Has the pandemic got you strung up? The quaint spa towns of Western Bohemia in the Czech Republic promise cheer and rejuvenation. By Snigdha Bhowmick
Belle époque architecture, astronomical clocks, castles and châteaux, and frosty pines—a series of things come to mind when I think about the Czech Republic. But just west of its most rewarding hotspot and capital, Prague, is a sedate Imperial-era triad that shows the popular European destination in a different light. The Western Bohemian Spa Triangle, comprising the spa towns of Karlovy Vary, Mariánské Lázne, and Františkovy Lázne, is home to a great concentration of hot mineral springs and was once frequented by sovereigns and elites for its healing waters. Today, Western Bohemia is slowly reclaiming its place on the modern spa circuit with its plentiful offerings.
BACK IN TIME
Although the ritual of drinking and bathing in spring waters has been shared by many cultures—from Egyptians to the Chinese and the Red Indians—it was the Romans who popularised it with their bathhouses. For centuries, these Western Bohemian towns enjoyed popularity among the royals. But the downfall of the Roman Empire during the Dark Ages also dragged down the glorious culture of bathing in spring waters. Wars became frequent, and travelling for leisure became almost impossible—and the towns fell from grace.
In the later part of the 16th century Europe began to regain stability, and considerable investments led to the building of Czech spas in the UNESCO-listed Bohemian triangle in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Folks, first from nearby places and then from afar, once again began to seek out places with medicinal spring waters. The invention of railways in Europe, coupled with the Velvet Revolution in what was then Czechoslovakia, led to the surge of these spa towns.
Karlovy Vary, or Carlsbad, is the second most popular tourist destination in the country. This is impressive considering that its primary attraction is its wellness resorts, spas, and spring water fountains. The town was founded in 1370 by the Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV. It is said that the king’s injured hunting dog was cured of his wounds after he leapt into one of the hot springs in the town, springing forth, quite literally, its legendary healing powers. The king then began taking waters from here as a curative potion long before the practice became widespread; Karlovy Vary, meaning ‘Charles’s Boiling Water’, was named after him. Having hosted the likes of Beethoven, Casanova, and Mozart, besides dozens of heads of states and a multitude of movie stars over the years, this place became a favourite among spa lovers.
Unlike many of the traditional European spa towns in Hungary and England where you can find outdoor pools filled with steaming water, rejuvenating in a mineral-rich spa bath in Karlovy Vary is a private affair. One of the best spas in the region, Castle Spa, however, features both. There is a range of therapies to choose from: mineral bath, aerosol inhalation, and oxygen therapy, which helps improve blood circulation and cleanses gums. In case you’re feeling adventurous, head over to the Beerland Spa and soak in a thousand-litre oak whirlpool tub brimming with beer. Rich in Vitamin B and active enzymes, the unique beer spa is said to soften skin and give it a glow. After the soak, you can relax on a wheat straw bed and sip on some delicious beer as well.
This medieval-era town is filled with pastel-coloured buildings framed against the River Teplá and centred around imposing colonnades. The largest of these is the Mill Colonnade. Made out of yellow sandstone with more than 100 Corinthian columns, it houses five of the city’s 12 major springs (Mill, Rusalka, Prince Wenceslas, Libuše, and Rock). Built in the late 19th century by Czech architect Josef Zítek, it hosts bands during the summer and is the beating heart of the city. The water itself is salty, warm, and brimming with healing properties that aid the detoxification and cleansing of intestines and gums.
It’s been quite an interesting journey for the city of Mariánské Lázně (or Marienbad)—from being a swamp to transforming into one of the country’s largest spa towns. The water is much less pungent here (the springs are not naturally hot) yet full of minerals. It is said to be quite efficient in treating ailments related to kidneys, skin, and the digestive system, and a host of chronic diseases, including breathing disorders. Head to the Nové Láznê, where a Roman bath flaunts its 19th-century red columns. Follow it up with a visit to one of the medical centres where you can explore the entire gamut of balneotherapy and hydrotherapy treatments, along with drinking and inhalational cures. Conclude your day in a cryosauna, a popular alternative to ice baths.
Named after the Austrian Emperor Franz I, this quaint little town is filled with elegant neoclassical buildings and manicured parks. Younger, smaller, and more relaxed than its neighbouring allies, this town is also known as Franzensbad. When you’re here, you should pick up one of the famous peat packs, the pride of Bohemia. Containing healing properties of sulphur, iron, and pyrite, they are harvested from a peat bog and processed in the thermal waters until they pick up a rich brown hue and a lingering earthy aroma. Using one of these organic packs lends the skin an ethereal glow.
It is believed that the carbon dioxide-rich waters of this little town help in curing a glut of chronic disorders, including infertility. Although there are numerous fountains all over the town, the Glauber IV’s water is the most popular. The high level of salt in it may invoke a gag reflex, so it is definitely not for the faint-hearted. But then, the water is globally renowned for its use in purgation and its positive effects on chronic digestive issues.
Lufthansa has direct flights from Delhi and Mumbai to Frankfurt. From here, you can take the Eurail to the Western Bohemian region while checking out the European countryside along the way. Emirates flies to Prague’s Václav Havel Airport from Mumbai via Dubai. All three spa towns can be accessed from Prague by train or bus.