Travel

In a picturesque spa town west of Prague, there’s not a lot money can’t buy – except time. By Liam Pieper.

Czech spa town Karlovy Vary

Karlovy Vary in western Bohemia, Czech Republic.
Credit: HERZHAFTX/FLICKR

Buried in a Bohemian mountain valley a hundred kilometres west of Prague, you’ll find the most picturesque town on Earth: Karlovy Vary.

It lies in a wooded valley, ringed on all sides by wild forests that are roamed by half-tame deer. A river rolls through the centre of town, past the hotels and crumbling Art Deco villas painted in shades of muted pastel, steaming gently as it goes, fed by the hot spring the town was built on.

Karlovy Vary was named after Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV who, according to legend, founded the town after the discovery of a hot spring with magical restorative powers. Each minute the spring shoots 2000 litres of near-boiling water 12 metres into the air, along with enough sulphur to give the town its distinct funk. The water itself is loaded with minerals and, according to legend, will make you live forever.

Ever since, it’s been a place of recuperation for affluent Europeans and celebrities. Gogol, Freud, Dvořák, Brahms, Beethoven, Chopin and Paganini were all known to visit and take the waters.

Traditionally, visitors would fill a little enamel mug with spring water, then stroll slowly up and down the promenade sipping it through a straw. It’s something you can indulge in today: if you shell out for one of the enamel mugs from the dozens of stalls, which take five currencies. You can sip sulphuric goo, and follow in the literal footsteps of Europe’s greats, up into the woods.

Walking is big business here. More than 180 kilometres of walking trails were cut through the woods at a time when perambulation was considered a panacea for all things: digestive and metabolic disorders, diabetes, gout, obesity.

Truthfully, it can’t hurt. This is a part of the world where close to 20 per cent of the population tests positive for pre-diabetes, where instructions for CPR are printed on the wall of metro carriages, where every meal is an animal cooked in the fat of fatter animals. A stroll through the woods does no harm.

The woods themselves are – it must be admitted – kind of magical, even if magic is an abstract sort of a concept, and one that has been heavily co-opted by the marketers of the fountain of youth in the valley below.

They are verdant in the summer, an iced wonderland in the off-season, and glowingly autumnal in the time between. In the paths that wend through them, boulders carved and bronzed with poems in German, Czech, Russian and French are scattered about, as well as shrines to long dead monarchs. Over the centuries, the woods have collected the kitsch of a dozen empires.

It has changed ownership a dozen times, the property of the King of Bohemia, of the Roman Empire, of the Czechoslovakian superstate. It was annexed by Nazi Germany in the Munich pact, and then again by the Soviets, who locked it behind the iron curtain. You can guess someone’s age by the languages they’ve picked up from occupying forces. When I check into my hotel, the clerk and I improvise until she can understand my ugly Russian and me her broken German.

Karlovy Vary has been a spoil of war, but remains unspoiled. It has never been shelled, bombed, sacked, razed. As each new power seized it, they left it unchanged, beyond building another hotel. Vatican money peeks out from fading beauties from the 18th century, which are crowded out by more recent Soviet brutalist monsters. Take the Hotel Thermal, a huge concrete and glass monolith that rises from the centre of the valley like a Terry Gilliam set wedged into the Wes Anderson fever dream that is the overriding aesthetic of the town.

In fact, Anderson based The Grand Budapest Hotel on The Grandhotel Pupp, glorious and derelict, built a few years before World War II burned Europe down. It was also where 2006’s Casino Royale was shot. A plaque out the front boasts of this latter fact, and shows stills of the climactic scene where James Bond wins a high-stakes Texas hold’em poker tournament against his nemesis, Le Chiffre – back in 2006, when Texas hold’em was the game to play.

You can’t actually play Texas hold’em in the hotel casino. The only games on offer are roulette and Russian poker, a variant of Caribbean stud, which is in itself a style developed for playing on cruise ships. With the exception of one very drunk American who bets lavishly and drinks with Texan largesse, the only people in the casino when I visit are Russians, both the gamblers and the staff.

There used to be a Soviet barracks down the way, but when the USSR fell, Russians deserted the town for a while. Since the advent of Vladimir Putin’s hyper-capitalist dystopia, Karlovy Vary has become popular again with Russian holidaymakers, mainly with wealthy older people looking for a way to cheat death.

In recent years, it’s become one of those towns, such as Goa in India, or certain islands in the Mediterranean or South-East Asia, that has become inexplicably colonised by Russian nouveau riche. When heavy snowfalls block the mountain passes, stranding holidaymakers, you could still get out on one of the commuter planes that fly from the tiny airport to Moscow each day. 

There is some grumbling from locals that the town has becomes more Russian than Czech. That the rouble is pricing out locals. That it is now becoming a place only for people who can buy anything in the world except more years to live, although they will try to buy that, too.

Alongside the water cure you can purchase: designer support garments to sex up chronic injuries, smart lingerie that monitors your blood pressure, medicinal cannabis extract from a very earnest chemist in a lab coat, instructions in Bikram yoga. One popular option is cryotherapy, where you bathe in air supercooled by liquid nitrogen to minus 160 degrees. It’s meant to do wonders for your skin, and has only one fatality on record. You can find anything that might slow down ageing, cure cancer, stave off the inevitable.

And, of course, everything else money can buy. There are stores where you can procure: Prada, Bulgari, a Cartier watch while wearing an Adidas tracksuit and using a walking stick made of Bohemian crystal.

But so what? If Ponce de León had ever found his fountain of youth, how long until someone built a Boost Juice next to it? Karlovy Vary has been a tourist town for half a millennia. I’m not here for any reason Beethoven wasn’t. It’s not some spartan ashram that has been spoiled by rampant post-Soviet capitalism, but a vacation spot, a plaything for people with money to burn, and time, which are the same thing in the end. One of those cultural bellwethers that shifts itself ever so slightly to appeal to those who can best afford it.

Nations rise and fall, but people never change: Roman, Bohemian, Australian, Russian, Chinese, everyone wants to buy the nicest things they can, and there’s nothing nicer than a tiny snowbound spa town that will change its mood to suit its guests, a little faster each year as the world gets smaller around it.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 12, 2016 as "Springs eternal". Subscribe here.

Liam Pieper
is a journalist and author of The Feel-Good Hit of the Year.