Friday, 11 January 2008

Karlovy Vary's new clothes

Karlovy Vary is an enigma wrapped inside a spa resort wrapped inside a bend of the Teplá river where it flows through the green hills of Western Bohemia.

It’s an enigma to me at least. I’ve been there a few times now, most recently for three nights and four days in September. The thing that continually mystifies and intrigues me is why it’s so popular with foreign tourists. For German and Russian speakers, it’s easily the most popular Czech destination after Prague, and for everyone else it’s among the favourite places outside the big city to visit.

I just don’t understand what people see in it. Granted, the central part of town is in a lovely setting, and the steep-walled valley of the River Teplá is a grand, even dramatic backdrop to the streetscapes of Karlovy Vary. There are also famous footsteps to follow. As one of the most notable luxury resorts of the nineteenth century, royalty, revolutionaries and poets all frequented Karlovy Vary from time to time and there must be a certain romance about walking the trails the Goethe walked, arguing in the cafes that Marx frequented or scrambling down the hill that Peter the Great galloped up for a dare. And there are the spas themselves, dozens of naturally occurring thermal springs that have been piped and tapped and tamed in a way that holiday-makers can fill their dainty porcelain spa cups without any danger of mud on their shoes.

All good reasons to visit a place, perhaps. The thing that bewilders me is that dozens of places across the Czech Republic have these same characteristics, but are not one-tenth as popular as Karlovy Vary. Mikulov, Český Krumlov and Boskovice are set just as dramatically, Olomouc, Brno and Kutná Hora have just as many royal, poetic, military and political footsteps to follow and there are a dozen more attractive spa towns across the country. Luhačovice spa‘s fabulously colourful wooden buildings designed by architect Dušan Jurkovič make Karlovy Vary’s rows of four storey row houses look positively dowdy and romantic Velké Losiny not only has a spa with a reputation for healing respiratory problems in children, but a lovely renaissance chateau and a fascinating traditional handmade paper mill that’s on the short list for UNESCO world heritage listing.

Even humble Loket nad Ohří, less than 20km from Karlovy vary has a river valley setting far more beautiful than it’s famous neighbour, it was also beloved by poets and royalty and, while not steaming, the hairpin bend of the Ohře river that encircles the town like a moat is so beautiful and elegant that it makes Karlovy Vary’s stretch of river look about as enticing as the drainage channel of an overworked dairy farm.

So what am I missing? If you’ve travelled the Czech Republic and have been there, what in tarnation did you like about it, or were you as bewildered about all the fuss as I was? If you’ve stumbled across this blog because you’re planning a trip, are you considering a stay in Karlovy Vary, and for heaven’s sakes why?

If you’ve not been there and have no intention of going, perhaps you’ll still be interested in this short clip from the film Vrchni Prchni (about a fellow who impersonates a head waiter to collect payment from diners – of course he doesn’t get away with it forever ;-)). Please notice the ugly modern building that surrounds the steaming waterspout towards the end. This is the Vřidelní collonade, Right at the centre of Karlovy Vary and one of its main attractions.

Karlovy Vary. I just don’t get it. Please leave a comment and tell me what I’m missing…


Michael said...

It's a nice place for a couple of days, as long as you stay out of the centre if you fancy a pint. You're right though, Loket's got nicer scenery, and there's nothing in Karlovy Vary that you can't get somewhere else in Czecho (even down to that huge concrete monstrosity in the centre of town). Go for a day, then head somewhere where the locals don't all disappear as soon as it gets dark.

Michael said...

Plzen. Now there's a place.

Eso said...

What about spa treatment programs?

Captain Oddsocks said...

Hi Eso, thanks for your comment. I did forget to mention treatment programs didn't I? I'm a little bit guilty there of forgetting that some people might travel for different reasons than I do.
Still, I have the impression that the 12 or 14 spa towns across the country all offer treatment programs and while there might not be the depth or range of treatments as in the biggest and most popular resort, I would guess that the smaller places offer the advantages of shorter waiting lists and lower prices?
The other glaring omission that I see now in hindsight, is luxury travel. Prague is the only other place (in CZ) that I know of to offer such high-standard hotel rooms, expensive gift stores and restaurants with an emphasis on elegance rather than value for money.
I plan to write a little more about Karlovy Vary soon, so I might try to cover those points then...

Kelly said...

I'd like to ad THE TOP 10 OF Karlovy Vary:
* Karlovy Vary is the largest spa city in the Czech Republic.
* Before World War I, Karlovy Vary was also one of the leading spa resorts in Europe that was frequently visited by the then famous artists, scientists, and aristocrats.
* Elizabeth’s Spa (Alžbětiny lázně) is the biggest spa facility in the Czech Republic. It takes off the largest amounts of thermal spring water.
* The hottest and the most substantial mineral spring is Thermal Spring.
* The largest, best known and most popular esplanade is Mill Colonnade.
* Undoubtly the most significant social and cultural event is the International Film Festival (IFF) on which many tourists from Prague hotels come to Karlovy Vary.
* The best view of the city is from the Diana outlook tower.
* The best known products of Karlovy Vary are: Moser glassware, Becherovka herbal liqueur, Mattoni mineral water, spa wafers, Thun porcelain.
* The most prominent church monument in the city is St. Mary Magdalene church designed by the distinguished architect Kilián Ignác Dientzenhofer.
* The most devastating natural disaster affecting Karlovy Vary was a fire (1604) that consumed everything except 3 houses. The rest of the city was reduced to ashes.

Captain Oddsocks said...

Thanks for that Kelly.

So apart from the statistics about the spas, you'd say the top attractions of KV are the view, the church and the souvenir shopping?

A better Top 10 than the official one that I wrote about here anyway.

Maybe you could also offer your list to the Karlovy Vary tourist board...;-)

The Arab Advocate said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
mom said...

I would like to see Karlovy Vary because of a movie I saw - The Last Holiday.