(Ottawa Citizen, December 2005)
It starts with the water. Health-enhancing, mineral-rich spring water anchors each day at Czech spa towns. Spa goers bath in it, drink it constantly and even watch it dance from the earth accompanied by music. Spas in the Czech Republic are serious about their water and its power to cure ailments. Yes, you can have a manicure and pedicure, but immerse yourself in the life-giving water first.
My grandmother, who lived to a very healthy 90, used to go annually to a European spa town for several weeks of rejuvenation. I've always wondered what transpired there to keep her in such good shape for so long. The experimental French film of the '60s, Last Year at Marienbad, did nothing to enlighten me. The large echoing empty rooms that figured prominently in it gave off a foreboding sense of gloom. (I found out much later this tormentingly slow picture was actually shot at Nymphenburg palace in Munich.) Nonetheless when I walked into the large roman spa site within Nové Lázne hotel in Marienbad this year my echoing steps on the tiles recalled the film, but without the darkness.
The Czech Republic's most famous spa towns are in western Bohemia bordering
central Germany. The German influence is strong so that even today, well over
a half a century since the German population was expelled, the towns are better
known internationally by their old German names. Karlsbad (Karlovy Vary), Marienbad
(Mariánské Lázne) and Franzenbad (Frantiskovy Lázne)
make up what's called the West Bohemian spa triangle: these three are all within
a few dozen kilometres of each other. Since the Middle Ages,
Also an integral part of spas here are medically based treatments. Stanislava Maulenová, a beautiful blond with chiselled cheek bones, heads up the medical team for the Premium hotel chain. One glance at her and you're ready to sign up for anything in the hope you can look half as good. Indeed many of the locals have a special glow that seems to spring from living in fresh clean air, drinking life-giving waters. The gorgeous and good doctor explained that a spa visit in the Czech Republic always starts with a medical examination. Then treatments, about three to five a day, are prescribed. But first and foremost is the drinking cure. The waters in the towns have different mineral contents and different temperatures. Each fountain has a list of specific ailments it's best for and doctors will prescribe a series of drinks taken at specific fountains throughout the day. Dr. Maulenová smiled when she told me that for overweight people, the fountains she prescribes tend to be many kilometres apart. The daily walk from fountain to fountain prior to dinner is one of the rituals of spa towns.
North Americans don't tend to have the four weeks or more that a traditional cure can take. So the Czech spas have adapted their programs to offer "wellness" treatments. A one week stay is considered energizing and preventative, but not curative. In two weeks you can do slimming or detoxifying programs. Three weeks is better for treatments that are meant to help cure an underlying health problem, for example high blood sugar. The average person who takes these programs is a surprisingly young - 35 to 40 years old - though any age, from child to octogenarian, can be a Czech spa customer.
Generally, the prescribed treatments are a pleasure rather than a pain. As an example, Dr. Maulenová showed me the daily treatment schedule for a patient with digestive issues. He was to have various types of massages, carbon dioxide baths, saunas, magnet-therapy and paraffin packs.
Shy Canadian that I am, the only thing I found unsettling was the nonchalant view of nakedness. "Cloths off!" I was ordered prior to one massage as I stood in a room with several strangers - fortunately all female.
In the famous spa triangle, Franzenbad is the most modest of the three with marshes surrounding it rather than the hills of its better known rivals. Laid out in a strict grid plan, it has less pizzazz and fewer foreign tourists. Karlsbad and Marienbad offer the best and most versatile introduction to the spa experience.
Architecturally beautiful and busy with tourists, the town is dramatically
located within a narrow valley. While Karlsbad was founded in 1350, most of
the spa buildings, hotels and mansions date from its boom years in the late
19th and 20th century. Pretty houses, many in the Czech version of art nouveau,
line the steep lanes. The spa area is centered on two car-free streets on either
side of a river with many bridges linking the two sides.
The main streets are lined with shops selling porcelain, tableware, clothing, amber, jewelry and crafts as well as the ubiquitous oplatky wafers (see Spa Town Etiquette). Locally made Moser glassware is famous for its lead-free crystal, gold-rimmed glasses and colourful handcut vases. The factory is elsewhere in Karlsbad, but there's a retail outlet on the main drag that sells its exquisite, handcrafted tableware.The moneyed Russians love this town for good reason.
Even if you don't stay there, it's well worth going for a drink at the 18th-century Grandhotel Pupp so you can gaze at its lavish interiors. It's not a spa hotel since it doesn't have treatment rooms on the premises, but guests can sign up at a nearby private clinic for treatments.
I stayed at the Ambiente, which is part of the Premium Hotels group. Like many of the four-star spa hotels I saw in Bohemia, it's clean, with attractive common rooms and neatly constructed treatment rooms, but the bedrooms are small and somewhat spartan by North American standards. Space and luxury are not part of the cure, unless you book a suite.
Built in an isolated spot in the Bohemian forest by the abbot of a monastery, Marienbad boasts a wealth of historic monuments. Along with majestic buildings, it has a delightful ensemble of parks and pavilions grouped around 40 therapeutic springs.
It became fashionable early in its existence, attracting prominent visitors such as Nikolai Gogol, who wrote part of his novel Dead Souls while staying there. Wagner composed his opera Lohengrin at Marienbad in 1848. Strauss and Chopin were equally inspired by the place. King Edward VII of England and Emperor Franz Josef were frequent visitors.
Ornate and showy hotels and apartment buildings line the main street. The dominant feature of the town's mainly neoclassical buildings is a magnificent colonnade dating from 1889. At the southern end of the colonnade is the "Singing Fountain", with jets and spray co-ordinated with classical music.
In addition to gathering around the fountain and indulging in spa treatments and water cures, visitors hike the many marked walking trails throughout the surrounding woods. There's also a casino and a 100-year-old golf course that's open to the public.
The medicinal springs in Marienbad are all cold, acidic springs, each with its own purported therapeutic effect. For example, the Cross Spring is supposed to be good for digestive and metabolic disorders. Its high sulphates content produces a laxative effect. The Ambrose Spring, on the other hand, is high in iron and used to treat anemia; it also has a diuretic effect that's used to treat certain urinary tract troubles. You don't have to read between the lines to know that you should treat the water with respect - and always know where the nearest toilet is (public ones are clean and readily available).
The luxurious Nové Lázne Hotel, part of the Marienbad Kur and Spa Hotels group, has a grand spa area with Roman baths, steam rooms, foot baths, jacuzzis and private rooms for various treatments. It's solemnly, peacefully, quiet with an older clientele. You can even book time in the baths in the Royal Cabin and the Imperial Cabin, once used by King Edward VII.
Other properties in the Marienbad Spa Hotels group look almost as spectacular from the outside, but inside their guest rooms lean toward the monk-like: clean and functional, but spare.
As a first-timer and not sure what to expect, I signed up for massages and water treatments on a day-patient basis, rather than a multiple-week cure. The massages were some of the best I've had and the water treatments truly revitalizing. The taste of the water in the mineral springs took a little getting used to, but I soon got into the spirit and even took some in my water bottle when I left.
I figure that my grandmother was on to something: if we all went to these spas for several weeks a year, I think we might all live to 90.
Margaret Swaine is a Toronto-based writer who specializes in food, wine and
Spa town etiquette
IF YOU GO
Where to stay:
* The three star Bohemia Lázne in Karlsbad and its sister hotels offer treatment programs starting at $120 a day for accommodation, all meals and treatments. See www.hotel.cz/bohemia-lazne
* Marienbad Kur & Spa Hotels offer the full gamut of spa treatment procedures at their various hotels in Marienbad, each specializing in different ailments. The fanciest and best is the five star Nove Lázne in the centre of the towns spa quarter. A classical spa stay starts at $1,200 a week and includes accommodation, all meals, three to four spa procedures a day and medical examinations. See www.danubiushotels.com (an English site)
* Other general hotel sites: www.travelguide.cz or www.czechhotels.cz