Karlovy Vary

Results May Vary: The west Bohemian spa town's mineral waters range from refreshing to spit-inducing

This article first appeared in The Prague Wanderer, a web magazine produced by students at New York University in Prague.

Karlovy Vary's Grandhotel Pupp has served as the location for several recent American films, including Queen Latifah's Last Holiday and the thrill-inducing Casino Royale.

Goethe, Peter the Great, Wagner, Kafka, Chopin, Dvořák. The list of people who have taken the curative waters at Karlovy Vary, a mountain spa town in Western Bohemia, reads like a veritable who's who of influential historical figures. With this in mind, I spent most of the two-hour bus ride through the Bohemian countryside contemplating who I might come across when I reached my destination: politicians, writers, actors, musicians? Perhaps not surprisingly, I was instead greeted with packs, herds, hordes of senior citizens from all over the world, clamoring through the small city of 52,000 as if in search of the Fountain of Youth.

Karlovy Vary, also known as Carlsbad in English or Karlsbad in German, is a spa town known worldwide for its healing, thermal mineral springs. The German and English names essentially translate to "Charles' Bath," a reference to the history of the town. Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV founded the city in 1370 at the meeting of the Ohre and Tepla Rivers. "Tepla" means "warm" in Czech, something you understand once you try to drink the scorching mineral waters from the 13 hot springs.

As said before, the town is completely filled with the elderly. At least 75 percent of the people I saw in this city were over the age of 60. They flock to the town to either bathe in the hot mineral waters, or drink from the various springs which bubble to the surface around the city in little decorative fountains.

Either way, they envision Karlovy Vary as a place to alleviate stress and pain, and they come from very far away to enjoy the supposed benefits. According to a 2006 Czech Business Weekly article, over 42,000 Russians travel to the town annually. This may explain why the Cyrillic alphabet shows up on signs, advertisements and menus in a part of the country that was historically German-speaking and is presently part of the Czech lands, albeit with lots of Russian investment.

Most come for the water -- oh, the water. Sounds good, doesn't it? Mineral-filled spring water. Brings to mind clear, cold, refreshing, expensive bottles of European water: Evian, Perrier, or perhaps the greatest of them all, the Czech Republic's very own Dobrá Voda. I do not mean to reveal my youthful lack of a "classy" palate, but there is something really luxurious sounding about mineral water to me.

The town of Karlovy Vary does nothing to disprove this mental association. They want every tourist to think the waters are a deluxe treat for the rich and famous. The waters are revered, even loved. It seems they almost worship the water here, like some pagan cult complete with its own houses of worship. It gurgles to the surface in attractive fountains constructed of clean white marble, and copper in the shapes of snakes and vases. These decorative fountains are housed in colonnades -- long outdoor walkways that are reminiscent of Classical temples.

Karlovy Vary has figured out ways to exploit the water craze for a full-on touristy effect. Everyone in town has "the cup," a porcelain mug with a straw built into the handle that looks a little like a watering can. You can buy one at almost every store and newsstand in the entire city. Perhaps in the same way that the Vatican is overrun with Pieta figurines, Karlovy Vary has capitalized on commercializing the fervor of its most ardent believers.

Cup in hand, the aged bend down next to these springs, fill up, and chug the water like -- well, I've never seen an older person chug something before -- prune juice? I didn't buy a cup and opted instead to use a plastic water bottle, which actually melted from the heat of the water!

Let me be the first to tell you that the water is not delicious. I should add, however, that no one really pretends that it is actually supposed to taste good. Notions of cold, refreshing mineral water exist only in my head, and perhaps the heads of other American tourists who associate mineral water with Evian. Europeans know what they are getting themselves into, and they do it with excitement.

To begin with, the water is extremely hot. The average thermal spring is 65 degrees Celsius; that's 149 degrees Fahrenheit! The taste ranges from mildly unpleasant to downright offensive. The best waters taste like hot tap water -- not necessarily refreshing after hours and hours of walking, but not violently objectionable. The worst taste like salt and sulfur. Pretend that your favorite soup company came out with a Rotten Egg- or Rock- flavored bouillon cube or canned broth, and you might get some idea. Yum.

With all the novelty surrounding the experience, you almost forget that the word "mineral" is code for "There is crap in my water." I had to spit out a batch of particularly foul water that came out of the snake-shaped fountain, slapstick comedy-style. So embarrassing. Czech ladies actually pointed and laughed at me.

I have tried my hardest since being abroad in Europe to not be the stereotypical, loud American boor. I have kept quiet on the tram, tried to look for the "whys" behind all of my cultural inquiries, studied the Czech language diligently, tried food, no matter how heinous it may have appeared. Unfortunately, sometimes you just gotta spit.

Aside from the taste, my travel book warned me that some waters will give you diarrhea because of their "cleansing powers." Makes me think that some towns in warmer, more tropical destinations, that I will not name for fear of lawsuits, might need to just slap a few marble statues on top of their water fountains, and they could have a whole new "curative water" industry of their own.

Despite what the locals might have you believe, Karlovy Vary is more than just its water. It is the beauty of the town, not the saltiness of the ground water, that attracted me immediately. The city is home to decadent Art Nouveau facades, the Baroque church of Mary Magdalene, and a late 19th century Russian church that looks like "Honey, I Shrunk Saint Basil's!"

A less attractive part of the city is the Communist-era architecture which looms like a cement and glass behemoth above the historic city center. The Hotel Thermal, which was built in the 1970s, is a giant cement structure that gives some indication as to how aesthetically unpleasing the Communist era must have been.

But the facade belies the incredible experience one can have if one is actually brave enough to enter. Go to the top, and you will find an incredible rooftop swimming pool which offers some of the best views of a gorgeous city to be had in all of the Czech Republic. There are also spa services here, and elsewhere in the town, that vary from modern pampering to, uh oh, some large lass is gonna beat the tar out of me with her fists.

Another more modern landmark is a giant glass structure which encases Sprudel, a geyser of sorts -- the tallest and, at 72 degrees C (162 degrees Fahrenheit), the hottest spring -- which shoots an astonishing 49 feet into the air. Considering the heat of the water, perhaps the most impressive part of the entire town is the fact that the glass and steel structure is not constantly enveloped in a cloud of steam!

When you reach the end of the historic center, you meet the Grandhotel Pupp, a five-star resort and spa that is one of Europe's oldest hotels, built in 1701. It is notable, perhaps for American audiences, as the hotel where Queen Latifah decided to spend her lavish last week alive in the movie Last Holiday. More recently, the Pupp played a starring role in the latest James Bond flick Casino Royale as the "Hotel Splendide," while one of Karlovy Vary's older spas was featured as the eponymous casino. In both films, the city of Karlovy Vary represents luxury, decadence, and some form of escapism, even if it is masked as the newly independent Balkan nation of Montenegro in the latter.

The summit of the mountain directly behind the hotel can be reached by foot, or by funicular railway, which I think may be Latin for "How am I going to get my lazy butt up this mountain?" As I had been walking for about four hours before I reached the base, and the healing mineral waters were not doing their job of curing my aches and pains, I decided to take the rail up the side of the mountain instead of taking the long hike.

At the summit, you can climb the Diana Tower, an observation tower built to offer better views of the countryside. The trip was well worth it if for no other reason than to see the beautiful mountains and the small villages which dot the landscape and herald the end of the Czech lands, and the start of the German.

On the train to the top, I met two women from Colorado. I always end up talking to elderly ladies anywhere I go -- they love me! One of them looked like Shirley MacLaine, and the other was a little Minelli-ish. They were both of the "Well, isn't that wonderful!" variety.

They had just spent a week in Prague and wanted to talk all about my experiences there. One of them asked me, "Why do all European men wear crapri pants? Oh, by the way, we call them crapri pants because they look so stupid! You'll probably go home with a pair! What will your friends say?" I assured them I would not be succumbing to the Euro-trend anytime soon, although I am not in any way morally opposed to shorter pant legs.

The women did more than offer me a nostalgic glimpse of an American stereotype I have been away from for months -- the chatty, nosy neighbor; the loud, funny aunt. After being surrounded by old people the entire day, it was nice to actually get to talk to a few of them to see why they were so attracted to Karlovy Vary.

They agreed that the water tasted terrible but had heard about the beauty of the surrounding areas and the luxurious spa treatments. In essence, for American tourists anyway, Karlovy Vary sounds like a Palm Springs in the Czech mountains -- a place to be pampered and feel young again. Before we parted, I offered them advice about some treats that tasted significantly better than the mineral water and were still somehow culturally linked to Karlovy Vary: oplatky, the thin wafer cookies that are meant to be eaten after drinking the waters, and Becherovka, lovingly called "the thirteenth spring."

For anyone who has spent any time in the Czech Republic, the word "Becherovka" should probably conjure memories of warm bellies, the spicy scent of gingerbread, the feeling of rosy cheeks, and perhaps even the faint whisper of Jingle Bells in the distance. For anyone who has not, the word probably demands the response, "Becca-who-what?!"

Becherovka, an herbal bitter liqueur, is made exclusively in Karlovy Vary, and it has the unique distinction of being, according to most American college students, "that drink that tastes like Christmas!" Like the waters, Becherovka is meant to have curative powers, as it was originally a digestive. Now, when consumed in less than moderate levels by locals and tourists alike in Czech bars and pubs, Becherovka has become the yin to the waters' yang.

Becherovka tastes like Christmas: cinnamon, anise, warm spices. The waters taste like a reindeer after a global trek to deliver toys. The water is good for the body, offering potentially cleansing powers. Becherovka is cleansing too; when you drink too much in one night, it can also clear out your system. Mineral water is the angel on your shoulder saying, "Drink me to feel good," while Becherovka is the devil on the other side saying, "Drink me to feel goooood." And both were born in Karlovy Vary.

Karlovy Vary is known for its waters, but they are only one part of a city that has a surplus of charm and glitz. Explore the beautiful mountainous surroundings, gaze at the architecture, and chat up the elderly pilgrims -- just don't expect many of them to be locals. And, of course, drink the waters. No matter how terrible they taste, they offer a unique cultural experience that should not be missed. And who knows? Maybe they really do cure aches and pains. Just make sure to sip some Becherovka after taking the waters so you don't literally leave Karlovy Vary with a bad taste in your mouth!

Nicholas DeRenzo is in his third year majoring in history and Slavic studies at Boston College. He is from Tampa, Florida.

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