The Spas of Bohemia
Long famous for their "water cures," many scenic towns in the Czech Republic sell their charms for a pittance.
Today I am king--for 40 minutes, anyway, soaking under frescoed ceilings in the very tub that once held England's Edward VII. Gas bubbles dance in the warm spring water, soothing my skin (and, I'm told, lowering my blood pressure) as I doze off, happy as a clam: this regal indulgence, this rococo chamber worthy of a museum, is mine for all of 20 bucks. Welcome to Marienbad (Marianske Lazne in the tongue-twisting local language), one of three-dozen Czech spa towns where a day of Old World pampering, medical treatments, and three hearty meals can cost as little as 1,750 Czech crowns ($50) per person per day in low season (generally October through April)--less than a standard hotel room in most of western Europe (in high season, prices run from $71 to $95, still a decent deal if you don't mind the crowds).
Granted, some of these medical treatments might raise your own doctor's eyebrow. Traditionally, the spa experience centered around "taking the waters" (via soaking or drinking), and all sorts of claims have been made for their powers, from treating gout to infertility, even cancer. Think what you will, generations of Europeans have sworn by these methods, and many national health insurance programs even cover spa visits. These are not, after all, New Agey fad-farms, but long-established, traditional European health care institutions, though admittedly, time and tech have expanded the offerings to the likes of magnetotherapy, supposedly relieving pain by creating magnetic fields around the body, or the alarmingly named pneumopuncture, which injects gas into acupuncture points--clearly not for everyone. Not all treatments, though, are so out there, and plenty are bona-fide boons, including massage, physical therapy, and wonderful mineral water baths.
Here's how it works: you check into a spa facility and meet with a "balneologist" (doctor of spa medicine), who prescribes a course of treatment based on your afflictions (ideally three weeks or more, but they cater to Americans with one-week programs); this includes baths, therapy sessions, water-drinking regimens, whatever your condition calls for. An individualized diet plan is also forwarded to the kitchen (though, interestingly, in Eastern Europe the "diet" dishes are often soaked in butter). Special or additional treatments (such as my decadent soak in the King's Chamber) are payable on a per-item basis. Alternatively, you may also stay at a non-spa hotel, eat in excellent (and inexpensive) restaurants around town, and visit the spa as an outpatient.
Depending on the chemical composition of their springs and muds, different towns focus on different conditions; thus, while Trebon and Bechyne specialize in joints and muscles, Podebrady is for the heart, and Frantiskovy Lazne focuses on gynecology. For the first-timer, though, the best and most versatile introduction to the spa experience centers around two famous West Bohemian towns: Karlsbad (Karlovy Vary in Czech), the largest and most popular of all, and the quieter, more genteel Marienbad.
The easiest (albeit most expensive) way to do it is an all-inclusive package--airfare, lodging, treatments, and three meals a day--from the tour-operator arm of CSA, the Czech national airline; these run around $1,499 per person (double occupancy) for seven nights at the posh Hotel Imperial Spa in Karlsbad. You can save big, however, by calling local tour operators, such as Prague International and Helios.Via (see box), or contacting the spa directly and then buying your airfare through a consolidator (roughly $700 from the East Coast in high season). Once you arrive in Prague, a bus ticket to Karlsbad is only $2.65 for an air-conditioned two-hour ride, and the three-hour-plus train to Marienbad costs $3.35.
Karlsbad (Karlovy Vary)
Fizzy Water & Summer Hoopla: Surrounded by steep hills 100 miles west of Prague, this town's picturesque 600-year-old spa district has played host to aristocrats and celebrities from Russia's Czar Peter the Great to Beethoven to Karl Marx. Today it's a merry jumble of nineteenth-century extravagance, its facades shining once more after extensive restoration. Up and down the banks of the Tepla river, Germans, Czechs, and hordes of nouveau riche Russians take their constitutional walks, stopping at the 12 mineral springs to fill their lazensky poharek, a china mug with a built-in drinking straw (to be honest, the hot fizzy water tastes vile). Karlsbad also aims to treat the soul, and so it hosts a variety of concerts, balls, and jazz and film festivals. Summertime, in fact, can seem anything but relaxing, with teeming crowds serenaded by oompah chestnuts like "Roll Out the Barrel" at every turn. Fortunately, you can head for the hills along the many hiking paths on the outskirts, offering pine-fresh air and contemplative quiet.