The Spas of Bohemia
Long famous for their "water cures," many scenic towns in the Czech Republic sell their charms for a pittance.
Karlsbad Spas/Hotels: If quiet is important, the best local spa may be the Jadran, an intimate villa built in 1937 on a hill above town. With only 12 rooms, its recently renovated premises sparkle with luxurious furnishings, gorgeous private baths, stereo equipment, TV, fridge, and phone; there is also an in-house doctor and treatment facilities, all at a cost - including full board - of $119 based on double occupancy. The drawbacks: no elevator, and a longish walk uphill from town. Almost as plush, the art nouveau Astoria offers a much better location smack in the center of town. The lobby wows visitors with its marble, brass, and fresh flowers, and many rooms have been upgraded to light wood furniture, lace curtains, new bathrooms, and all the expected amenities; there is also a brand-new sauna and indoor pool adorned with classical tilework and pillars. The all-inclusive cost here ranges from a high of 154 euros per room in season to a low of 112 euros. Strangely, the priciest place in Karlsbad (204 euros to 240 euros per room) is also the ugliest.
The Thermal, a 15-story concrete eyesore in the center of the pedestrian-only spa district, has one of those cavernous lobbies so typical of hotels in the former Soviet bloc. Still, it attracts a significant clientele who appreciate its large medical staff, complete range of spa treatments, outdoor pool with naturally hot spring and thermal water, and recently renovated rooms with fabulous balcony views of the town and surrounding hills. For those who prefer a simpler, non-spa hotel, the Jiskra is the best bet: a fabulous townhouse just across from the posh Grand Hotel Pupp and dripping with crystal chandeliers and swirly Belle Epoque moldings. A grand staircase (and elevator) lead up to three suites fit for royalty, along with ten simpler rooms with TV, phone, and shared baths (41 euros per room in low season and 78 euros in high).
Karlsbad Cuisine: Restaurant prices in the Czech Republic can still amaze after a decade of capitalism, and Karlsbad is no exception. At the pleasant Bodam Rybi Restaurace, seafood's the specialty, served outdoors under chestnut trees or indoors in a cozy dining room lined with fish tanks. An entree of fried calamari goes for $2.50, and a generous portion of paella with shrimp, mussels, and sepia for $3.25. Game is served, too: roast duck with cabbage and dumplings costs $3, and venison steak with mushrooms, $3.85. Rather more elegant, the Regina Restaurace (in the Regina Hotel) is a grand affair with elaborate ceilings, soaring columns, chandeliers, and . . . clunky Soviet-era furniture. Two prix-fixe menus offer the likes of soup, roast pork with potato dumplings and cabbage, apple strudel, and coffee for $3.35; ... la carte, a fried filet of fish is $1.75 and palacinky (Czech-style crepes) with fruit and cream just 75[cents].
Just off the main drag along a quiet lane of fairytale fin-de-siecle villas stop for lunch or dinner at the excellent Sadova Kavarna Restaurace, a plainish dining room with outdoor tables overlooking an onion-domed Russian orthodox church. Lively music and dancing on weekend nights accompany great values like the trout baked in butter and lemon for $2.50. Sides, like the ubiquitous potato croquettes, run 42[cents], as do various small desserts, and the Prazdroj or Purkmistr beer is 53[cents] a glass.
To eat like a true Czech on a budget, though, head for Linie Rychle Obcerstveni. Just west of the Thermal Hotel, it remains a Soviet-style fast-food joint with modern touches like bright display cases. The thing here is gloppy salads heavy on the mayonnaise served with a rohlik (roll); the karlovarsky salat, for example, costs just 42[cents] for a filling 150g (five-ounce) portion of chopped salami, raw onions, and diced pickles in a runny white sauce. It's deeply satisfying in the way that only something utterly bad for you can be; ditto for desserts like the 33[cents] "spa cake," a sort of Napoleon overloaded with frosting. This is truly as Czech as it gets, and a great place for a quick and very cheap meal.
Marienbad (Marianske Lazne)
A Gracious, Low-Key Alternative: Eighty miles southwest of Prague, Marienbad offers a different kind of spa experience: quieter, more intimate--even genteel. It was, after all, founded in the nineteenth century and specifically designed for strolling, its paths winding amid landscapes that would honor an Impressionist painting. To walk here is to revel in the architectural grandeur of the Austro-Hungarian empire; indeed, one might almost expect to bump into Goethe or Chopin taking a constitutional or listening to the spooky canned melodies of the "Singing Fountain," the focus of the delightful spa district. Expect, in short, nothing of the gloomy atmosphere of the pretentious, old French film Last Year at Marienbad.