The Czech spa town, which is famed for its springs and hotels, has been used as a filming venue for James Bond
Karlovy Vary: the Bohemian getaway where they take their spas seriously
Why Karlovy Vary?
Karlovy Vary (formerly known as Carlsbad) has been a spa town for centuries. Huddled around a valley in the west Bohemian hills, it has made its fortune and reputation from the series of thermal springs that follow the Teplá river. Usually when such springs are in abundance, it leads to big pools with people gleefully splashing around in them. But not here.
There’s a strong emphasis on the medical benefits of the spas – of drinking the mineral water three times a day; of a bewildering arrange of treatments that lean towards the digestive system rather than beauty and pampering. Traditionally, spa doctors would recommend staying for three weeks at a time, and while the modern world has largely put paid to that sort of dedication, the attitude remains one of taking things very seriously.
As such, the atmosphere is a deeply weird one – and totally alien to anyone tempted to think this is all quackery. But that, the sheer scale of the place (there are seemingly hundreds of spa hotels) and the uniform, pompous, end-of-19th-century architectural grandeur make it one of the most arrestingly interesting places in Europe.
A comfortable bed
The Hotel Imperial best sums up the Karlovy Vary experience. Like a hilltop castle, it has a cavernous maze of treatment rooms in the basement level, alongside a sizeable but underplayed pool. There’s a deliberate time-warp factor to the rooms, with lots of deep reds and leaf patterns that evoke golden-era grandeur, rather than looking dated. Twin rooms cost from €150 (Dh647).
The Grandhotel Pupp is the long-standing glamour puss – it doubled as the Hotel Splendide in James Bond film Casino Royale. The spa area has been sensitively modernised, the on-site dining is good and there’s a choice between contemporary park-side rooms or 18th-century stucco-fest riverside rooms. Expect to pay from €179 (Dh773).
The Humboldt Park Hotel & Spa is a good cheaper option – it’s in the main spa area, has a pool and two spa baths, plus sizeable rooms and the usual bewildering raft of spa treatments. Prices start from €58 (Dh250).
Find your feet
The main area of interest lines up along the Teplá, where four “colonnades” contain the town’s beloved hot springs. What’s surprising is how different they are. One is made of iron; another of classically-assembled stone; another is dainty and wooden; and the final one is a 1970s communist-era piece of lumpenness. It may be the ugliest, but it has a regularly shooting geyser outside.
Towards the southern end of the promenade is the Karlovy Vary Museum, which has recently reopened after renovation, and covers the region’s history, from King Charles IV’s discovery of the springs while hunting deer onwards.
Many of the public spas have closed over the years as the hotels have built their own, but the Castle Spa is open to all and has a decent-sized pool for those who want a dip.
Meet the locals
For all the focus on treatments that are good for your health, locals know that the best thing you can do for yourself is strap on your hiking boots and head out along the 200 kilometres of hillside paths surrounding the city. A popular route is the 1.5km uphill schlep from behind the Grandhotel Pupp to the Diana Tower. Plenty of other routes branch from this one.
Book a table
It may be a town obsessed with health, but traditional hearty dishes rule the tables here. The barrel-vaulted, subterranean Karel IV is a classic example, with big meaty dishes such as lamb knee with rosemary, stewed spinach and roasted Slavic potato gnocchi for 388 Czech korunas (Dh64).
Offering something a little different is the riverside Le Marché, which keeps to a minimalist, daily-changing menu, with Russian and Asian influences. Three courses costs 780 korunas (Dh129) – that might mean blini to start, swordfish with wasabi-fied potato salad and seaweed to follow, plus cottage dumpling and pears with orange cream to finish.
The main riverside promenade is lined with shops, most of which are plumping firmly for cashed-up visitors. Diamonds, jewellery, watches and designer fashion are the order of the day around here.
If you can’t get out to the Moser glass factory, then the Moser Factory Shop in on the eastern bank, selling some of the most exquisite coloured glass pieces you’re ever likely to see.
What to avoid
This is not a place to just rock up and freestyle it. As a general rule, spa treatments – either in the hotels or the public spas – require advance booking.
The Bohemian crystal glasses and vases produced by Moser – often colourful, often exquisitely engraved – are found on royal dining tables across the world. The Moser factory in Karlovy Vary’s suburbs is open to visitors on 1,800-koruna (Dh298) guided tours, and watching the expert glassblowers hand-make the glasses is utterly absorbing. The museum hosts some more elaborate works, and the shop hosts some hefty price tags.
Emirates flies direct from Dubai to the Czech capital, Prague, from Dh2,860 return. Regiojet runs regular coaches from Prague airport to Karlovy Vary, which take one hour and 45 minutes, and cost €6 (Dh26).