After two hours on the bus from Prague, the road winds through an alpine landscape of rolling hills and pine forests before descending towards the valley to the outskirts of Karlovy Vary.
Once known as Carlsbad, Karlovy Vary is the largest town in the West Bohemian Spa Triangle, an area defined by three towns known for their thermal springs, with the other two being Mariánské Lázně (Marienbad) and Františkovy Lázně (Franzenbad).
The road wound down past a high street taking us past the famous Becherovka factory, a local herbal alcoholic drink made from a secret recipe and local thermal water, and down towards the city’s beautiful colonnades. At the heart of Karlovy Vary, thermal springs bubble out of metallic taps under elaborate colonnades besides exquisite art nouveau and neo-classical still buildings piling up along the valley. Surrounded by pine covered hills, accented with rocky outposts, converging in on the river and wide boulevards, Karlovy Vary enters high up on the list as Czechia’s most beautiful towns. Beyond the picturesque façades and with pastel-hued houses that look like confectionary from above, Karlovy Vary is a fascinating place.
Healing Thermal Springs
The rivers Ohře and then the Teplá led us down to the heart of the town, threading down towards the famous springs. Water is ever present in Karlovy Vary, spouting out of fountains or pouring out of taps located beneath colonnades made from intricately carved wooden or wrought metal. The town exists because of its thermal water. Local legend has it that in the 14th century, Charles IV built the town after discovering the thermal springs in the region accidentally. By the 16th century, the spa was already popular with the country’s elite. While many of the original structures didn’t survive, most of the town today dates back to the spa’s
golden days in the 18th and 19th century.
There are 12 thermal springs in the town, each coming out at different temperatures ranging from 13-73ºC. These are scattered around in various colonnades, halls, and pavilions and are still used as drinking cures for a number of conditions, such as diseases of the digestive tract, metabolic disorders, gout, liver diseases, to name a few. While many of its hotels include other spa treatments, people came here over the centuries to take the water.
But what makes Karlovy Vary and the other Bohemian spa towns so unique are their colonnades, which were constructed to make access to these springs more comfortable. Today, each spring has a number, a name and the temperature written on it.
You’ll find the hottest spring, the Vřídlo, inside the modern Hot Spring Colonnade. Nearby, the beautiful richly carved wooden Market Colonnade, Tržní kolonáda, houses the Charles IV Spring, the Lower Castle Spring, and the Market Spring. Heading away from these colonnades, the Mill Colonnade, Mlýnská kolonáda, is vast with Corinthian columns housing 6 springs, and the other beautiful one is the intricate cast-iron Park Colonnade, Sadová kolonáda. The Park Colonnade was once a concert hall and restaurant set in a pavilion and is home today to the snake spring, named for its bronze serpentine fountain. Of course, there are other springs, p, vilions and colonnades where you can get your water, too.
One thing I noticed wandering round the town is how the people queued up with little porcelain cups
with a spout to drink straight from the water. These “spa cups”, lázeňský pohárek, actually date from the 17th century, as originally glasses were used to drink from the spas. But the idea is that the hot water pours into the cup and you drink it from the spout, but be careful not to pour too quickly, as I had a few instances of drinking too quickly and ended up pouring 60ºC thermal water down my dress.
One word of caution about the water – they are very high in mineral content, which means you may get the runs. My friend didn’t like the saline taste of the water, but I went around obsessively with my little porcelain spa cup I bought from a stand next to the Park Colonnade to catch them all, like some thermal water Pokemón, only to end up getting the runs when we got back to Prague.
A Spa Town With an Impressive Guest List
The spa has been in operation since the 14th century, but its boom came much later in 18th century, lasting up to the early 20th century. Lofty villas and grand hotels opened up around the town, bringing in the elite from Europe in search of cures for various ailments, or simply to soak up the atmosphere of this cosmopolitan spa resort.
Known at the time as Karlsbad or Carlsbad, this bohemian spa town became a popular venue for gatherings, being visited by the political, artistic and scientific elite of the time. Carlsbad’s celebrity guestlist included composers like Beethoven, Mozart and Chopin, writers like Goethe, Gogol and Freud, and aristocracy or political figures such as Franz Joseph I, Peter I of Russia and even Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. Today, Karlovy Vary still gets its share of A listers thanks to the annual film festival, where its grand hotels, like the Grand Hotel Pupp, put up the stars for its events.
The Real Inspiration for Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel?
Before travelling to Prague, I did a little research into places to visit outside the Czech capital for the day and I was immediately drawn to Karlovy Vary. Being from Budapest, of course I had to watch the Grand Budapest Hotel, which as absurd as it may be, feels like a love letter to Central Europe. While there are elements that can be found tying in Wes Anderson’s film to hotels in the Hungarian capital, like the Corinthia Hotel, Karlovy Vary was another town that could very well have been lifted as clear inspiration for the film.
First, Karlovy Vary has its share of grand hotels, where a combination of these fit the famous Grand Budapest Hotel perfectly. However, there are other elements of the town that fit in with Anderson’s fictional Zubrowka. There’s the funicular, the statue of the stage, the twee streets coloured in shades of pinks and candy-like yellow. The grand hotels capture that feeling you’d find in the film. While the film was shot in Görlitz across the border in Germany, it’s hard to imagine that Karlovy Vary didn’t play a part in the film’s inspiration.
Karlovy Vary makes the perfect day trip from Prague, so if you want to take a breather from the Czech capital, then take a bus and explore for the day.