The Spas of Bohemia

Long famous for their "water cures," many scenic towns in the Czech Republic sell their charms for a pittance.

By Paul Balido, Friday, Apr 29, 2005, 12:00 AM

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.

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.

Marienbad Spas/Hotels: Hvezda means "star," and that's what this luxurious gem is among the local offerings. All rooms are appointed with stylish furniture and all the modern conveniences - save air conditioning, absent all over town. The meals in the plush dining room are top-notch, and a broad range of treatments is available, from hydromassage to gas injections to magnetotherapy; more complex procedures are referred to the nearby Nove Lazne, a grand old outpatient facility (see below). The daily cost, including all meals and treatments, is an amazing $93 per person in high season and $79 in low. For less expensive rates (5040 CZK- 5360 CZK), the Pacific offers clean, recently refurbished quarters that don't look quite as sharp but still do the trick. A more limited range of cures is offered here, with patients going to the Nove Lazne as well. A major highlight of the Pacific, though, is the restaurant (open to the public), a splendid affair in art nouveau plaster and gilt.

The much plainer Vltava Hotel offers oddly similar prices (3530 CZK-3910 CZK) and specializes in musculoskeletal problems such as the knees and the neck--all of which will appreciate the beautiful indoor heated pool, whirlpool, and dry sauna. Rooms are clean and perfectly serviceable, with TV, phone, and sometimes a fridge; there is a daily choice of six set meals.

If you opt to stay in a regular hotel, however, the Polonia is an excellent choice, right on the main street and a short stroll to the Singing Fountain and the main colonnade (covered walkway housing several springs). While the facade is awash in friezes and caryatids, the interior is rather functional; rooms are bright and cheerful, however, with furniture of recent vintage, most with TV, and telephone. All the baths boast new tilework and fixtures, too, though some rooms share a bath; the price range here is 55 to 73 euros.

Whether or not you stay in a spa hotel, sooner or later you will end up at the Nove Lazne, a twin-towered structure offering the widest range of cures in town. Built in 1896, by the following year it welcomed England's Edward VII to the above-mentioned King's Chamber. All the area spas send their patients here for advanced treatment at no extra cost--like the "Maria's gas" wrap, essentially a plastic sleeping bag full of natural CO(sub)2. Otto, an older German from Bremen, walked with a cane, he tells me; but now, after two weeks of gas wraps, no more cane - and his wife is happier, he winks (an alternative to Viagra, the wraps supposedly dilate all the blood vessels). There are other fun treatments like colon irrigations, hydrotherapy, underwater massage, and the like. You may also come with no referral and take only those procedures you wish; that $20 mineral water bath in the King's Chamber costs $10 in a regular tub; an underwater spray massage is $16, and Otto's arousing gas wrap goes for a mere $7.

Meals in Marienbad: Even if you have a full-board plan, it would be a crime not to broaden your gastronomic horizons, given local restaurant prices. The Classic Restaurant and Cafe, for example, is classic indeed, with candles, crystal, and an upscale crowd. Meals here range from $1.65 for a vegetarian asparagus with peaches au gratin to a whopping $4.95 for smoked salmon with potato pancakes in a horseradish cream sauce and salad; a glass of Moravian wine is 64[cents]. For dessert, superb, paper-thin palacinky are just 80[cent]. Just up a short ways on Hlavni trida, the main drag, is the aforementioned dining room of the Pacific Hotel, where stucco-frosted ceilings loom over elegant tables. Here, 83[cents] buys an appetizer of sardines in cod liver oil with onions, and the chef's specialty, the "Pacific" sirloin steak with peaches and roquefort cheese, will set you back only $4.75.

To eat outdoors, try the Cesky Dvur, serving traditional Czech cuisine in a neoclassical courtyard just off Hlavni. The service is quick and the svickova na smetane (sauerbraten in cream sauce with cranberries and bread dumplings, practically the national dish) is heavenly-- and only $3.60. The same price gets you a hearty beef goulash, also with dumplings; desserts, like (what else?) palacinky, run $1.65. The best deal, though, is the "Czech platter," a generous assortment of roast pork, smoked meats, and duck served with cabbage and dumplings--for all of $6.35. Economize even further at Restaurace Franz Josef, named after the Austro-Hungarian emperor who ruled from 1848 until World War I; a cartoon cutout of the old chap presides over the entrance to this rustic tavern with bench seating and lace curtains. Here, a bowl of cesnecka (garlic soup) is a mere 53[cents], while breaded carp with fries costs $2.25; ditto for the so-called "Tramp" pork steak, served with roasted potatoes and a side.

Finally, the pink-and-white Cafe de Paris in the Nove Lazne is a perfect spot to recover from your treatments--as I did following my kingly soak in Eddie's tub. As I savored a yummy wedge of fruit tart (97[cents]) and a cup of strong coffee (67[cents]), a Czech language disco-rap version of "Red River Valley" played on the radio--a perversely fitting comment on the state of this beautiful country, poised between its communist past and its westernized future, and still offering--for now--amazing bargains, spa and otherwise. Sleeps Amid Springs

To phone the Czech Republic from the U.S., first dial 011-420. KARLSBAD Sanatorium Astoria Vridelni 23; 17/322-8224, fax 17/322-4368 Thermal Hotel Sanatorium I.P. Pavlova 11; 17/321-1111, fax 17/322-6992 Jadran Spa House Balbinova 4; 17/322-5613, fax 17/322-1684 Hotel Jiskra Marianskolazenska 1; 17/322-6994, fax 17/322-6149 MARIENBAD Hvezda Goethovo namesti 7; 165/631-111, fax 165/631-200 Vltava Anglicka 475; 165/641-111, fax 165/641-200 Pacific Spa Hotel Mirove namesti 84; 165/651-111, fax 165/651-200 Hotel Polonia Hlavni trida 50; 165/622-4512, fax 165/624-785 Nove Lazne Reitenbergerova 53; 165/644-111

Info & Tour Operators

The Czech Tourist Authority (212/288-0830; czechcenter.com/) has helpful spa information.

For packages, contact: Czech Vacations/CSA Czech Airlines in the U.S., 877/293-4225 Balnea Praha Spa & Travel Service Narodni trida 28, 10000 Prague 1; 011-420-2/2110-5314, fax 011-420-2/2110-5307; balnea@anet.cz Helios.Via Dlazdena 5, 11000 Prague 1; 011-420-2/2421-3136, fax 011-420-2/266-140; helios@ms.anet.cz; tours.cz/helios Prague International Travel Agency Senovazne namesti 23, 11282 Prague 1; 011-420-2/2414-2752, fax 011-420-2/2421-1524; check-in@pragueinternational.cz, pragueinternational.cz/ Feasts Amid Fountains

KARLSBAD Rybi Restaurace Bodam T.G. Masaryka 10; 17/322-2473 Regina Restaurace Nuva Louka 3; 17/322-3241 Sadova Kavarna-Restaurace Sadova 51; 17/323-5132 Linie Rychle Obcerstveni Nabrezi Jana Palacha 2

MARIENBAD Classic Restaurant-Cafe Hlavni trida 131; 165/622-807 Restaurace Franz-Josef Hlavni trida 161; 165/5746 Pacific Mirov, namesti 84; 165/651-111 Cesky Dvour Hlavni trida 650; 165/626-273 Cafe de Paris Reitenbergerova 53; 165/644-040.