I’m visiting Karlovy Vary, a Spa Town about 130kms west of Prague in the Bohemia Region of the Czech Republic. It is known for its thermal springs and has been a popular destination since the 1900’s, its rich architecture a blend of Neo Classicism, Neo Baroque and Neo Renaissance, giving it a character of affluence and nobility.
I arrive on a rainy afternoon and am once again faced with the challenge of finding my way from the bus station to my hotel, which I know is within walking distance. After realising there is no Information centre, no-one around who speaks English and no guide maps, panic and frustration begin to rise in me once more, until desperately seeking a solution, the penny finally drops and I switch on my phone’s data in order to use Google Maps!!
Instantly I feel completely foolish realising my previous map reading struggles could have been avoided! However just as quickly I find comfort in reminding myself I need to keep my data switched off to avoid high charges and should only use it in complete emergencies anyway!!
As soon as I enter the hotel I am disappointed!. It is dark and dingy with no lounge or common areas and indifferent staff. When I enter my room my heart sinks even further. It is a converted cupboard with no windows and it smells of stale smoke! I couldn’t find a hostel and this is the cheapest hotel, but it includes breakfast and has a TV so I decide not to dwell on it until, I turn on the tv and find that it doesn’t work!
I tell the receptionist as I head out about the TV and feigning surprise he assures me it will be changed by the time I get back.
It is quite late in the afternoon and drizzling, so I only take a stroll round the local area before finding a traditional beer pub, The Pilsner Urguell Original Restaurant Narodak (part of the Grand Hotel Ambassador). It has wifi and I settle in to spend some time writing. It is a large bar with plenty of space and the waiters are friendly, happy for me to nurse a cup of coffee while I write. Much later I reward them by ordering some dinner and a glass of wine.
When I get back to my room, I’m not surprised to find the TV isn’t fixed and spend the evening in isolation, thankful for social media and the internet so I can communicate with the outside world from my cell!
Karlovy Vary gives the impression of being an extremely affluent town with high end designer stores, jewellers and Bohemian Crystal shops. Between its affluence and architecture it reminds me of a well blended mix of the towns of Bath and Harrogate in England.
There is no Tourist mania here and with one small exception, there are no scruffy backpackers! Visitors, mostly appearing to be middle class middle aged couples, perhaps from Eastern Europe or Russia amiably wander the streets.
The big attraction is the hot thermal springs and there are fifteen housed in and around the main colonnades along the River Tepla. I take my water bottle and tourist map and go hunting for them convinced that by the end of the day I will be cleansed and healed and feeling wonderful with the world!
There are stalls selling unusually shaped ceramic drinking cups of all sizes and decoration with handles that double as spouts! People buy them and walk along from spring to spring filling their cups and drinking from the spouts!
The springs have been channelled into little fountains and despite being marked on the map can be quite difficult to find, some housed in little buildings or in the centre of delicately styled rotundas. I have fun playing hunt the fountain and soon realise that if I can’t find one I just need to follow the spout cup drinkers!!!
The springs are mostly warm and range in temperature from tepid to boiling, some physically spurting like geyzers and all taste quite disgusting, the minerals making the smell and flavour of the water pungent. I drink from a few but it reminds me too much of the oral rinses my Mum would make me as a child in times of mouth pain. Forever cautious of becoming ill while travelling, I also question the potential repercussions of drinking tepid water out of old pipes!
Eventually I get bored with the spring hunt and easily convince myself that one day of drinking putrid water is not going to help me, so I give up, chuckling at the silliness of my pathetic little expedition in pursuit of health. However I do respect that long term consumption from these springs rich in minerals, must have genuine health benefits, particularly as I notice many local people filling large bottles from them to take home.
Later I take a little trip up the Diana Funicular Railway which takes me through the steep sloping woods to a high point above the town, where I then climb the Observation Tower to see magnificent views of this splendid town.
On the way up I meet a Russian mother and daughter. They are both smiley and friendly and quickly strike up a conversation with me using the daughter’s translation app on her phone! Her mother, a jolly character delightfully dressed in an old skirt and hand knitted cardigan and bonnet, straight out of what my perception of Peasant Russia would be, tells me how wonderful Vladimir Putin and how improved life has become in Russia. I think she would be a very interesting lady to spend time talking with and they tell me they travel often having been as far as Dubai! I tell them that I’ve been to St Petersburg and how much I enjoyed it and they invite me to stay with them in Moscow next time I am in Russia! Without intending to we accidently part before we exchange contacts which I regret, as I can imagine I would receive the warmest hospitality if I were to visit them in Moscow.
I extend my stay in Karlovy Vary for one more day moving hotels and choose the Heluan Hotel. It is offering an extremely good last minute deal and looks really charming, set amongst the many other impressive hotels nestled slightly on the high side of the town overlooking the river. Internet photos promise spacious bright rooms with elaborate period furniture and I’m hoping this is more in fitting with the ambience and my expectations of Karlovy Vary.
Checking in I am greeted by a warm and helpful lady who immediately offers me a Becherovka, the Czech Republic’s national herbal bitters spirit, produced in Karlovy Vary.
I ascend slowly to my room in an ancient wrought iron lift enclosure and am delighted! I enter my room through extremely grand double doors, which take me into a spacious hallway, my bedroom off to the left and the enormous bathroom with bath and bidet are in front of me. As I enter my bedroom my breath is taken away. It is by no means modern day five star decor but it is opulent in every traditional way. A huge room, high ceilings adorned with intricate cornice work, tall windows with rich drapes, chunky attractive hand carved wooden furniture, and in the corner sits the most exquisite Eastern Europe ceramic stove, the likes of which I’d only ever seen in the palaces of St Petersburg and at Denise’s parents place!
It also has all the best modern hotel amenities such as tea and coffee making facilities, TV, fluffy towels folded creatively on the bed complete with turndown chocolate and it even has a mini bar!
I truly feel like a Czech Princess and wish I’d found this hotel first. Nonetheless, I settle down to bask in true Spa Town opulence and imagine the wealthy of yesteryear living here in grandeur, as I hand wash my smelly backpack clothes draping them around the room to dry, and soak myself in the deep and luxurious bath, filled with rejuvenating Spa Town water, scrubbing off the dirt and grime from my first week of hostelling!