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Plaza by the Mill Colonnade.
April 21, 2002
A Spa Slacker in Karlovy Vary
By JOSEPHINE SCHMIDT
In Saratoga I've sipped the waters, in Montecatini I've had dense Tuscan mud slapped on my face, and in Yalta a skin-searing sauna and sea-water dunk left me tingling for days. Yet in all of these places, however pleasant, I thought of Karlovy Vary. A proper spa vacation, I've decided, really requires grand colonnades and meandering wooded paths for ambling, plenty of little shops that transform small luxuries into absolute necessities and a dietary regimen that encourages abundant helpings of whipped cream.
Filling another cup at the Plaza by the Mill Colonnade.
For centuries before it was left to slumber behind Czechoslovakia's Iron Curtain, Karlovy Vary — Karlsbad in German — was a legendary European spa, its therapeutic mineral springs attracting the fashionable and the fawning, the earliest It Girls and the truly ailing. Peter the Great visited twice, and Emperor Franz Josef found time for a repeat trip, too. Beethoven, Liszt and Chopin took the waters and called at the right cafes, as did Goethe, Turgenev and Tolstoy. Even Marx submitted to some pampering, though he probably didn't call it that since he was in the midst of drafting "Das Kapital."
Lore has it that Karlovy Vary got its start in the mid-14th century, when Charles IV was both king of Bohemia and Roman emperor. A group of his attendants, chasing a stag through the woods, were suddenly summoned by the howls of a hunting dog. They discovered the hound paddling in a pool of steaming water and, after fishing it out, founded Karlovy Vary — literally Charles's Spring.
Baths in the waters from the town's 14 springs were first prescribed to treat a host of disorders. Those early soaks, hours long, were nicknamed "skin eaters" and could sometimes be worse than the ailments, leaving the skin chapped, raw and oozing. Some patients prepared their wills before arriving. Later, the drinking cure was added, at one point requiring as many as 50 cups of water a day. Between treatments, there were concerts and dances, visits over coffee and cake, and terrain therapy — strolls through the steep, pine-crested woods that rim the town, the hills traversed with scenic lookout points, shady wooden summerhouses and, of course, pubs and cafes.
Today things aren't much different, although as I found on a brief trip in December with my mother, Dolores, the baths are now delightfully bubbly and the water is consumed by the cup, not the gallon.
During the hour or so it took to maneuver our rental car through the scrum of Prague's weekday morning traffic and onto the highway that leads west, I tried to quell fears that the Karlovy Vary I first visited a decade ago and had returned to half a dozen times had been scrubbed clean of its past.
Two and a half hours later, as we started the twisting descent into town, I relaxed. We passed tall, narrow houses from the turn of the last century — some painted ocher or powdery green and others still covered with grime. The Hotel Imperial was still regal, with its dusty red roof and turrets and newly buffed neo-Classical facade standing sentinel over the town, as they had since 1912. The boxy Sanssouci spa building gleamed white and now seemed the height of cold-war retro chic instead of a drab Soviet prefab.
We entered the valley, the heart of the spa district, and I slowed for a group of senior citizens cheerfully striding across the street. My mother noticed other walkers out for a stroll, some licking ice cream cones despite the early winter chill, and a kosher restaurant, which seemed new. Karlovy Vary's Jewish community, which had been decimated in 1938 when Hitler was made an honorary citizen and the synagogue was destroyed, is reviving. There were charter flights from Israel during the high season last year, and there is a rabbi year-round.
At the Grandhotel Pupp in Karlovy Vary, Czech Republic, an elaborate interior and a relaxing massage.
Our destination, the Grandhotel Pupp, was right where it had been for centuries, at a bend in the Tepla River that marks one end of the spa district's main promenade. A pale and frothy concoction, it seemed a suitable legacy for the original Mr. Pupp, a pastry chef who in 1701 jumped to fill an entrepreneurial niche. A careful renovation has routed any hint of its past as the Grand Hotel Moskva and turned it again into a gracious place, full of 19th-century embellishments. I preferred to reach our huge, bright third-floor room via the wide, curving staircase.
After scheduling kosmetikas — facials with a few extra niceties — we were ready to begin our cure.
The Cure is still serious business in Karlovy Vary, where the waters are said to treat digestive disorders, diabetes, joint problems and, thankfully, high cholesterol. Drinking them is believed by many to flush the body of harmful elements and encourage the absorption of helpful minerals and vitamins; bathing in the waters, or with salts culled from the springs, is also beneficial. Ideally, patients come for at least three weeks, and during the Soviet era the spa was filled with retirees and Eastern bloc workers on state-sponsored stays. These days, wealthy Russians make up a large percentage of visitors — Karlovy Vary has become a second home to a growing community of Russians — along with Czechs, Germans and an increasing number of Arabs.
Doctors prescribe baths, massage and more high-tech treatments, like irrigation of the intestines or "magnetic therapy." They also recommend drinking cures; drinking too much water from too many different springs can have stomach-churning results.
The solemnity with which the Cure should be taken is evident in the warnings at the entrances to the pavilion housing the Vridlo, or the Sprudel, the hot geyser in the center of town. Forbidden items, depicted in silhouette with bright red slashes through them, include ice cream cones; briefcases; men in fedoras smoking cigars (even with hats off, no smoking is allowed); dogs; baby carriages; dripping umbrellas, galoshes and gloves; and oplatky, thin wafer cookies the size of a dinner plate. Inside, and near the outdoor colonnades that shelter the other springs and enable patients to follow their drinking cures even when the weather is poor, there are lists of rules and regulations.
Good spagoers take the waters before meals and rise at 6. They follow lunch with a long hike and are in bed by 10. But my mother and I were the kind of people the authors of an early 20th-century treatise warned against when they wrote, "Let it be said, that the Karlsbad Cures must be taken seriously, although many come who are only slightly ill, and many who seek Karlsbad come only for the sake of its pleasures."
Our first pleasure was lunch. Even at 2 p.m. on a weekday in December there were several tables of Germans, Russians and Czechs whose exercise seemed to be hoisting extra-large mugs of beer in a cozy cafe. My mother joined in, with a small mug, and we both had Viennese coffee, topped with two inches of stiff whipped cream.
We discussed venturing toward the woods, perhaps visiting the gleaming Russian Orthodox church of SS. Peter and Paul, for our terrain therapy, or maybe going to the lookout tower behind the Grandhotel Pupp, aided by a ride up the hill on the funicular. But we were spa slackers. My mother went off to find the secret ointment she credits with keeping her skin wrinkle free, and I sauntered along the main street.
The cafes were full of midafternoon cake eaters, and strollers seemed to be doing real shopping, carrying boxes of crystal or porcelain. Glass didn't tempt me, nor did garnets or amber, shearling coats or Italian shoes, fancy soaps or potpourri or Austrian chocolates. It was a hat that stopped me, a gray tweed 1920's-style cloche, Czech-made and adorned with a pewter button in the shape of a coiled snake.
We slept late the next day, perhaps done in by the 11 varieties of dainty cookies and glasses of mulled wine we had lingered over the night before, perhaps lulled by the mountain air and the Tepla gurgling beneath our windows. I was intent on scheduling a mineral bath, and as I hurried off, the glances of older Russian and German couples who were bundled in fur and leather and ambling arm in arm as they soaked up the sun made clear that this was a place where New York-style strides bordered on the vulgar.
Treatments at the town's main spa clinics begin early and end early. While most procedures must be prescribed by a doctor, some, like the mineral baths and massages, can be bought without a prescription. If I was free right now, the clerk said, I could have the last oxygenated herbal bath of the day.
The attendant was all business, and ordered me to undress as she began to run a bath in a deep metallic tub. Steam rose, and the air smelled, not unpleasantly, of eucalyptus and faintly of metal. A contraption began pumping bubbles into the water. She set a timer for 20 minutes, motioned to what looked like a jump-rope dangling from the ceiling that I could use to pull myself up when I got out, and left.
The tub was so deep and the water bubbling so energetically that it took a few minutes for me to figure out how to stay in one place, and I began to think that 20 minutes was a long time to be buffeted. But the next thing I knew, the buzzer went off, the attendant bustled in, wrapped me in a large, thick sheet and, pointing to a vinyl-covered examining table, ordered me to take a rest.
I awoke, glowing. I looked down to be sure my feet really touched the ground when I walked. Outside, serious spagoers were sauntering beneath the open-air colonnades or chatting as they sipped from their peculiarly shaped beakers. In the Cafe Elefant, a fashionable watering hole since 1715, several women in hats as wonderful as mine were laughing as they sat around a small table laden with sweets and poufs of whipped cream. A few doors down, a couple were raising small aperitif glasses filled with a moss-colored liquid that I knew to be Becherovka, a sweet liqueur concocted from secret herbs. Its reputed therapeutic properties are such that during World War I soldiers were issued bottles in their medical kits.
I floated back to the room, slowly.
"Where have you been?" my mother asked, not too concerned.
I smiled. "I've been cured."
Sampling the waters at the Hot Spring Colonnade.
Karlovy Vary is about 75 miles from Prague. The bus takes about three hours and costs about $7 round-trip. (Prices are calculated at the rate of 35 korunas to the dollar.)
By car (the most convenient way) the trip should take about two and a half hours. Most of the major American car rental agencies have branches in Prague. Be sure your hotel will provide parking, as driving and parking in the spa district are restricted.
From the station to the spa district, it is a 20-minute walk, a $6 taxi ride or a 40-cent bus ride.
Karlovy Vary has a small international airport.
There are hotels and guest houses in all price ranges. To get a feeling for spa life, it is especially nice to stay in one of the old sanitoriums, many built in the 19th century and almost all newly renovated. Most have in-house spa facilities. Reservations are especially recommended during the high season, from late April through mid-October, and during the Christmas season.
The Grandhotel Pupp, Mirove namesti 2, (420 17) 310 96 31 or (420 17) 310 91 11, fax (420 17) 322 66 38, www.pupp.cz, is a five-star hotel with several restaurants and bars, a casino, a rudimentary fitness center with sauna and Jacuzzi bath, and an on-site spa. Using www.redtaghotels.com, I got a rate of $111 for a double in early December. Rates in high season are listed at $194 for a double, exluding breakfast ($11.40 a person), but discounts may be available.
The Spa Hotel Imperial, Libusina 18, (420 17) 3106 111, fax (420 17) 3206 151, www.imperial.kv.cz, a sanitorium built in 1912, has its own park and tennis courts. Ask for a room with a balcony that looks toward the town. There are 167 rooms and 21 suites. In the high season, rooms are $97 a person, including full board and spa treatments, based on double occupancy; singles, $111; doubles are $69 a person with breakfast and the use of the pool; singles, $94.
The hotel is scheduled to close for a renovation from Oct. 1, 2002, through March 31, 2003.
For information on spa packages and other aspects of the city, contact Infocentrum, Lazenska 19/1, (420 17) 322 40 97, fax (420 17) 322 46 67; e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
The city has an informative English-language Web site at www.karlovyvary.cz.
Grand Restaurant, Grandhotel Pupp, (420 17) 310 96 46, is elegant and gracious in a setting from the 19th century with extremely pleasant service. Basic English is spoken. A three-course dinner, including roast duck breast with apples and mushroom risotto, a bottle of Czech wine, coffee and dessert, was $40 for two.
U Svejka, Stara Louka 10, (420 17) 323 2276, is a casual Czech restaurant, with the feel of a pub but slightly better food. Lunch for two including beer and Viennese coffee was $9.50.
Cafe Elefant, Stara Louka 30, is the cafe in Karlovy Vary, and has been since 1715. In warm weather there are outdoor tables by the river. Viennese coffee, pastry and mineral water for two people came to $2.50.
Cafe Pupp, in the Grandhotel Pupp, still serves treats baked according to the recipes of its 18th-century founder. It also serves outlandish ice cream and fruit cups. Cookies and mulled wine for two came to $6.85.
The Jan Becher Museum, T. G. Masaryka 57, (420 17) 3170 156, www.janbecher.cz, offers a tour of the cellars where Becherovka is aged in kegs for two or three months and a documentary on its production; tastings (two shots) are included.
The museum is open daily from 9 to 5; call for times of English-language tours. General admission is $2.85.
The small Karlovy Vary Museum, Nova louka 23, (420 17) 322 62 523, chronicles the history of Karlovy Vary through objects (from guns to glassware) made in the town, documents and graphics.
Open Wednesday through Sunday from 9 a.m. to noon, 1 to 5 p.m. Admission is 90 cents.
A bubbling herbal bath at Lazne III, or Spa III, Mlynske nabrezi 5, (420 17) 322 56 41, fax (420 17) 322 34 73, www.lazneIII.cz, was $16. The bath and other procedures that can be administered without a doctor's prescription, like massages (a full-body basic massage is about $20) should be booked a day or two in advance.
The doctor's fee is about $9 for prescribing a "drinking cure" of the waters, which are free.
JOSEPHINE SCHMIDT is an editor at the New York Times News Service.
Cafe at the Grandhotel Pupp.
Trinity Column, foreground, on a small square on Stara Louka Street.