“Life, like a dome of many-coloured glass, Stains the white radiance of eternity.” — Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792–1822)
Experiencing the spa town of Karlovy Vary in the Czech Republic is like looking through a prism.
This elegant and historic town — sheltered and serene among the low forested mountains of the western part of the nation — has substance as well as a transparent quality.
Perhaps it’s the pure air, or the water, or the comforting sense of being out of time, but in this ethereal town perception is quietly enhanced and diffused.
An imperial town
Like fine glass, this town came to prominence — fragile yet constant in its beauty — through the fusion of historical events and geographical circumstance.
Situated in the western part of the Czech Republic, Karlovy Vary is named after the Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV who founded the town in 1370. As legend would have it, he personally discovered the mineral springs in this famous spa town while deer hunting in the region. (Throughout history, the town has also been known as Karlsbad or Carlsbad.)
In addition to being the Holy Roman emperor, Charles was also the German king and the king of Bohemia which is the region of the Czech Republic in which Karlovy Vary is located. Educated at the French court, he became Emperor thanks, in part, to the intercession of Pope Clement VI. (Charles had promised the latter major concessions; however, he would eventually gain the upper hand.)
This was a period of great political instability throughout Europe which was made even more critical by the scourge of The Black Death, the bubonic plague that decimated the population. The pandemic not only killed off about a third of the people but as historians and political observers now realize, it almost destroyed the social fabric and political-social institutions that made European society function. A strong leader was badly needed, and that turned out to be Charles who on Easter Sunday in 1355 was crowned Emperor in Rome; not by the Pope himself, who was living in Avignon, but by the papal legate.
Charles’s connection with Karlovy Vary is befitting as well as symbolic because his rule put an end to the years of conflict between popes and emperors that had continually threatened the well-being of Europe. Charles brought a cure to the problematic politics of the age, in particular by ending papal interference in the Holy Roman Empire — a victory of state over church and a healing of a different kind.
Charles subsequently expanded his territories and eventually assured, by bribing the electors, that the German crown would go to his son Wenceslaus. From his imperial capital of Prague, he directed the affairs of state in such a way that Bohemia flourished economically, culturally, and politically. In fact, Charles succeeded in assuring that Bohemia would gain internal autonomy, a rare power for any region in Europe at the time. He also granted special privileges to Karlovy Vary which for him represented an island of tranquillity in imperial storms.
The Spa town of Karlovy Vary also became a refuge from the rigours of the affairs of state for many crowned heads and other nobility during the 18th and 19th centuries. Foremost among these was the future English King Edward VII who visited the region on numerous occasions. And Karlovy Vary also hosted such eminent personages as Peter the Great, Mozart, Beethoven, and Goethe. In the 20th century “American cinematic royalty” such as Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks could be found in Karlovy Vary escaping the pressures of another kind of public duty.
However, given its strategic location in the heart of Europe, Karlovy Vary would experience suffering of its own. By 1911, over 70,000 visitors were making the pilgrimage to Karlovy Vary; and then came the “war to end all wars.” Even Karlovy Vary could not heal the catastrophic wounds that the First World War visited upon Europe. The town’s “tourism” industry collapsed as did that of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in which the town was then a part. At the end of that enormous war of attrition, the Treaty of Saint Germain created a new nation called Czechoslovakia much to the dismay of the German-speaking majority of Karlovy Vary. Protests and more violence followed; during a demonstration on March 4, 1919, six demonstrators were killed by Czech troops.
But despite the world’s greatest hopes and best intentions, the Great War was not the last. Another was to come. In 1938, Hitler’s troops occupied what was known as the Sudetenland (in the centre of which was Karlovy Vary) and the Second World War was underway.
And as the misfortunes of historical circumstances would have it, at the end of that war Karlovy Vary and Czechoslovakia fell under the heavy controlling hand of the Soviet empire. It would take another 44 years and a “Velvet Revolution” for that particular burden to be lifted.
However, despite the suffering and discord, peace and prosperity would return to Karlovy Vary especially when the Soviet empire collapsed like a house of cards; and Czechs and Slovaks would shook hands and go their separate ways. But during the turbulent times the peaceable and rehabilitative natural thermal waters of Karlovy Vary had continued to flow.
Today for the many visitors who once again take advantage of the hot mineral waters of Karlovy Vary and its soothing cultural amenities, the restoration of a vital state of being continues.
The House of Moser
The year was 1967, and Canada’s centennial celebrations were underway at Expo ’67 in Montréal. The world had come to “Man and His World.” One of the most popular national pavilions at this World’s Fair was that of Czechoslovakia which had spent $10 million dollars in constructing what most of agreed was the most beautiful of them all. And inside the exhibits were astounding, including the famous wood sculpture nativity scene from Trebechovice. But it was the dazzling display of Bohemian crystal that everyone was talking about. For us in North American, this was a first real look at this wonderful Czech art form even though we were generally aware that Czechoslovakia (as it was at the time) was well-known for its glass works and its glass artists.
For decades under the Communist régime, Czechoslovakia had been off limits to the West but (although we did not know it at the time) the glass artists of this nation had been resisting the socialist realism art that the régime had been imposing elsewhere throughout the country. In fact, the glass artists were continuing to create very avant-garde works that showed considerable artistic courage, abstract expressionism — and, of course, vision. They had embraced glass as a fine art. Czech glass work ironically was a major export that resulted in a strong Czech national identity. One especially beautiful glass sculpture displayed in the Czech pavilion was “The Glass Forest.” Although Czech glass and Czech artistic brilliance was there in Montréal for the world to see, it would not be until the Velvet Revolution in 1989 before these same artists appeared again to the same extent on the world stage. It was a magical moment in time.
And another magical moment in time was our visit to the Moser company in Karlovy Vary 17 years after the Velvet Revolution.
Spa culture, history, and the Spa Triangle
In North America, the spa “phenomenon” is a relatively recent travel experience; and yet it is now one of the fastest growing in the travel and tourism industry. Although the spa experience is becoming more mainstream, on this continent it has usually been seen as a “luxury” travel experience that emphasized beauty treatments and general pampering. This is not the concept of the European spa which was to a great extent the practice of alternative and holistic health treatments. The spa experience also is not new to Europe.
It was Greek poet Homer who was one of the first to write about the Classical Age of the spa when Greeks were enjoying extravagant and extensive thermae. The Romans of course had various types of baths often used by battle-weary soldiers to recuperate; but soon became popular with the general public. One can also see similarities and parallels to the famous European spas — of which Karlovy Vary was perhaps the most important — in the onsen and ryokens of Japan where bathing in hot mineral springs was considered a health practice. And of course the Turkish hamman has many of the same principles of health and healing.
In “The New World,” there have been similar sites such as New York state’s Saratoga Springs to which spa clients such as Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Edgar Allan Poe retreated. And in Canada Banff Springs in the glorious Rockies has been a mineral springs refuge for a long time.
However, the Golden Age of spas in Europe was the 18th and 19th centuries. Despite political events that interrupted attendance at spas, it has always been very much part of the culture. And now spa-going in the Czech Republic is becoming even more popular as this nation evolves into the new centre of Europe. This is especially evident in what is know as The Spa Triangle which includes Karlovy Vary, Mariánské Lázne (Marienbad), and Františkovy Lázne (Franzensbad).
Traditionally, spas have always been located in regions of impressive natural beauty where good clean air and a terrain that encourages physical exercise are part of the health experience. It doesn’t require much analysis to recognize the health benefits of getting away from urban stress to an environment in which excess is simply not part of the local culture, and where rest, relaxation, exercise, and sensible nutrition are all part of the “spa package.” As a hub and point of departure for visiting the spa towns of the Czech Republic’s Spa Triangle, Karlovy Vary is well-situated. And if you are not necessarily looking for a spa treatment, you will find a lot to see and do in the area. The spa town architecture in itself is worth the visit.
As central Europe (some would emphasize eastern Europe) emerges from the post-Communist era, the overall geographical and economic focus is shifting as well. I discovered this when I met a very interesting Englishman in the spa town of Mariánské Lázne. You can listen to what he had to tell me by clicking on the audio icon below.
Is it a apéritif, a digestif, a tonic, a cognac-like liqueur, liquid herbs, a “Czech Bitter,” or something else?
Well, above all it is the national drink of the Czech Republic and I have a bottle chilling in my refrigerator right now.
I find it very interesting that in the promotional material for this very popular drink, the company refers to Becherovkanerovka as she.
“She is typical and unmistakable … she is bright and sweet leaving a hint of bitterness on the tongue … she has experienced a lot … she has encountered many things and many a man have encountered her… the mystery of her birth was witnessed by only two men … her past is rich, her presence colourful, her future promising.”
Becherovka is the invention of two men, one of whom was a pharmacist. It was invented as a health drink concocted of a very secret recipe of herbs and spices (even to this day). The company that makes it even suggests that Becherovka “possesses a drop of immortality.” This is strong stuff — the legend, praise, the romance. It is also one of the most entertaining promotional campaigns for a product that I have ever seen, using all the elements of a good narrative including drama, intrigue, mystery, and colourful characters.
It is, like all travel experiences, an acquired taste. And when you visit Karlovy Vary, do not miss the Jan Becher Museum and taste some. Try it; you may like it. You may even bring it home with you as I did. And you may try some of the innovative cocktails you can make with Becherovka, like the Fresh Smashin’ or the Red Moon. Or you may prefer to just drink it neat — for health purposes of course. Or you may, like me, enjoy Becherovka as an alternative G&T. But don’t forget to serve it very cold so that this amber liquid flows in a languid manner. And don’t forget to add a slice of lime. Bartender, make mine a B&T.
It’s a warm sunny day and lunch draws nigh. I think I shall make myself a Becherovka B&T and from afar offer a toast to Karlovy Vary.
Here’s to you Karlovy Vary!
A virtual visit to Karlovy Vary
To view a slide show of Karlovy Vary, click here.
The prism of Karlovy Vary, click here.
The artistry of Karlovy Vari
To watch a brief video of the Moser glass artists at work, click here click here.