At the train station, I’m the only one without a bulging suitcase. I carry my small, fraying messenger bag to the back of the blue-white Škoda trolley bus, beating the crowd from Prague as they all jostle for a space in which to fit both themselves and their luggage. Two women in their 60s chat away in Czech, squishing their bags between the seats as the bus rattles around the corner. We drive deeper into town, heading back another to another empire, another era when Mariánské Lázně went by the name of Marienbad and existed under Habsburg rule.
Parkland shaded by leaves hanging from the branches of pine, linden, and ash trees, runs alongside a chain of terraced houses and hotels coloured in pastel-hues of pistachio, cinnamon, and butterscotch topped with stuccos that look like they were squeezed from a pastry bag. Caryatids battle for attention on the façades, writhing up beneath wrought-iron balconies, competing to catch the eye of cherubs and tritons in the next building along.
The bus swerves into the heart of this decadent spa town, winding up roads closing in with hotels straight out of a confectionary; you feel like you can almost taste sugar in the plaster. We stop at the edge of town, one street over from the pine forests scaling the nearby hill. I stop into one of the shops embedded into the ground floor to buy one the famous spa wafers, which come filled with a paste of ground hazelnut or chocolate cream, embossed with the name of the producer. Taking a bite instead of breakfast, I curb the gurgle in my stomach before I descend the steps towards the columns of the Pavilon Křížového, which encloses the Cross Spring.
Inside humidity hangs in the air. An elderly Czech man on crutches fills a ceramic spa-cup from a steel tap besides the entrance. He sips the water through the narrow spout before he shuffles aside to allow the middle-aged woman in a floral print dress to also fill her cup. I get in line only with an empty water bottle, breaking the unspoken Czech spa etiquette by drinking the salty, tepid water from plastic. While disposable cups are available, rows of ceramic vessels in various shapes, sizes and design lie on mahogany shelving to be bought or borrowed.
People come to Mariánské Lázně to take the water. Similar to nearby Karlovy Vary, the more famous sibling in the Bohemian spa triangle, its mineral-rich thermal water is best for drinking rather than bathing.
Inhabitants knew of the healing, tepid streams running through the nearby forests and the springs bubbling up under the town today since the 13th century, but Mariánské Lázně was truly born as the spa town we know today in the 19th century. From its first blueprint, it was always meant to be a place of healing and rest. The streets lead to elegant colonnades, palatial hotels, dancing fountains, and lush parkland. In its heydey, like Karlovy Vary, the elite from the Austro-Hungarian Empire sauntered Marienbad’s boulevards and drunk from its springs; the town’s guest list ticks off names from monarchs,
poets, musicians, and famous persons from all corners of the empire and beyond. Chopin sought solace and peace among the pines and the columns of its colonnades and pergolas, whereas heartbroken-hearted Goethe penned his Marienbad Elegies here. Britain’s King Edward VII rendezvoused incognito with emperors and kings before bathing in his own private cabin at today’s Hotel Nové Lázně.
The steps down from the pavilion lead to the grand Kolonáda, the Colonnade. A forest of cast iron arches curves like a squeezebox inside the longest colonnade in Czechia measuring 112 metres in length. Golden specs of light colour in the shadows on the floor made by high windows and doors that stretch toward the top of the covered walkway. Nudes frolic in the new-age frescoes on the ceiling by 1970s artist Josef Vyleťal, hinting at the recent reconstruction of this iconic Habsburg relic.
The Singing Fountain pulses in a sequence of watery crescendos and diminuendos of spouting water in front of the custard walls of the Colonnade, but I’m not on time for the concert that plays on the hour. Instead, I throw my bottle in the bin and buy a ceramic spa-cup from a stall for a couple of euros and wander over to the domed-covered colonnade housing the Karolina spring.
The water bubbles up from under a church, rich in magnesium that gives the water a salty taste. It’s said to treat kidney stones and urological diseases. There are 13 springs in the town in use, each with its own healing property, from treating respiratory disorders to fertility issues. There are 100 natural springs in the area, and 40 within the town. Unlike Karlovy Vary, where some of the water bubbles out at over 60ºC, the water flows cold out of the tap here.
Drinking cures may be the reason the town exists, but you’ll find all manner of treatments available in its luxury hotel. Those on the train from Prague armed with over-packed suitcases don’t just come for a single night. They stay for a week, maybe more, taking the water as needed and follow a regime of medical treatments prescribed by the in-house doctors that come with each hotel. Alongside the cure of water, rest and woodland strolls, you find hydrotherapy, electrotherapy, and CO2 gas injections listed on the treatment cards in each hotel reception. The top hotels in town, like the Grand Hotel Nové Lázně, come with their own spectacular pools where you can wash your worries away.
Surrounding two plunge pools, a grove of walnut-coloured marble columns grow into frescos decorating the arches above. Below, intricate tiles patterned in burgundy, emerald, and blue undulate under the clear water. The bath is uncrowded, perhaps because its high prices put off casual visitors, or maybe because each hotel has its own set of pools, and unlike Budapest, Mariánské Lázně does not draw so many visitors for its baths. However, lying in the tepid water, floating weightless looking up at the Roman-style frescoes converging above in painted branches and flowers, the money spent feels worth it just for the art. However, if I wanted exclusivity, I could have booked King Edward VII cabin to immerse myself in a marble bathtub filled with mineral water, but the Roman Baths offer plenty of luxury for even Emperor Nero’s taste. Watching the reflection of the water dapple across the classical faces of plaster-cast statues, I recall the empty decadence of Last Year at Marienbad.
Even though the film had little to do with this Czech spa town, it pinned the name on Marienbad on the popular culture map. In hotel café following the bath, tucking into a warm apple strudel that crumbled under my fork, a friend texts me asking me to go out for a drink. I reply: I’m sorry, I’m in Marienbad.
“Last Year at Marienbad? You must see that film. But you already saw it. With me. In Marienbad. Or elsewhere. Don’t you remember?” He replies.
Perhaps I should find someone to promise I’d return in a year, and then pretend to be someone else. But instead I am alone and the only one that heard my promise to return to is my ceramic spa-cup and my soon deceased strudel.