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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!

As I described the Karlovy Vary setting a bit yesterday, it shouldn’t take too long to write up today: we “spa’d”! The Russian atmosphere was already there at breakfast, in our hotel, with the Russian morning newspapers and not a Herald Tribune or USA Today in sight. We had made our spa appointments for morning sessions and walked down to the Eden spa (proper name was Zama… something or other), “checked in” and were issued with pre-packed bathrobes and towels and a wristwatch sensor to give access to our changing cubicles and the pools.

The Eden was a smart stylish place, recently revamped and rather how I imagine a luxury spa hotel “back home” to be, quite different from the “poor” spa at the other end. The central area had a good-sized pool, in which a few bathing-hatted heads were bobbing, looking like curious fish or birds. It gave the impression of a holding pool, from which the white-coated attendants called up the next patient, and made a very comical impression on me. Scattered around were various ancillary spa bits: a “Japanese massage” (a shower with jets along the length), two pools for stepping in and out – one very cold, the other very hot – to promote circulation in your legs. This was the Kneipp hydrotherapy, a “minor” treatment which we had chosen as part of our package (one major, one minor).

For the “major” we had chosen a massage, i.e. a normal traditional hands-on rubbing massage. Ness had had one several years ago at the Aveda place at Harrods, as part of a birthday treat from me, and she had not really enjoyed it, just coming out all greasy and oily. As for me, I had never had a massage before, wary of someone rubbing my flabby bod, but here it was different and we were less conscious of the need for “body beautiful” with so many wrinklies and beer bellies in evidence at the spas, saunas and baths we have been to in these past months. Somehow this seemed like a final inhibition to shed, anyway… we showed our appointment cards and then went to float in the pool until they called us.

Underwater jets around the edge created a slow circular stream around the pool, and by just floating, holding your breath, you floated around and around the pool. At times the jets were switched to a higher setting and you could hold on to the rails and let yourself be massaged by the jets – same as in Siguldas, Latvia. We had our two “treatments”. First the “minor”, the Kneipp hydrotherapy, stepping back and forth in the hold and cold pools.

Later we had our “major”, the massage. Surprisingly, my masseuse was a rather good-looking woman, not a thick-set not-taking-any-nonsense Slav with thick arms as I had imagined, but a tall blonde/silver-haired steely-blue-eyed and vaguely mysteriously smiling woman (think Cameron Diaz), and I felt rather self-conscious. Anyway, in for a penny and all that. The private room felt more like a doctor’s surgery, with the bench on which I had to lie down on my stomach. The massage itself was wonderful, a warm feeling of well-being spreading throughout as my back was rubbed, pummelled, knuckled, etc. Gentle music and the occasional grunt from me which were expelled involuntarily by the masseuse’s magical hands as she applied pressure. Ness enjoyed her massage too, both of us utterly relaxed and tingling. “We’re doing this again!” we both thought.

For a while we just chilled out and sat in our bathrobes on the wooden reclining chairs. Ness went off for her “minor”, I think – it’s all blurring a little now. We had cups of tea, and I wrote my diary for a while. As we were sat there in our post-massage bliss a large group of Chinese tourists came in for their sessions and it was comical to observe them. The exasperated Czech staff tried to keep control over the excited Chinese as they went wandering off here, there and everywhere, yabbering excitedly. Brilliant.

We finished at the spa, bought some souvenir cups at the stalls in the Vřídelní kolonáda, and ambled through town towards the Pupp hotel, behind which was the funicular station. We took the ride towards the top of the wooded hill and at the top there was a wooden rustic café/restaurant with a sunny open-air terrace where we stopped to have some lunch and a lovely Czech beer. I bought souvenirs for Mama and Mischa, and also for Frank and Teresa and for Luis and Pia. [...] We had a nice Czech lunch, and the atmosphere was “Polish” – we have started to use this as an adjective to describe the informal and friendly atmosphere of places, although the Czechs are a little stiffer, a bit more “German”, but I’m generalising again.

After lunch we went up the viewing tower, and feeling lazy we took the lift rather than the stairs. From the top we had splendid views across Karlovy Vary, across the winding river with the mansions and hotels spread on the hillsides and the thick green forest all around. We could clearly see the key buildings and the geyser and theatre below. From here we strolled through the woods, back downhill, and ended up behind the Pupp. A lovely little stroll through the woods. Back in town we had a drink on the café terrace set up on a little bridge across the canal, and then walked back to our hotel.

We asked to open the sauna/whirlpool and had to wait an hour to give them time to do whatever. We took a quick a peak inside the Russian orthodox church next to the hotel, where a “mass” was in progress, although the orthodox liturgy is quite a different kind of service, with the “priest” leading the proceedings with a small group of “worshippers” standing huddled together, the sound of the Russian voices, the chanting priest, etc. Outside, the golden onion domes of the church were lit up by the afternoon sunshine and set off clearly against the bright blue sky. We had to wait a little for our sauna/whirlpool and then went down to the small compact wellness centre, which we had all to ourselves, the size of a large bathroom, with a sauna cabin, a whirlpool and a shower which doubled as steam cubicle (only big enough for one person at a time). We switched between the three, getting quite good at this relaxation stuff. We cooled down a little and then got ready to go out for dinner.

We’re both so acutely aware that these are the last days and moments of our incredible world trip, and that it is now rapidly drawing to a close. Naturally we’re keen to enjoy it to the last, and these last moments have become even more special. We haven’t started to “reminisce” yet – that’ll be a pleasure to be savoured slowly over many years to come – but we do often compare things and places to others we have seen or been to, and that’s very long list by now! I digress… So, we went out for one of our final nights out, keen to pick a nice spot, not “perfect” but just convivial and with good food. We both felt totally relaxed and had that tingling “damn, I feel good” all over sensation and were in high spirits. It wasn’t that late yet but in quiet Karlovy Vary many places were already closed or clearly had just had the last few customers polishing off their meals. We managed to get a table in the Puškin restaurant/hotel, a nice table for two in the large well-lit grand room. Around us and on the outside balcony, bit by bit the few other customers settled their bills, until we were left as the last customers and slowly made our way back to our hotel, past the mansions and hotels, some dark, others lit up and with sounds of music and conversation. Fresh night air, stars above us, wonderful.

Well, today has finally arrived, our last full day of our World Trip. After today it’s homeward bound, gradually returning and reintegrating with the “normal” world. I’ll omit the philosophising. We’re glad to be wrapping it up in such a relaxing place as Karlovy Vary. There is plenty to see and do, but not so much that it overpowers you and leaves you feeling “obliged” to pack it all on, and most of it is all about relaxation one way or another. A great way to just slow down the pace for a couple of days.

Yesterday, as we passed the Eden spa on our way back from the walk, we popped in to change our spa appointments for later in the day, i.e. for this afternoon, which made for a more sensible arrangement of the day, with the walk first and then the relaxation. Of course this involved lots of head-shaking and “no, not possible” but in the end we did manage to change the timing as well as add another massage, having enjoyed our rub-downs so much yesterday. So today we started by first going for a walk through the wooded hills behind the town centre. I took pictures of the Karl Marx statue at the end of our street. Marx was one of the many famous and illustrious visitors who came to Karlovy Vary to “take the waters” in its heyday.

A path led up the hill through the forest. A lovely walk, with glimpses through the trees of the town below us, and higher up the hill the views got better and better as our view expanded. The hill was dotted with lumps of rocky outcrops, some statues, columns, etc. A nice walk to start the day. We curved round the contours of the hill and turned off right, more steeply uphill, past a little statue of a kind of bokkie, and continuing on up. Near the top there were some outlook points, a couple of atmospheric “pagodas” and we stopped at a yellow-and-green wooden one from where we had great views.

I fiddled with the camera to try and get a nice picture of us together up here. A little higher up was another outlook with a pretty cast-iron railings and a tall crucifix, and I caught a great shot of three priests/monks in white robs stood by it. We made our way up there too, and then descended a little to the rustic café on the northern side, a wooden house and a shady terrace with pleasant tables and a view looking north, over the less picturesque and more “ordinary” side of Karlovy Vary. Unfortunately the service was bad, on the point of rudeness, and we both tried our best to not let it get to us, but it was bloody annoying. It was still early in the day but already quite busy. A curious grey Afro-haired man was bringing musical equipment in his clapped out estate car. A Russian (?) family were having lunch, the father going to town with his expensive Canon kit as if he was on a “shoot”. While we sat there and had several coffees, followed by several beers and played cards. Preparations were underway for a folk/traditional band concert later on but we didn’t buy tickets and left to head back into town for our 2.30pm spa appointments.

We meandered down along the paths through the woods, which brought us out somewhere just behind the Puškin, right by the Eden spa. We had plenty of time before our slot and killed some time wandering around, bought postcards, had another coffee at the Eden café on top of the spa. Then we went in for our spa sessions. It was much quieter today. In fact, we were the only ones, initially at least, and I managed to get a picture of the mirror-like undisturbed waters of the pool.

For the rest of the afternoon we spa’d and relaxed, soaking and floating in the pool, and then going upstairs for our “pearl baths” in individual rooms. The pearl baths consisted of baths with little jets of water directed at various points around your body, nice and relaxing. Then we had our “Kneipp hydrotherapy” together, stepping back and forth between the hold and cold foot pools, which provoked a tingling feeling in our legs. We finished off with our massages. Ness had a different masseuse from yesterday and afterwards told me it had not been as good as yesterday’s session, but I had the same masseuse as yesterday, the pretty enigmatically smiling woman, and her hands worked magic again, even better than yesterday. Never imagined that I would enjoy being massaged but now I was beginning to think it would be good to learn how to do it properly ourselves. I walked out tingling, on a “high”, smiling to myself.

We spent the rest of the time back in the pool. Only a few other visitors were around and it was perfect chill-out stuff. An American man we got talking to said he was going for the “laser shower”. I had misheard of course and even after the laser show was over it didn’t dawn on me immediately. The “laser show” was a kind of sound and light play. The pool windows were darkened, the lights turned on to show a colourful display of many colours, the large statue of the head of a “god” was lit up, the music played, and the whole thing was orchestrated and controlled by computer, with various effects being switched on and off. Water gushed into the pool through overhanging tubes at the end, and “rain” started to pour from the ceiling, although we couldn’t really see from where. Maybe from the sprinklers? Ness and I were the only ones in the pool to enjoy the rain shower and we splashed about like kids.

On the way back to the hotel we tried again to book a table at the nice cosy and convivial looking restaurant partway up the hill. It had that wooden beams country kitchen feeling and a nice menu of Czech cooking, but unfortunately it was now shut, closed early on a quiet day. Earlier we had popped in and the waiter had been very apologetic that he couldn’t promise us they would be open. Never mind, plenty of other options. Back at the hotel we relaxed in our room for a little while and then collected the key from reception for the hotel’s wellness room – yes, more relaxation. We had a brief session in the whirlpool and the nice hot sauna, I steamed in the shower contraption.

We got ready to go out and walked back down and headed for Švejk, relieved to find it open and with plenty of customers. Perfect. I had a very large and tasty pork knuckle, washed down with the excellent dark Czech beer, and Ness had something similar. Even the “Czech service” couldn’t affect our high spirits. Later a group of ten women arrived and sat at a large table near us. I asked them if I could take a picture of them as they made for a great people shot, with their large pints of dark beer, but one of them said no. Ah well. Very full we walked back to our hotel via a slightly different route, through the ornate kolonada. A lovely way to have spent our last “proper” day, and now we start the long trip back. Back at the hotel we curled up in the comfortable bed in our large elegant room. What a fantastic day, and what an incredible “year-and-a-bit”.

After breakfast we packed up and got ready to start the long journey back. We checked out – there was a different woman from the slightly ineffective but politely smiling girl who had obviously been providing cover for the weekend. The proper receptionist knew her stuff better and wore a little lapel pin. An IT bloke was smoking heavily and shrugging his shoulders. So, we checked out, paid the stiff bill, and drove out of Karlovy Vary.

We passed through the more ordinary part of town and found the main road fairly easily. After only a short drive along the provincial Czech roads we reached the German border and after another short stretch on provincial German roads, but much smaller than the Czech ones, we joined the German motorway system. From here on in it was a very straightforward drive of hour after hour on the motorway, driving at 120+ km/hr and still only feeling we were just cruising. Many much faster cars, Audi’s especially, whooshed along in stately fashion but at much higher speeds.

To start with the scenery was quite scenic, woodlands, little villages visible dotted here and there in the German countryside. And while we were still in the eastern corner we came across road works and rather poorer roads in some places, but as the day wore on and we sped further west the scenery became crowded by more towns, junctions, etc. We stopped and swapped a couple of times, the last time was around Köln or Aachen, and by this stage we had well and truly re-entered familiar territory.

The trip was now all but over, only a short hop through Belgium and across the North Sea remaining, but with an intervening stop in Maastricht (it was too far to get to the coast in one day) and we looked forward to a ferry ride, snoozing across the North Sea. We crossed from Germany into the Netherlands, barely registering the fact and reached Maastricht early in the evening. With a bit of to and fro’ing we found ourselves a smart hotel in the town centre, the stylish and very modern, “urbane”, hotel Derlon at a snug little square, the Onze Lieve Vrouwenplein. Excellent. It had a great combination of stylish modernity and friendly Dutch hospitality to go with it, such as parking our car for us, and many little touches around the hotel.

We both felt pooped and were just after a convenient bite and a good night’s sleep, but as we gradually recovered from the long drive we started to think about going out for a bit of a night out, and I had an Indonesian rice table in mind, followed by a night in bed. Anyway, we managed to go out for a very nice stroll through Maastricht’s mostly pedestrianised and cyclistised atmospheric streets, paved and cobbled, with smart shops and that typically Dutch provincial atmosphere. By the cyclists you could tell that this was a university town and by the shops that it was a very prosperous town too.

We both commented to each other that we wouldn’t mind living “somewhere like this”, except that Maastricht is surrounded by industrial areas such as the Ruhr and is very hemmed in. We walked across the Maas and tried to get in the recommended Indonesian restaurant but were turned away as the were full and closing, and instead we ended up back at the square with our hotel and settled for a bit (saté and chips) at a convivial café, sat on the terrace, under the trees, and with tasty beers. Then we finally headed up to our room, crashed out, and dozed off to sleep.

We did a bit of shopping in Maastricht for “Dutchables” and then drove to Zeebrugge, via Wezembeek-Oppem to collect some things. Mama had already travelled to Reading to be there for Woody’s birthday in a few days time, so we simply popped in and out and drove on to Zeebrugge, where we boarded our ferry and watched the activity on the docks as the stevedores loaded ships in quick tempo. The attentive smiling Filipino + Eastern Europen waiters and crew made all the difference, and presented Ness with a delicate flower fashioned out of a paper napkin. The ferry ride to Hull was great, a relaxed way of travelling, with comfortable cabins, good food in the ship’s smart Four Seasons restaurant, and the gentle rolling of the boat as we crossed the North Sea during the night.

"The End" / "Fin" / "Slot" / etc.

We had a very soft landing after such a long time away from home and spent the first few months readjusting. You can read all about that elsewhere on our site. Of course we had often talked about home, about seeing family and friends again, and about things we missed (being curled up on our own settee scored highly!) We didn't really have a "home" we were returning to though, as our own house was still being rented out and we had already made the decision to move to North Berwick and make a new home there. So we were still in a limbo even when we came back. The world trip had definitely changed something in us though, giving us a wider frame of reference about the world.

Did we learn great wisdoms? Feel enriched? Gained deep insights in the cultures and peoples of the world? etc. Who knows? The travel experiences just became a part of us and got under our skins. Would we do it again? Yes! (but we would probably try to be a bit more budget-conscious next time round!)