Karlovy Vary, Czech Republic

Napoleon Bonaparte, Peter the Great, Emperor Franz Josef I, Goethe, Gogol, Beethoven, Freud (Sigmund, that is – not his grandson Clement, who used to advertise dog food on the telly) and me.  

Karlovy VaryWe’ve all taken the famous waters in Karlovy Vary, the celebrated spa town which nestles between the Czech Republic’s forest-covered mountains.

Even Karl Marx mooched along, although he checked in under a false name and wore dark glasses, desperately hoping nobody would recognize him.

However, to be honest, I did sup rather more of the excellent local beers than the celebrated health-giving elixir that flows from scores of springs – including a geyser on the main street which spurts steaming hot water high into the air.

But why not? After all, the country’s beers – Pilzen Urquell, Budweiser Budvar, Gambrinus, Regency and hundreds more – are without doubt among the best in the world. And they do taste rather better than the slightly salty spa water.

Letting off steam - hot sping in Karlovy VaryStill, the locals are justly proud that Karlovy Vary, known as Carlsbad during German-speaking times, was this year listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The oldest and largest of the Czech spa towns, roughly 2,000 litres of water, or nearly 450 gallons, pours out of the springs every minute – enough to fill an Olympic swimming pool in 24 hours.

Containing some 6.5gms of mineral salts per litre after bubbling up from almost two miles underground, it’s reputed to be just the job to cure all sorts of ailments from stomach trouble to diabetes and even degenerative disorders of the spine.

My sprightly 72-year-old guide Jitka, who once showed Princess Michael of Kent round the town, swears by the stuff and reckons a few sips before breakfast keep her and hubby in the most robust of health.

You drink it from strange porcelain mugs with a handle and a spout, which look like miniature teapots, and the little nearby village of Loket claims the world’s largest collection of them in a museum at the Hotel Ferdinand.

Spa Hotel ImperialI stayed at the five-star Spa Hotel Imperial on the outskirts of Karlovy Vary. It’s so posh that, as well as a team of health care experts in pristine white coats, it even has its own cable car for well-heeled guests who can’t be bothered trekking down the mountain into the town. Dvorak once stayed here, and so did novelist Franz Kafka.

But if I thought the Imperial was luxurious, the Grandhotel Pupp, with a history going back 320 years, in the main street is something else altogether.  

The inspiration for the Grand Hotel Budapest, several films have been shot inside, including Casino Royale with Daniel Craig and Last Summer, with Queen Latifah and Gerard Depardieu.

Ask nicely, and you can even dine at the same restaurant table where 007 celebrated winning a staggering $115million in his poker game during Casino Royale.

GrandHotel Papp - Imperial Suite bathroomEvery April, the cream of Europe’s aristocracy throw a 19th century style black tie extravaganza in the sumptuous ballroom, where 500 guests – the men in tuxedos or military uniform and the ladies in long gowns – dance till dawn to the town’s symphony orchestra. 

Then in August, Hollywood’s elite flock in for the annual International Film Festival. Not many people may know this, but Sir Michael Caine stayed in the Grandhotel’s opulent Imperial suite, with its amazing marble bathroom this year, while Johnny Depp slept just down the corridor in the Presidential Suite.

The hotel’s urbane marketing director Alan Nemes is cagey about the price of bed and breakfast in the Imperial Suite.

“It’s negotiable”, he tells me with a smile as we sit under the restaurant’s shimmering chandelier, sharing the hotel’s trademark coffee and cake baked to a 300-year-old recipe. “But let’s just say it will be hundreds of euros!”.

Meanwhile, up the hill at the Hotel Imperial, they boast Sharon Stone, Morgan Freeman, Danny DeVito and the incomparable Mary Pickford, the ‘Queen of the Movies’, among the glittering stars who have stayed there over the years.

It’s worth taking a trip out of Karlovy Vary to some of the nearby picturesque villages. I’ve already mentioned the Hotel Ferdinand at Loket where for lunch I tucked into the most delightful pork from two beer-basted piglets cooked in an open air oven 5ft underground.

Becov CastleRound the corner in an ancient castle, once known as ‘the impenetrable fortress of Bohemia’, are displayed stunning replicas of the priceless Czech crown jewels.

The originals are safely locked up 90 miles away in Prague Castle and legend has it that anyone other than the king who dares to don the solid gold, gem-encrusted Wencelas crown will die within a year. 

In 1941, during the German occupation, Nazi tyrant Reinhard Heydrich foolishly sneered at the story and placed it first on his head and then that of his young son.

Seven months later Heydrich was assassinated by Czech partisans – and shortly afterwards little Klaus met his maker when a truck hit his bicycle.

Wencelas crownAnother of Loket’s claims to fame is that German author Goethe celebrated his 74th birthday there in 1823 – and proposed to the 17-year-old daughter of a local duke. Wisely (although sadly for Goethe) she turned him down.

A few miles from Loket is Bekov with its 14th century Gothic castle, Renaissance palace and Baroque chateau.

Here in a little shrine, locked behind a heavy oak door, is kept the country’s second most valuable item after the crown jewels – a silver-plated reliquary, or casket, that contains the headless body of 5th century Benedictine monk Maurus, the patron saint of cripples.

It’s also reputed to house the head of the apostle St Timothy, the finger of John the Baptist, and some bones of the virgin martyr St Apollonia.

Special coffee and cake at Grandhotel PuppAnd just in case you doubt the authenticity of these venerable relics, there is a crumbling parchment certificate dating from 1483 stating that they are indeed all genuine.

Before leaving Karlovy Vary, remember to try the Becherovka liqueur, made here since 1807 using spring water and a highly-secret formula of 20 herbs and spices.

There’s a visitors’ centre where you can find out more, sample the different varieties and buy a bottle or two to take home.

The perfect aperitif or digestif, it’s reputed to be a wonderful cure for an upset tummy. What’s more, unlike the pure spa water, it tastes absolutely delightful. 

Cheers, or Na Zdravi as they say in the Czech Republic!

Mal travelled as a guest of Visit Czech Republic.

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Malcolm Tattersall

Journalist, member of BGTW

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