Czech Republic

Karlovy Vary Means Charles Spa. Fascinatingly, there's more to this place than just natural springs. The ultra-thin wafers, for one…

It all began in 1358, when Emperor Charles IV — the Roman Emperor and Czech king — was hunting a stag over a cliff. He missed his quarry, but found a hound paddling in a steaming pool of mineral water. The warm water helped heal the king's hurt leg, and recognising the healing properties of the water, he founded the town at the confluence of the rivers Teple and Eger, and named it Karlovy Vary or Charles Spa. Karlovy Vary's therapeutic mineral springs soon attracted the rich and the famous. Its visitor's book reads like a roll call of honour for the great people of their times — everyone from Goethe, Mozart and Chopin, the kings of Greece and Prussia to present day film stars (because of the International Film Festival held here every year). There are 12 natural springs in the town ranging from a temperature of 40 to 73 degree centigrade.

We walk through a handsome boulevard in the centre of the town, where pastel art deco and nouveau buildings festooned with shapely balconies, (many of them converted in to designer shops and hotels) compete for attention on both sides of the river. Our wedding cake-like Grand Hotel Pupp feels like the sets of a period drama — a Baroque excess with glittering chandeliers and red velvet panelling that has starred in several movies, including “Casino Royale” and “The Last Holiday”. The town has a strong Russian presence — Czar Peter the Great was supposed to have stayed here, and today the town has the Cyrillic script appearing everywhere from hoardings to restaurant menus.

To have a taste of the spring water, we walk along the pavilions and colonnades of this spa town. Verdant parks and horse-drawn carriages dot the lanes. The Mill Colonnade is a long outdoor walkway built like a classical Greek temple with graceful columns and adorned with statues and fountains in white marble. The white Market Colonnade inspired by Swiss architecture has a gabled roof and lace-like motifs carved in wood. Small kiosks sell the special Karlovy Vary cups that look like miniature watering cans to drink the special water from the springs; the porcelain cups have a straw built in to the handle. The water is said to contain minerals such as iron, calcium and sulphur, and is supposed to be a panacea for medical problems ranging from diabetes and arthritis to gall-bladder and stomach disorders. There are many spa hospitals dotting the town where in-house doctors prescribe a regimen to lose weight and cure ailments. The elderly walk around clutching a stylish cup, filling it at the fountains and sipping on it in between their spa treatment appointments. The giant geyser Sprudel, the hottest spring here, belches scalding hot water and steam 49 feet into the air at 72 degree Centigrade, enclosed in a giant glass building. Inside the steel and glass complex, the spring water flows into faucets next to the souvenir and clothing shops. The water has a rusty, sulphurous taste like a warm soda, and I almost spit out my first mouth of it !

There are three things that are sold almost everywhere — Oplatky, Becherovka and Bohemian crystal. Oplatky is ultra-thin, dinner-plate-sized wafers in different flavours, meant to be nibbled on between sipping on the spring water. The famous Czech drink Becherovka aka ‘thirteenth spring' was invented by a pharmacist in 1807 and whose recipe is still shrouded in secrecy. Its unique cinnamony taste is attributed to the unique Karlovy Vary water and the 30-odd herbs and spices added to it. Becherovka is an antidote to drinking the foul-tasting water here.

Sold all over the town is also the famous lead-free Bohemian crystal, first made here by Ludvic Moser in 1857. Visiting the Moser factory on the outskirts of the town, we are treated to a display of glass blowing. There are three-men teams where a bubbler blows the first blob of molten glass; the helper and the master perfect that into a work of art such as a stunning vase or goblet. Moser has only one factory from where they export their famed glass all over the world. The surreal scene of sizzling glass and the glow of fire in the furnaces contrasts with the swish ambience of the showroom and the glass museum. Almost everyone who is someone has succumbed to the lure of a Moser glass — from the royal families all over the world to heads of States, and actors.

But Karlovy Vary is much more than its water — it has stunning architecture with a 19th Century Russian Church with gleaming gold domes; the Baroque church of Mary Magdalene; the Bello Époque mansions all over town, many home to spas. The town has a spectacular setting of spruce and birch forests with walking trails punctuated by look-outs and gazebos. You can play on its top-rated golf course, visit the horse races or enjoy long walks. By the end of your sojourn, you are bound to feel rejuvenated. As Goethe, who spent 16 summers in Karlovy Vary, wrote: “I feel as I am in some paradise of spontaneity and innocence.”