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