We had another tasty breakfast in the convivial cellar and afterwards we used the free wireless connection to find a hotel at our next stop, Karlovy Vary, or Karlsbad as it used to be known in German. We plumped for the reliable Best Western, and were pleasantly surprised at how easily we could book a room. We had expected it to be full as it’s a weekend, but the internet message was definite: room booked, dates correct, and even a confirmation number. I went and got Eddie from the secure parking lot a couple of blocks away and we loaded up again and left agreeable Plzeň, which had been a worthwhile stop on our travels.
We drove out of the semi-industrial town and headed northwest through countryside that became hillier and pleasantly green and forested. It was just another short drive and we reached Karlovy Vary in the afternoon, driving down into a narrow river valley which was richly forested all around. It reminded me in parts of the Jura. The road led us down into the town.
The main part looked a little lacklustre, a mixture of older buildings and ordinary shops and offices, not run-down but not “spruce” either. We followed our maps and found the Best Western hotel at the other half of Karlovy Vary, the southern part, the spa town proper, which stretched along the winding valley of the river Teplá. Our hotel was a stylish grand building, one of the many in this part of town. In fact, this area consisted of nothing but grand houses, “Victorian” hotels, mansions, and manoirs with fantasy turrets and lofty statures, pretty green gardens and all painted in elegant bright colours.
On the other side of the ride was a smart green parkland, bordered by forests up the hill. Next to our hotel was … an orthodox church, with shining golden onion domes, which looked beautifully demarked against the bright blue sky. This was the first sign of the popularity of Karlovy Vary with Russians. We found out more in the hotel lobby, with pictures of orthodox patriarchs blessing the breakfast room, Russian newspapers and signs in Russian, probably more than we had seen anywhere else on our travels. There was a bit of faff finding our hotel reservation – we did think it had maybe been a bit too easy this morning – but it was all sorted and we checked into our “last” hotel room, a sumptuous grand affair, spacious and lofty, looking across the street towards other smart mansions and hotels.
We walked downhill into the town centre, passing one hotel next to another, mostly 3 or 4 star mansions. There was a small park with the Sadová kolonáda, an intricate cream-coloured wrought-iron walkway and a drinking fountain at one end, topped by a statue of two intertwined snakes, the old Hippocratic symbol. We saw people, many silver-haired, walking around with their Karlovy Vary drinking cure cups, with the handle which doubled as drinking “straw”. Along the river Teplá, walking along the “promenade”, we quickly came to the large graceful Mlýnská kolonáda, “whose forest of columns shelters four separate springs, each one more scalding than the last” (RG).
We dropped in the small tourist info, with a Becherovka stand in the shape of a large green bottle just in front of it, and were unhelpfully given a small leaflet in response to our question about the spas. We stopped for a drink/bite at one of the cafés by the canalised river, its hot steaming and sulphury smelling water flowing below us. Then we tried tourist information again and with more persistence, asking a different person, and we got a little bit more information. Basically, we were given a list of hotels offering spa treatments and advice to book via our own hotel. Fortunately our hotel had its own smart spa right in the centre. But I wanted to check out the old Horní nádraží spa at the other end of the town centre, in the “poorer”, more folksy side.
We walked there, along the river and through the park and gardens, past the large Thermal Sanatorium, a large concrete slab of 1970’s architecture. I actually thought it didn’t look too bad, but it was totally out of keeping with the Belle Époque atmosphere of Karlsbad. The Horní nádraží had a genuine “cold war era” eastern European feeling to it. Still a grand building, but somehow it was clear that this was the cheap end. We took a look inside and wandered through the dated corridors, with seats attached to the walls outside the various offices for “arzts” and all sorts of cures and treatments. Curious to watch but not the grand spa we were looking for. It would have been a bit of fun to go in, but we decided to retrace our steps and headed back to the main spa centre, the real nineteenth century grandeur which was concentrated at this end. We made bookings for tomorrow and the day after at the Eden spa, right in the centre. Below it was the intricate wooden whitewashed Tržní kolonáda, another spot for “taking the waters”.
Along the canal/river which led towards the back of the valley where the hotel, the Grand Hotel Pupp, was situated. We stopped at another canalside café, Švejk, complete with a full-sized doll of Švejk – there was another one inside, sat at a table with a raised pint of dark beer. Wedged between the buildings was the modern (1970’s) building of the Vřídelní kolonáda, which I at first thought was an art gallery or theatre. This contained the most powerful of Karlsbad’s twelve springs, the Vřídlo. “The smooth marble floor allows patients to shuffle up and down contentedly, sipping and refilling their cure cups from the different fonts, while inside the glass rotunda the geyser pops and splutters, shooting hot water forty feet upwards.” (RG) Stalls sold the becher, cups, in a variety of gaudy styles. We bought cups and tried the water. As expected, it was salty and smelly, but not as yuck as I had expected.
We walked down to the Grand Pupp, still a five star affair but looking a little dated. No grand café was visible, only a fairly ordinary but still smart and stylish café on the corner. Not quite what we had in mind so we walked back again, past the fish restaurant with their displays of so-so fresh fish, like on the Petite rue des Bouchers in Brussels, except the fish looked a little past it. Above the Eden’s spa there was a roof terrace where we stopped for another drink and sat watching across the compact town centre.
By now it was late in the afternoon, early evening, and the streets were empty and quiet. We went for dinner at the rustic Egelhof (?) restaurant, sitting outside in the balcony. The other diners were elderly Germans and Russians, and inside a one-piece band, a guy with a keyboard, as we have seen elsewhere (Aggtelek, Balatonfured, etc.), in that fantastically kitsch manner without seeming like a joke. As we sat and enjoyed our meal, more grey-haired couples trickled into the restaurant, coming for the music. Inside they were sat along the tables along the walls, clapping and cheering to the music. Wonderful atmosphere. We left and walked uphill, past the lit up Belle Époque mansions towards our hotel and crashed out in our large luxurious room. Super!