Karlovy Vary


This weekend I'm not actually in Prague - I'm a couple of hours' drive west of the capital, in the spa town of Karlovy Vary, which is currently hosting its 40th International Film Festival. The town gets its name - like Prague's Charles Bridge and Charles University - from Emperor Charles IV. The story goes that he stumbled upon the then little known village of Wary in 1358; he was so taken with its health giving waters that he built a bathtower nearby and gave it its prefix, and a royal charter, 12 years later.

Karlovy VaryKarlovy Vary Some listeners will know Karlovy Vary by its German name: Carlsbad. For centuries Carlsbad was one of the most elegant spas in Europe, its promenades and casinos the playground of aristocrats from around the continent.

Many of its buildings are painted in pastel colours, and the great Swiss architect Le Corbusier is said to have once described it as a "cream cake", which given his own style was hardly meant as a compliment.

That was my own first impression too, when I visited on a day trip in August 1992. It just seemed almost too pretty and perfect, and so different from the typical Czech towns which had made such an impression on me that summer. But on many subsequent visits I have grown to like Karlovy Vary a lot.

Mention the spa town to most Czechs and the first thing they'll say is, Russians, it's full of Russians. And they're not wrong - it has become something of a Russian colony over the last 15 years, with much local property in Russian hands, and a number of local newspapers in the language.

Karlovy Vary, photo: CTKKarlovy Vary, photo: CTK But every year at the beginning of July the town is in a sense reclaimed by young Czechs, when they descend in droves on the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of backpackers sleep in makeshift accommodation, tents or even sleep rough just to be at one of the most enjoyable events in the Czech Republic. I myself would rather not go than sleep in a tent, but the students' enthusiasm is a big part of what makes the festival special.

Another wonderful aspect, often commented on by actors and directors, is the relaxed and informal nature of the festival. Filmgoers get to see many of the film makers they admire up close, and the latter enjoy the kind of audience feedback lacking at other "A list" festivals.

Guests also rave about the beautiful setting of the festival, and there is an argument to be made for Karlovy Vary itself being the biggest star of the festival.