Czech Spas

Discussion in 'Travel Tips & Advice' started by stepan, Feb 9, 2009.

  1. stepan

    stepan Well-Known Member

    This article appeared in the Washington Post, Washington, DC on Sunday February 8, 2009. I though it would be interesting reading. Since there are pictures, here is the link to it: ... 01772.html

    No-Frills Pampering in a Czech Spa Town
    By Mary Ellen Monahan, Special to The Washington Post, Sunday, February 8, 2009; Page P01

    A slender blonde sitting next to me on a bench in Karlovy Vary's Spa III got up, tossed off the white sheet she was wearing and jumped naked into a pool 20 feet away. I sat there, paralyzed, wondering how to discreetly grab my clothes and find an exit.

    Too late! The gruff spa attendant returned, clucking at me in Czech, pointing first to the pool, then to the sheet clutched tightly about me. Off it went -- along with any shred of modesty -- as I joined the blonde and two plump, orange-haired Russians for a gals-only naked swim. I had no idea the massage I had booked came with nude swim privileges, but suddenly I felt as free as a bare-bottomed toddler.

    Western Bohemia is rich with thermal springs, and spas began sprouting up around them hundreds of years ago to harness the waters' reputed healing properties. While initially available only to European royals, aristocrats and the literati, the masses began arriving for rest or medical treatment following the Iron Curtain's descent after World War II.

    I was curious about these places since first visiting what was then Czechoslovakia in 1990, but I never made it beyond Prague. Then, while traveling through Eastern Europe last March, my lower back suddenly rebelled. Serendipitously, I was in Karlovy Vary (Karlsbad), the Czech Republic's most famous spa town.

    These are not spas in the lavender-scented, chakra-realigning sense from the United States, land of Canyon Ranch's $1,000-per-day packages. Although for those who prefer their pampering more patrician than proletariat, boutique hotels and luxury spas such as the Castle, Karlovy Vary's most popular, have mushroomed since 2004, when the country joined the European Union.

    But I wanted an authentic old-school experience, that of the Cold War-era peasant rewarded for a bumper cabbage crop. Two days later, I secretly hoped for another muscle pull so I could stay on.

    Spa III, the town's oldest, looked as if it hadn't changed much since the 19th century, when it was built. Employees clad in white walked the long, anonymous corridors. A few geriatric Russian and German visitors sat on vinyl chairs outside the many doors, waiting to confer with a doctor before starting a wellness program.

    This often involves "taking the waters," a reference to the centuries-old tradition of drinking mineral waters freely available at numerous taps around town. Such water is reputed to ease digestive and other ailments, but after sampling the stuff -- reminiscent of rusty water -- I thought it might instead cause a few. A shot of Becherovka, the town's famous herb liqueur, proved more beneficial later in the day.

    Treatments included such mysteries as "lymphodrainage with apparatus" and "Scottish strikes," but also the familiar: underwater massages, saunas and mud or mineral baths. I booked a 15-minute classic massage ($22). A burly woman in line ordered in Russian; I was prepared with a Czech phrase book and cobwebbed college Russian, but the helpful clerk spoke some English.

    In contrast to the corridors, the vintage dressing area (all decorative white woodwork and wrought iron) would've won over even the most zealous communist. I changed, donning a white sheet like everyone else. A gruff attendant then walked me to a bench outside the massage rooms . . . and the nude swim spectacle.

    Post-swim, a stout masseuse poured oil on my back and expertly kneaded my muscles while Czech pop tunes played. The room felt sterile, like a doctor's office; in contrast, a recent massage in the United States included vanilla candles, soothing taupe walls and New Age music. But all that seemed superfluous now, and after 10 minutes in the sauna, I was in a steamy, pleasant stupor.

    I left to wander along the Tepla River, which slices the town in half and whose rushing sound was trance-inducing. Classical colonnades and pastel neo-Renaissance, neo-baroque and art nouveau mansions competed for attention from both sides of the river.

    Peter the Great, Goethe, Beethoven, Marx and Freud, and more recently Bond -- James Bond, in the 2006 film "Casino Royale" -- have also ambled along the cobblestones here. And now?

    "This is Russian town," said Jan, a university student I met several days later.

    It did appear that way. The below-freezing temperatures probably felt comfortable to the predominantly Russian tourists wearing patchwork fur coats or dark leather jackets, strolling soberly, arm in arm. They clutched ceramic souvenir cups bearing pictures of the town and occasionally stopped to refill them at one of the many mineral-water taps. Or to sample oplatky, the ultra-thin baked wafers and local specialty whose sweet scent drifted past jewelry stores, boutiques, cafes and souvenir shops.

    The next day I visited Elizabeth Spa, the town's largest, opened in 1906 and named for Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph's wife. The receptionist booked a 20-minute classic massage ($22), which again included sauna time. Because I hadn't scheduled in advance, the "carbon dioxide bag" and "mouth irrigation" treatments were fully booked for the day. I stifled my disappointment, realizing that life must retain some mysteries.

    Hana . . . Eva . . . Jana . . . Milena. Every few minutes an attendant called out the lyrical names of robust-looking Czech women of all ages and sizes. Despite a clinical atmosphere, everyone smiled and greeted one another, adding to a good vibe here.

    My masseuse -- a tall, powerful blonde who looked as if she could have been on the national volleyball squad -- dug in deep for a vigorous massage in an austere yet sunny room. Feeling fantastic afterward, I showered off and entered the sauna as two paunchy women soaked in large steel tubs.

    When I came back out, I heard a whooshing sound reminiscent of Niagara Falls. Across the way, an attendant was using what looked like a fire hose to spray a woman standing against the wall. "Scottish strikes" mystery solved! (Note to self: Stick to baths when in Scotland.) But afterward, the recipient of the water assault also appeared invigorated.

    I wondered if Austrian Empress Elizabeth had it this good.

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