Karlovy Vary is the most famous of Western Bohemia’s ‘spa towns’. Since its nineteenth century heyday it’s been a favoured haunt of Emperors, kings, Russian czars and Hollywood film stars. The film stars mostly in connection with the annual International Film Festival. After Prague, Karlovy Vary is probably the Czech town that is most well-known abroad, sometimes under its old German name, Karlsbad.
Hot springs eternal
The natural mineral water springs of Karlovy Vary were considered to have healing properties as early as the first written mention of the town, in 1370. ‘The Cure’ originally consisted of long baths, and not until the 16th century was it fashionable to actually imbibe the waters.
While 70 cups a day are no longer recommended, prescribed spa patients and casual visitors alike are enthusiastic drinkers of the natural mineral water that gushes in a dozen places from the ground beneath Karlovy Vary.
You don’t have to kneel down in the dirt to get a taste though, Karlovy Vary has been extensively developed throughout its long history and the waters now exude from stainless steel pipes housed in purpose-built pavilions, rotundas or colonnades. The colonnades seem to be a particular architectural feature of spa towns. They’re something like the enclosed walkways along the front of important palaces or public buildings. Except with a colonnade, there’s no important building behind, it’s just the facade and the walkways and the spring waters bubbling into small basins or pools.
Who’s who of the 19th Century
Spa towns in their heyday were something like the luxury seaside or alpine resorts of today, a place for the rich and famous to take their holidays and to see and be seen. Karlovy Vary is a nineteenth century namedropper’s paradise. Casanova, Beethoven, Goethe, Schiller, Paganini, Mickiewicz, Wagner, Chopin, Liszt, Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, Dvorak, Turgenev, Sigmund Freud and Karl Marx all visited the town, some of them repeatedly. Never content to be just another name on a list, W.A. Mozart’s turbulent life came to end while on a visit to the spa.
These days you’re more likely to see groups of middle aged holidaymakers strolling alongside the river, some trying hard to be as glamorous as their earlier predecessors. Very few of them manage to pull it off, especially while they’re sucking on the spout of one of those funny little spa cups that looks like a cross between a teapot and an implement for inhaling drugs.
Strolling the hills
Fortunately there’s more to Karlovy Vary than an interesting guestbook and the chance to drink some water. Part of any spa cure is exercise and Karlovy Vary’s location in the valley of the Tepla River offers some beautiful opportunities for walking in the nearby hills. There are short walks up into the forest and to points looking over the town, or longer hikes like the one along the valley of the Ohre river to the fairytale town of Loket nad Ohri, 17km away.
Karlovy Vary is a traditional area for the production of Bohemian crystal and the world famous Moser Company has its glassworks on the edge of town. There’s a small museum at the Moser complex, but the main reason to visit is to do a tour of the glassworks themselves. Being led between furnaces and cooling ovens to see skilled craftsmen at work using methods that have barely changed in five hundred years is not something you get the chance to do every day.
The 13th spring
Another notable product of the town is Becherovka. The herbal liqueur with its 38% alcohol content is a favourite drink of Czechs; much more so than the absinthe that you’ve perhaps heard is inseparable from any visit to Prague. The Becherovka factory complex also has a small museum but again the most interesting thing is touring the factory itself. The long underground corridors lined with handmade oak barrels and nine kilometres of steel pipes are an apt background for your first taste of Becherovka. And if you’ve had it before, well why not have it again, three drinks are included in the price of the tour.
And despite what you might think when you see the overpriced tourist traps at the spa end of town, Karlovy Vary also has its share of good restaurants, cafés and bars like Bulvar and Red Berlin.