1) Karlovy Vary – one of the most famous spa towns in the world

Karlovy Vary
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With one of the largest concentrations of hot springs in Europe, Karlovy Vary is the largest Czech spa town. For hundreds of years, it has attracted visitors from all over the world, including some very famous figures such as Johan Wolfgang Goethe or the Russian Czar Peter the Great. But Karlovy Vary, which may soon become a UNESCO World Heritage Site, has more to offer than just mineral water and spas. One of the most famous Czech liquors was invented here, and the town’s historical centre is filled with prized architectural landmarks.

Karlovy Vary | Photo: Libor Kukal,  Radio Prague International

One of the things that first strike a visitor to Karlovy Vary are its beautiful natural surroundings. The town sits in a picturesque valley at the confluence of the Teplá and Ohře Rivers, and the historical centre is flanked on both sides by steep hills. These offer numerous breath-taking vistas from which one can admire the whole of Karlovy Vary, such as the Diana Observation Tower. Karlovy Vary also owes its fame as a spa town to this unique natural location. Because even though the hilly terrain made the area an inconvenient place to construct houses, it also created perfect geological conditions for the formation of a vast network of hot springs. Tour guide Jitka Hradílková told Radio Prague more about them:

Karlovy Vary mineral spring Vřídlo | Photo: Barbora Němcová,  Radio Prague International

“The hot mineral water in Karlovy Vary comes from a depth of more than two kilometres. Our hydrogeologists control more than eighty hot springs, and we use fourteen of them for drinking cures. The most powerful and hottest one is the Vřídlo hot spring. All the other hot springs are connected to it under the earth’s crust like branches on a tree.”

The Karlovy Vary hot springs were supposedly discovered in the 14th century by Czech King Charles IV. According to legend, the monarch was on a hunting expedition when he saw a deer jump into a pool of scorching water. The hill where it supposedly happened is today referred to as Jelení Skok, or Stag’s Jump in English – it, by the way, also offers a great view of town. Historian Stanislav Burachovič told Radio Prague about the story of the hot springs’ discovery:

“The springs most probably began to be used for treatment after the town was founded in 1350. According to legend, Emperor Charles IV discovered the thermal springs by chance while he was deer hunting. They say his doctor suggested he try to heal a leg injury with baths in the thermal spring water. It was successful and Charles IV (or Karel IV in Czech) ordered a town to be founded by this spring and gave it his name – Karlovy Vary.”

Karlovy Vary | Photo: Kristýna Maková,  Radio Prague International
Karlovy Vary | Photo: Libor Kukal,  Radio Prague International

So it was apparently Charles IV who first got the idea that Karlovy Vary could be a great spa town. But it took until the 18th century for word to spread abroad about the healing power of the local mineral water, which people had feared drinking for a long time. The former mayor of Karlovy Vary, Petr Kulhánek, explains how, beginning in the 18th century, guests from all over Europe and beyond started arriving in the spa town.

Karlovy Vary | Photo: Barbora Němcová,  Radio Prague International

“The end of the 18th century, the whole 19th century, and the beginning of the 20th century marked the golden era of Karlovy Vary. The town was considered to be a premium spa destination not just by Europeans but also by people from more distant lands, such as the Russian aristocracy. Karlovy Vary really became a spot for prominent wealthy people and important figures in music, politics, and a range of other fields.”

Russian Czar Peter the Great was among the famous aristocrats that visited Karlovy Vary in the 18th century. But as Petr Kulhánek mentioned, noblemen were not the only high-profile spa guests. The czar met up with German philosopher Gottfried Leibniz here, and cultural figures such as Johan Wolfgang Goethe also visited. Especially noteworthy is the list of renowned European composers who came to be treated here. It contains the likes of Beethoven, Wagner, Chopin, and, among others, Brahms. Bach even composed part of the Brandenburg Concertos during his stay.

Karlovy Vary | Photo: Libor Kukal,  Radio Prague International

Another thing that distinguishes Karlovy Vary is its grand architecture. The historical centre is dotted with grandiose buildings such as the Grandhotel Pupp, which was once a favourite haunt of Beethoven. Stanislav Burachovič told Radio Prague more.

Grandhotel Pupp | Photo: Kristýna Maková,  Radio Prague International

"The architecture here is a true gem of the town and takes us back to the days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. You find buildings in the Romantic style, ideal for dreamers and lovers of the old days. Today's Karlovy Vary is mainly in the 19th century "historicist" style with a little Art Nouveau as well. Most of the town is only some 120 years old because, the first, gothic and renaissance, town burned down in 1604. Then there was another fire in 1759. The third building phase, which the famous poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe fell in love with, was in the Neoclassical style. These buildings were also gradually torn down in the late nineteenth century because the old houses were too small and failed to offer the comfortable living conditions that the spa guests demanded - electricity, hot water, flushing toilets, elevators... The town had to be modernised, leading to a boom in construction, eventually transforming the town into what we see today."

Photo: Barbora Němcová,  Radio Prague International

Like all Czech towns, Karlovy Vary was not left untouched by the socialist urban planning of the communist regime. The brutalist, 16-storey Hotel Thermal and the Hot Spring Colonnade, both constructed in the 1970s, are two structures that stick out among the surrounding 19th century buildings. Hotel Thermal now annually hosts the most prestigious of Czech film festivals, the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival.

Le Corbusier, an architect, once famously compared the town’s buildings to an “array of cakes”. And, speaking of desserts, if you visit Karlovy Vary, then you must try the Karlovy Vary wafers. These circular biscuits filled with chocolate or nuts are made using mineral water and are a popular souvenir. For those who prefer something stronger, the Becherovka liquor, which was invented in Karlovy Vary at the beginning of the 19th century, is also a good choice. Tourists who would like to learn more about the famous Czech liquor can visit the Becherovka Museum, which offers an interesting look at the herbal drink’s production process.

Becherovka,  Karlovy Vary | Photo: Zdeněk Trnka,  Czech Radio
Karlovy Vary | Photo: Štěpánka Budková,  Radio Prague International

Walking around Karlovy Vary, it is impossible not to notice that many signs advertising various businesses are written in Cyrillic. Russian presence in the town is not a new trend, and the Church of Saint Peter and Paul, a Russian Orthodox cathedral that stands at the edge of town, is a visible testament to that fact. But since the 1990s, Karlovy Vary has seen a great influx of capital mainly from Russia but also from other former Soviet Republics. A large chunk of property in the town is now in Russian hands.

Karlovy Vary | Photo: Radio Prague International

Karlovy Vary was also recently nominated, along with ten other European spa towns, to become a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The centuries-old balneological tradition, landscape, and unique architecture all no doubt played a part in the nomination. UNESCO is set to make its final decision about the inclusion of the spa towns on the list this July. But whether it gets inscribed as a UNESCO site or not, Karlovy Vary is worth seeing. Once the holiday spot of the greats of European culture, it is a big part of Czech and world cultural heritage.