A week on fast forward

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In less than a week's time, the 41st Karlovy Vary International Film Festival will start in the west Bohemian spa town, named after Emperor Charles IV. For centuries the town has been sought out for its mineral water sources. Close to the border with Germany, it grew into a wealthy resort visited by people from either side of the border as well as from further afield.

Today the rich history is apparent in the town, with its countless guest houses and hotels as well as an Orthodox church founded by the Russian community who have traditionally stayed in Karlovy Vary.

The architectural beauty as well as the setting of the town in a narrow valley of the Tepla River no doubt contributes to the special atmosphere of the film festival. Some film journalists say it is a different world, protected from the hustle and bustle of Prague, and there is nowhere to escape. After watching a film they can digest and discuss it without thinking about grocery shopping or what's for dinner.

Not everybody, of course, stays in the town for the whole duration of the festival but it is quite an amazing experience. It reminds me of those one-shot movies about city-life played on fast forward. When you arrive ahead of the festival, you will witness a few signs of what's about to come. A few posters, workers here and there putting up beaverboard pedestals, measuring and spreading out carpets which will later be trod on by international film stars. But otherwise, despite all the seasonal spa guests, the historic centre of Karlovy Vary is quiet and sleepy.

Then it slowly starts. More posters appear on walls, shops as well as the local branch of McDonald's prolong their opening hours, stalls selling all kinds of fast food start mushrooming outside the festival venues. A different kind of people fill the promenade. Instead of the slow-walking middle-aged couples, sipping their salty mineral water from special jars, there are trendy looking young cinema-goers speaking all kinds of languages. It also seems that the whole of Prague has moved to Karlovy Vary for a week. In that limited area you run into more old friends in a week than in a whole year in the capital. And then you start bumping into movie stars right there in the streets. While they would probably need a couple of bodyguards back home to be able to go shopping, here they walk freely with just their interpreter. This busy and happy and electrifying atmosphere lasts for a few days until it all peaks with the award ceremony on the closing night.

The next morning you wake up to see that the marquee that had stood outside your hotel for a week has been taken down and only bottle caps remain where it had stood, full of people chatting and drinking. The red carpets are being rolled up again, statues and billboards taken down and the spa guests as well as locals reclaim their town and everything gets back to normal. The whole show is over in no time but still that one week feels so much longer and richer than any other week of the year.