Pierre-Brice Lebrun - 2009-02-09
In the heart of Bohemia, two hours drive from Prague, Karlsbad, Marienbad and Franzenbad form the Czech Republic's golden triangle of spa towns. They are just as renowned for their unique mineral springs of diverse healing properties as for their elegant architecture or their enchanting settings.
Karlsbad: The bronze fawn
Imagine it is 1368. Charles IV, the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation, is galloping at top speed after a deer that is trying to escape him. Determined, the beast zig-zags in and out of the pine trees on the rocky slopes of the forest. The Emperor has his reputation to uphold: no matter how dangerous it may be, there is no question of abandoning the chase. Down below is the Teplá, a winding river that knows how to show its turbulent nature.
The deer finds itself driven to the edge of a cliff, at the extremity of a rocky peak. The end is near. Its hooves scrape along the slippery rock. It could now give up, but that is not in its character: just as the Emperor prepares for the kill, it jumps into the abyss...
Surviving such a fall would be impossible. Impressed, the Emperor leans forward to pay homage to this courageous animal that preferred to sacrifice itself. But then imagine his astonishment to see the deer escape and continue running away without even so much as a limp!
The legend has it that a spring gushed forth at the spot where the deer landed, spraying its healing properties upon it or that it dived into the miraculous waters of the Teplá. At this site Charles IV decided hence to found a town bearing his name to make use of the marvelous qualities of this magic water. Karlovy Vary (Karlsbad in German) was born. It is the oldest of the four Spa towns situated in the heart of Bohemia, two hours drive from Prague in the south-west of the Czech Republic.
A bronze fawn still overhangs the Teplá, gently bemocking this appealing legend. One can visit it by walking along the hillside, down from the panoramic viewpoint which is accessible by the funicular. There are 200 kilometres of marked footpaths around Karlovy Vary, enough to please any walker. Along this same path one gets to Charles IV panorama, which is where the deer is supposed to have jumped from. These legends persist!
In Karlsbad one strolls from one spring to another with a sort of small, long-spouted, porcelain cup hanging around your neck. There are 12 main and 200 secondary springs. Almost every hotel has its own spring running in the hall next to the reception. But beware! Some of them have laxative qualities and should therefore only be drunk in moderation. Others, like the Mill Spring, have a similar effect to viagra. They are easy to recognise, with men queuing up nonchalantly, cup in hand, all day long! There is also the Svoboda Spring: whoever keeps their finger under the burning jet of water flowing out of the earth at 60°C will spend their whole life with the one his or her heart desires. The hottest spring has water of 72°C. Its mineral content is so much that in a few days it can calcify a rose which shopkeepers then sell to tourists for premium prices.
So in Karlsbad one strolls along the Teplá next to the main street that blossoms with rhododendrons. There is not much to do apart from breathing the pure air - smoking is forbidden, even in the street! One saunters along window-shopping and sitting at the tables of the café terraces to treat oneself to a oplatky lazenské, a spa wafer which is a sort of very light aromatic biscuit eaten hot.
When one gets to the edge of the town, there is Dvorak Park where one can read or relax before heading back in the opposite direction, at the end of the afternoon. The free concerts given by the Symphonic Orchestra under the colonnades should not be missed. The everyday visitors coming to take the waters are soothed to the strains of Rachmaninov, Prokofiev, Bellini and Dvorak.
Marienbad: In honour of Mary
Karlsbad is also famous for its cinema festival which welcomes Hollywood stars each year. It has to be said the town is used to hosting famous people: Bach, Brahms, Freud, Liszt, Leibniz, Marx, Schiller and Wagner, not forgetting Joseph II of Austria and Peter the Great, Tsar of the Russian empire have all stayed here.
For this very reason, in the first years of the 19thC, the Abbot Karel Reitenberg, prior and director of Teplá Abbey, decided to make use of the abbey's lands, which were well stocked with game, by building a luxurious spa town. He sought to attract the famous as in Karlsbad and Franzenbad where hundreds of wealthy people flocked to take the waters, anxious to benefit from the healing properties of their mud baths.
But, of course the Abbott had principles: he dedicated the town to the Virgin Mary, baptising it Marianské Lazné (Mary's baths or Marienbad in German.) The resort opened its doors in 1808 and quickly became the most select in Europe. A place where Gœthe, Ibsen, Kipling, Gorki, Tolstoï, Dvorak, Chopin stayed, wrote, played, fell in love and composed.
Marienbad was built around a great wooded park as designed by the landscape architect Vaclav Skalnik, surrounded by imposing buildings with coloured facades, brought out by illuminated frescoes, balconies and bas-relief. One feels at ease here; the place exudes peace and serenity. Here one finds the same baroque or Neo-Renaissance architecture as in Karlsbad and Franzenbad. It is what makes the very identity of these three endearing spa resorts. The decorations, floral frescoes and stained-glass windows adorning the buildings over one hundred years old, gives them an irresistible, old-world charm.
Without denying their original, medical purpose, the baths are gradually getting away from this activity. They are now developing health treatments or fitness schemes with salt caves, massages, hammams and swimming pools. But as far as slimming and diet courses are concerned it is better to think of going somewhere else - the Czech cuisine does not fit the bill. It may be very tasty but can neither be called 'light' nor 'refined'!
Franzenbad: the smallest town
This town is dedicated to Francis 1st but was not created by him: it was the result of property market speculations by rich merchants from Cheb who bought land at low prices where they subsequently built palaces.
Franzenbad (Frantiskovy Lazné in Czech) is a picture postcard of a town. Its classical architecture and its feel of a seaside resort give it a placating rural charm. Indeed this green and airy town has been built in the middle of woods. The treatment buildings which house the 28 iron-bearing mineral springs are arranged around a park which has the allure of an immense forest. For example it is not unusual to come across roe deer here.
Franzenbad's waters are particularly recommended for feminine ailments and postnatal treatments. It is also said they favour the arrival of babies: Queen Isabelle of Austria came seven times to Franzenbad for treatments and each time gave birth to a child the following year...
Every afternoon a military orchestra in smart uniforms gives free concerts in the Municipal Park in front of the Francis 1st statue. Their marching performances revive the spa goers lulling in the terrace of the Park Café. Suddenly, back to form, they decide to take one last bathing session before dinner...Last one in the water pays for the herbal tea!
Jáchymov: radon baths
Everything here is called 'radium': the hotel, the cinema, the grocers store and even the bus stop – a reminder that the uranium mines replaced the previous silver mines which were worked in the 16th century. Today there is no longer any uranium and even less silver, but there is water, pumped from a depth of 500 metres, which is rich in radon, the gas emitted by uranium. It fills the baths of the spa treatment centres to relieve joint pains and ailments and then it runs out into the drains freed of the radon which has now evaporated despite having taken 35,000 years to move through the thick layers of granite.
The somewhat Soviet style of architecture does not make Jáchymov a pretty town. It is simply a collection of functional and comfortable revamped hotels which are trying to prosper from its radioactive springs, medical treatments and its luxury hotel: the Radium Palace which is making great efforts to attract a new kind of clientèle. The contrast found in Jáchymov is astonishing: the gigantic hotels desired by the Soviets and reserved for the nomenklatura have been updated with the Davidoff bar and the 'Aphrodite' bath cabins for two, where champagne is a part of the treatment. The renewed infrastructure, the service with a smile and the value for money defies all competition.
Czech Tourist Authority - UK
How to get there
Czech Airlines has 25 weekly flights from the UK to Prague, the Czech capital, departing from London Heathrow (19 per week) and Manchester International (6 per week)
Tel. : +420 239 007 007
Spa Town Internet Sites:
Places to visit in the surrounding area:
Becov Castle which houses the magnificent Saint-Maur reliquary and its fantastic story bordering on detective and spy novels. Worth having a look at.
Becherovka Museum, local alcohol
Almost all of the hotels in each spa resort belong to the same company which also runs the spa baths. Therefore one can get information and make reservations through the tourist offices. Rooms range from 51 to 100€ per person including breakfast. There are hotels for every budget.
Hotel**** Spa Dvorak
Tel : +420 353 102 111
First Class Grand Hotel***** Pupp
Tel: +420 353 226 638
Tel: +420 353 221 161
The terrace of the Embassy Pub, one of the town's best restaurants has a view over the river Teplá.
Grand Hotel**** Spa Pacifik
Tel: +420 354 651 111
Hotel**** Radium Palace
Tel: +420 353 835 555