamon-y flavor, Becherovka has branched out so many varieties you might be delighted with any of their other flavors, but I would definitely call this an acquired taste! Two centuries ago it was used a medication and is part of the doctor’s orders along with the other 12 nonalcoholic versions of spring water, but today it’s found in almost every pub, restaurant & bar of Karlovy Vary. Who would have thought! Their recipe, however, is somewhat like that of Coca Cola’s: remains top secret & is worth billions.
The trip to Karlovy Vary will take about two hours to drive from Prague, and there are buses & trains running permanently as well. You can also leave everything to the professionals in Prague, who offer guided trips for the day! Whether you go to Karlovy Vary to relax your mind, find a cure, or admire the architecture, you will not regret adding this elegant city to your European tour. Built along the river Teplá, one of the most beautiful things to do is to stroll along the river promenade beginning with the Hotel Thermal – a tall, dark communist era building that sticks out like a sore thumb – all the way up to the Grandhotel Pupp. Everything is located just next to it: restaurants, cafés, shops, Colonnades, and parks. I recommend a stop at the famous Café Elefant, where you can go upstairs to sit out on the tiny romantic terrace and enjoy views along the river, with the Grand Theater on the opposite side. I enjoyed the sun & had the most delicious piece of cheesecake I have ever tried!
With its colonnades & sipping cup tradition, the whirlpool baths in thermal waters surrounded by beautiful natural scenery & its magnificent architecture, Karlovy Vary is one of the most alluring European spa cities you could ever visit, so just kick back & relax in the mineral-packed springs. I highly recommend this spectacular & unique place that offers an experience well worth the visit!