In this edition of Spotlight we visit the Czech Republic's biggest spa town, Karlovy Vary. Besides the town's spa tradition, which goes back some 600 years at least, Karlovy Vary can also boast a good mix of architectural styles ranging from the Baroque to Art Nouveau. It is also home to the famous manufacturer of Bohemian glass Moser, the delicious Carlsbad wafers, and of course the popular Becherovka liquor. The 54,000 residents certainly have much to be proud of.
But before you take a closer look at the town, I suggest you visit one (or all) of the four lookout towers that surround Karlovy Vary in a semi-circle, making it possible to view it from all sides. My personal favourite view is from the hill called Jeleni Skok, which translates into ' stag's jump' and is apparently the place where Emperor Charles IV went hunting and discovered the curative mineral springs. Stanislav Borachovic is the deputy director of the Karlovy Vary Regional Museum:
"The springs most probably began to be used for treatment after the town was founded in 1350. According to legend, Emperor Charles IV discovered the thermal springs by chance while he was deer hunting. They say his doctor suggested he try to heal a leg injury with baths in the thermal spring water. It was successful and Charles IV (or Karel IV in Czech) ordered a town to be founded by this spring and gave it his name - Karlovy Vary."
Coming from Prague, the outskirts of the town have little appeal. In fact, Karlovy Vary looks like anything but a place for a relaxing stay. But as soon as you reach the city centre, especially the colonnade, you won't want to go back. The narrow valley of the Tepla River is overlooked by thick, green, high hills. The colonnade and pedestrian zone are lined with breathtaking architecture from world famous architects such as Kilian Ignaz Dientzenhofer, who built the Baroque Church of St. Mary Magdalene in the 1730s or some twenty late nineteenth century Art Nouveau buildings by the architectural duo Fellner and Helmer, and the list goes on. Stanislav Borachovic:
"The architecture here is a true gem of the town and takes us back to the days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. You find buildings in the Romantic style, ideal for dreamers and lovers of the old days. Today's Karlovy Vary is mainly in the 19th century "historicist" style with a little Art Nouveau as well. Most of the town is only some 120 years old because, the first, gothic and renaissance, town burned down in 1604. Then there was another fire in 1759. The third building phase, which the famous poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe fell in love with, was in the Neoclassical style. These buildings were also gradually torn down in the late nineteenth century because the old houses were too small and failed to offer the comfortable living conditions that the spa guests demanded - electricity, hot water, flushing toilets, elevators... The town had to be modernised, leading to a boom in construction, eventually transforming the town into what we see today."
If you visited the spa town ten years ago and visit it again today, you might be taken aback by the strong presence of Russian. Signs, advertisements, and other notices used to be predominantly in Czech and German. Today they are mainly in Russian.
While the Russian nobility has been visiting the spa town since the eighteenth century, it is only since 1995 that many, mainly business people, come to stay long-term. Today, a majority of the town spas are owned by Russian capital.
Now, I don't know whether it's the unusual atmosphere given by the architecture but whenever I visit Karlovy Vary, I feel I have to be on my best behaviour. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the spa town was a popular place of stay for the nobility as well as poets, writers, and musicians. Goethe sought the healing powers of the mineral springs thirteen times in the years between 1785-1823. Russian Tsar Peter the Great visited the town twice - in 1711 and in 1712.
Time must have stood still since then - well dressed spa guests take relaxing walks along the colonnade, sipping mineral water in their special cups, which they fill at one of the springs in the late Renaissance Mlynska Kolonada or Mill Colonnade - a traditional symbol of Karlovy Vary, built between 1871 and 1881 and designed by the architect of Prague's National Theatre, Josef Zitek.
I must confess, I've tasted the thermal spring water once and hope that I will never have to do so again. Healthy or not, I much prefer to stop at one of the numerous classy cafes for some tea and cake than look after my health with salty warm water and strange-tasting minerals.
It is unclear how many thermal springs can be found in Karlovy Vary. Some books write there are up to 150, while most expert literature says there are between sixty and seventy, with their temperatures varying from 30 to 73 degrees Celsius. Twelve of them are currently being used to cure disorders of the digestive system, metabolic disorders and disorders of the locomotive organs. Today, Karlovy Vary attracts some 70,000 spa guests a year.
Radek Volf is from the Information Centre and gives visitors guided tours of the town's underground passages, which date all the way back to 1650. Although the trip is short - the passages are a mere 50 metres long - the tour is worth taking as visitors are told all they ever wanted to know about the springs...and can take home one of the town's three main souvenirs - the 'petrified' rose:
"The petrified rose comes to being when paper roses are showered by thermal water in a special underground chamber where wastewater from the source of the thermal fountain is collected. The 73 degree aerated water releases calcium carbonate and a thin layer of sinter, coloured by the oxidized iron, settles on the objects. In the case of a rose it takes about six days for the sedimentation effect to turn it into stone."
After a trip to the very hot and humid underground passages, a brief tour of the Becherovka Museum and a tasting of the famous Czech liquor is an ideal way to end your trip to the spa town. Tereza Slavikova from the Becherovka Museum tells us how Becherovka, known as the 'thirteenth spring' came to being:
"Two hundred years ago in 1805, a count came with his personal doctor Frobrig to be treated in Karlovy Vary. They were put up in a house owned by the pharmacist Josef Becher. He had a very well equipped pharmacy here in Karlovy Vary and Dr. Frobrig spent all of his free time carrying out various experiments with herbs and spices there. He finally composed a secret formula for stomach drops and gave the recipe to Josef Becher as a gift. Josef Becher adjusted the recipe for two more years and started to sell the liquor as medicine in his pharmacy in 1807."
...and as most of our trips in Spotlight end with us rounding off the day with a pint of some good Czech beer, I shall not break that tradition...I've been snacking away at the Karlovy Vary wafers, thin circular wafers filled with chocolate, vanilla, or nuts (the third most popular souvenir) and I'm now in desperate need of some stomach drops...
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