In search of: A classic spa in Marienbad

Looking for an antidote to the stresses of modern life?

This life is getting me down. I'd love to spend a week de-stressing in foreign climes, but I can't afford a luxury spa resort. Is there an alternative?

This life is getting me down. I'd love to spend a week de-stressing in foreign climes, but I can't afford a luxury spa resort. Is there an alternative?

If you want to combine health treatments with a complete change of scenery, head for eastern Europe. The Czech Republic has some glorious spa towns, dating back to Victorian times, with a multitude of watery indulgences at reasonable prices.

Any particular place in mind?

Marienbad. It's a pretty, well-manicured spa town west of Prague (about two hours' drive) and very close to the German border, where water-related treatments are a major attraction. The first mineral spring was discovered here in the 16th century, and the town was built in the late 18th century. It's a pastel-painted architectural gem, looking rather like a display of giant wedding cakes set among green lawns. Pine-forested slopes surround it, and the clean mountain air acts like a detox diet for the lungs. There are several purpose-built spa hotels, along with non-residential public spas, inexpensive and accessible to all throughout the week.

Not what you'd call exclusive, then?

That's the beauty of it. Here you'll mingle with local families, for whom spa treatments are routine, and a lot of Germans, who regularly cross the border to have the spring put back in their step. Others who have heard about the restorative powers of Marienbad's water come on health pilgrimages from further afield. Customers here tend to be older than those at modern spa resorts, and perhaps more focused on preserving their health than indulging in beauty treatments.

What's so special about the water in Marienbad, then?

It's extremely rich in minerals and carbon dioxide. Taking the waters here is said to help to counteract the physical effects of stress and maintain general good health. There is a multitude of treatments available: the neo-Renaissance style New Spa hotel is one of the best places to find elegant accommodation and a real sense of history along with professional treatments given by no-nonsense masseuses with formidable muscle power. For less opulent but more modern surroundings try the Palace Hotel spa. You can choose from mineral baths, underwater massage, oxygenotherapy, hydrotherapy, electrotherapy, gas injections and peat packs.

This is starting to sound a bit clinical...

Shut up and relax. It's for the good of your health. The treatments here are not just designed for de-stressing; many are taken as serious antidotes to chronic ailments such as asthma, eczema, poor circulation, osteoporosis and diabetes. The staff are all extremely knowledgeable and there are spa doctors on hand.

Which treatments are most popular?

Most people start with the mineral bath, taken just as you would a normal bath – 20 minutes relaxing in a tub. The water, taken from local springs, contains large quantities of minerals and carbon dioxide, rendering it grey, a bit pongy and slightly fizzy. Not a glamorous experience, but once the minerals and CO2 have been absorbed into the skin you'll emerge feeling fresh and rejuvenated. A mud or peat pack is applied to the back, where the iron-bearing minerals are absorbed to good effect. Then there's parafango...

Hey, I love to dance!

No, dummy, it's a paraffin wrap designed to stimulate lymphatic flow and said to reduce cellulite. Popular with the ladies.

But for an authentic taste of Marienbad, drink the mineral water that flows from one of 100 natural local springs.

OK. Drinking mineral water doesn't sound too taxing...

Wait till you've smelt it...

Don't be daft – water doesn't smell!

Hmm. Remember that mineral bath I told you about? What comes out of the springs for drinking purposes is not dissimilar. Gassy and mineral-heavy, it's undoubtedly good for you but swallowing it without gagging on the eggy pong is a feat. The place to drink it is at the magnificent Main Colonnade, where for a small charge you can imbibe waters of varying mineral content. Staff will hand you your measure in a small, flat-sided mug with a long spout. Pour it down!

It sounds like an unusual place

Unique, I'd say. You may be alarmed at first by the sight of so many fit-looking pensioners necking down mineral water as they zip from one spa treatment to the next or pound the forest paths in shorts. It's not unlike a scene from Cocoon, but what an advertisement for the healthy life! Marienbad's Victorian façade belies its carefree air: the contrast is what makes it so special.

Spas are very popular with celebrities, I hear. Madonna, Gwyneth Paltrow...

Marienbad has had many illustrious visitors. King Edward VII is probably the best known: he was a great believer in the curative qualities of the water. A marble and tile bathing suite was built for him at the New Spa, complete with copper bathtub. The king's suite is now available to commoners. You can also swim in the two elegant pools in the spa's vast basement, with marble floors and tall columns soaring to exquisitely decorated vaulted ceilings. Chopin, Wagner, Goethe, Nietzsche, Kafka and Freud are just a few of the other luminaries who've stayed in Marienbad: at the turn of the 20th century, it was the cultural centre of Europe.

I feel great! What else is there to do ?

You'll probably be hungry after all that fresh air, so try the local cuisine which consists largely of red meat, dumplings, potatoes and cream. (It's one way of making sure the spas stay busy, I suppose.) Czech beers are among the best in the world, so don't even try to avoid them.

A walk around the town is extremely rewarding: there are several beautiful churches and manicured miniature parks. The highlight of the social calendar is the Chopin Festival, which takes place every August. It's a prestigious event for which you'll need to book well in advance.

How do I get there?

Inghams Lakes & Mountains (020-8780 4433; brochure hotline 09070 500500, calls cost 50p a minute; www. inghams.co.uk) offers a selection of hotels in Marienbad and Prague. I travelled with Inghams Lakes & Mountains and flew with Go from Stansted to Prague, staying four nights at the four-star Hotel Villa Butterfly in Marienbad. Prices start from £628 per person, including flights, transfers and half-board accommodation. A seven-night stay at the four-star Villa Butterfly in Marienbad starts from £366 per person on a half-board basis.

Spa treatments are available in the resorts, to be booked locally. Sample package at the Hotel Palace, Marienbad: carbonated bubble bath (£6.50); parafango (£8); classical partial massage (£11); foot reflex massage (£8). A King's Mineral Bath at the New Spa Hotel (Nove Lazne) in Marienbad will cost about £17.

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