Bohemia's spa triangle: Getting into hot water

Steve Connor follows Mark Twain and Mozart to the medicinal springs of three Czech towns

According to legend, it was a 14th-century Czech king who started the central European tradition of "taking the waters" to cure maladies. Charles IV, King of Bohemia, was out hunting in the forest when a fleeing stag leapt from a cliff into a pool of unusually warm water fed by a hot mineral spring. Miraculously, the waters seemed to heal the king's dodgy leg and so he built a small castle tower on the cliff to mark the spot. A town grew around these hot mineral springs and today Karlovy Vary – meaning "Charles's boiling water" – is the second most-visited tourist destination in the Czech Republic, after Prague.

Few British travellers go there today, despite there being a rich history of famous visitors from these shores – such as Edward VII, son of Queen Victoria. Modern medicine and four decades of communism have turned this curious corner of central Europe into an obscure backwater for the British tourist.

Karlovy Vary, better known as Carlsbad from its Austro-Hungarian days, is one of three towns that form the mineral-water triad of the west Bohemian spa triangle. The two others are Marianske Lazne (Marienbad) to the south and Frantiskovy Lazne (Francisbad) about half-an-hour's drive west, near the German border.

Marianske Lazne and Frantiskovy Lazne are relatively recent spa towns, having been established about two centuries ago during the height of Hapsburg rule. Frantiskovy Lazne is built on a flat marsh. Its grid-pattern layout of straight streets and buildings painted in Schönbrunn yellow, make it look and feel like a toy-town Vienna plonked in the middle of boggy Bohemia, complete with bubbling glass capsules to capture the water jets spurting from the underground pramen or springs.

Mineral water in Karlovy Vary Mineral water in Karlovy Vary (Getty) Marianske Lazne, meanwhile, is set in a pretty valley on the edge of a forest. Most of the tourists here are wealthy Germans who take their water treatments, interspersed with vigorous Nordic walking, very seriously. Several of the period hotels and the two old laznes (spa centres) of Marienbad have recently had luxurious renovations by Danubius, the British-based hotel chain which seems to have bought up half the town.

In the middle of the equilateral triangle formed by the three resorts stands the beautiful, unspoilt Slavkov Forest, with wetland meadows, mixed woodlands and gorgeous river valleys. I sat one blustry afternoon and listened to the sounds of a chiff chaff and the rustling leaves. This is a forest of fairytales. The figure in the shawl with the large basket I saw through the trees seemed a dead ringer for Little Red Riding Hood – she turned out to be a lone mushroom picker.

It was from a small castle fortress on the edge of this forest that Charles IV set out on his fabled hunt 700 years ago. Loket Castle today is about 20 minutes' drive from Karlovy Vary, high above a sharp elbow-bend in the river which forms a natural moat. I climbed the castle's original medieval tower to gaze over the enigmatic landscape. Loket has retained much of its medieval charm, with ancient walled lanes leading up to the castle. An afternoon spent wandering here was a welcome respite from bustling Karlovy Vary.

The hearty Czech cuisine of pork knuckle, duckling, dumplings and delicious beer is best tasted in authentic local restaurants such as the Orion, set in the backstreets away from the main tourist boulevard, or the revamped cellar restaurant of the Becherovka museum, home of a popular herb-flavoured liqueur whose recipe was said to have been buried for safe-keeping during the war.

For the more discerning palate, I recommend eating at the Embassy, a delightful hotel just around the corner from the impossibly grand Hotel Pupp.

Karlovy Vary nestles in the steep-sided valley of the warm River Tepla. Its central boulevard stretches from the Pupp at one end to the Alzbetiny lazne – an imposing public spa – at the other. Alzbetiny offers treatments ranging from a pummeling massage to a warm bath filled with a choice of exotic fluids, including, believe it or not, a "beery bath".

Almost everyone who stays in Karlovy Vary is here for the mineral waters, which they drink in a special spa cup. Serious spa visitors stick to drinking only from one or two of the dozen or so springs. Each pramen is almost identical in mineral content, although they vary in temperature, with some of the hottest going up to more than 70C.

It is easy to get caught up in the collective hypochondria, as Mark Twain discovered when he visited the then Austro-Hungarian spa town of Marienbad. "I didn't come here to take baths, I only came to look around," he wrote in 1892. "But first one person, then another began to throw out hints, and pretty soon I was a good deal concerned about myself .... They try to cure everything – gout, rheumatism, leanness, fatness, dyspepsia and all the rest."

All three spa towns make much of their celebrity guests. Karlovy Vary, described by the Czech Tourist Board as the "jewel of the spa triangle", can probably list the biggest contingent of famous hypochondriacs. Composers in particular seemed to have been seduced; including Mozart, Beethoven, Dvorak, Schumann and Wagner.

Even Karl Marx was not averse to the "water cure", although his activities were apparently closely monitored by the secret police, who worried that he may promote political mischief when in fact he was probably more interested in his bowel movements.

Then there was Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the German Shakespeare, who came a dozen times and met and proposed to his last love here, aged 72. However, the mother of the 17-year-old Ulrica von Levetzow (herself a former lover of Goethe) disallowed the marriage. Heart-broken, Goethe left and never returned. Perhaps love-sickness is one malady that can't be cured by a splash of hot water.

Getting there

The writer travelled with Wizz Air (0906 959 0002; wizzair.com), which flies to Prague from Luton.

Staying there

The Embassy Hotel (00 420 353 221 161; embassy.cz). Doubles from 2,950 Czech koruna (£88), B&B.

Hotel Pupp (00 420 353 109 111; pupp.cz). Doubles from €178, including breakfast.

Penzion 33 (00 420 353 229 530; penzion33.cz). Doubles from €48, including breakfast. Danubius Health Spa Resort Butterfly (00 420 354 654 111; danubiushotels.cz). Doubles from €130, including breakfast.

Seeing there

Alzbetiny Spa (00 420 353 222 536; alzbetinylazne.cz); Loket Castle (00 420 352 684 648; hradloket.cz); Becherovka museum (00 420 359 578 142; becherovka.cz).

More information

czechtourism.com

stories.czechtourism.com

Voices
There will be a chance to bid for a rare example of the SAS Diary, collated by a former member of the regiment in the aftermath of World War II but only published – in a limited run of just 5,000 – in 2011
charity appealTime is running out to secure your favourite lot as our auction closes at 2pm today
News
File: James Woods attends the 52nd New York Film Festival at Walter Reade Theater on September 27, 2014
peopleActor was tweeting in wake of NYPD police shooting
Sport
Martin Skrtel heads in the dramatic equaliser
SPORTLiverpool vs Arsenal match report: Bandaged Martin Skrtel heads home in the 97th-minute
News
Billie Whitelaw was best known for her close collaboration with playwright Samuel Beckett, here performing in a Beckett Trilogy at The Riverside Studios, Hammersmith
people'Omen' star was best known for stage work with Samuel Beckett
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Investigo: Finance Analyst

    £240 - £275 per day: Investigo: Support the global business through in-depth a...

    Ashdown Group: Data Manager - £Market Rate

    Negotiable: Ashdown Group: Data Manager - MySQL, Shell Scripts, Java, VB Scrip...

    Ashdown Group: Application Support Analyst - Bedfordshire/Cambs border - £32k

    £27000 - £32000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Application Support Analyst - near S...

    Recruitment Genius: Class 1 HGV Driver

    £23000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This successful group of compan...

    Day In a Page

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
    The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

    The 12 ways of Christmas

    We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
    Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

    The male exhibits strange behaviour

    A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
    Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

    Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

    Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

    The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'