5) Jáchymov – the oldest radon spa in the world
A fifteen-minute drive north of Karlovy Vary, Jáchymov is the oldest radon spa in the world. First established as a silver mining settlement, the town became a popular spa destination at the beginning of the 20th century. But in the 1950s, local spa life all but ceased, as Jáchymov became the site of infamous forced labour camps for political prisoners. Today, the spa is up and running again, offering radiation-based treatments that you will not find anywhere else.
Jáchymov lies at the foot of Krušné hory, or Ore Mountains, in an area rich in deposits of silver, uranium, and hundreds of other minerals. That’s why, in the 16th century, one of the richest noble families in Bohemia, the Counts von Schlick, first established it as a silver mining town, using the rare metal to mint the famous Joachimstaler coins. That history earned Jáchymov’s mining sites a spot on the UNESCO World Heritage list in 2019, along with nearby mines in the Czech Republic and Germany.
It was an unexpected discovery in Svornost, one of the mines that the Schlicks founded in 1525, that gave rise to the Jáchymov spa tradition. Today the oldest continually operating mine in the world, Svornost was first used to extract silver, before switching to pitchblende, a radioactive material used in a local factory to make paint, in the mid-19th century. In 1864, part of the Svornost mineshaft flooded after workers struck an underground spring. As stories began circulating about the strange properties of the water emanating from the underwater well, locals began referring to it as the “Miraculous Spring”. Věra Vacatová of the Radium Palace Hotel in Jáchymov explains that in 1905, the mining company had the water subjected to a scientific study.
“The company engineer, Josef Štěp, had the water inspected by the Viennese physicists Mache and Meyer, who discovered that the water contained a large amount of radium emanation. That provided the scientific base on which the spas were later founded.”
The discovery of radium emanation, as radon was then called, in Jáchymov’s spring water sparked great interest in the prospect of using it for medical purposes and led to Jáchymov officially becoming the first radioactive spa town in the world in 1906. Zuzana Křápková of Jáchymov Healing Spas told Czech Radio about the health benefits of the radon water, which is still used in the town today.
“The water from the ‘Miraculous Spring’ has a high radon content and is therefore well-suited for healing hurt joints, muscles, and nerves. Jáchymov’s spas are also the only ones with their own miners, who work on pumping the radon water from the Svornost Mine directly into the spa buildings.”
Jáchymov’s conversion into a spa town also coincided with the early 20th-century craze around everything radioactive. Research by Marie Curie (who first isolated polonium and radium while studying wastewater from Jáchymov’s paint factory) had shown that radiation destroyed cancer cells. And, because of that, radon and radium were considered cure-all medicines of the future, leading to all sorts of experimental radioactive treatments. Radon water fountains were placed in Jáchymov’s spa resorts, and visitors could buy and drink from the so-called “pocket Jáchymov”, a container filled with radium salt.
Even though these quack procedures had the opposite of their intended healing effects, Jáchymov remained a trendy spa town throughout the first decades of the 20th century. Věra Vacatová told Czech Radio about the Radium Palace Hotel, which, perched on a hillside at the edge of town, stands as a testament to Jáchymov’s prosperous early days.
“This beautiful hotel was built in 1912 by a stock company owned by Count Silva-Tarouca with the idea of attracting wealthy clients. And it had the desired effect because Radium Palace was one of the most modern hotels of its time, with all the requisite perks, such as hot and cold running water, a tube post system, and very stylish interiors. It attracted visitors and lots of wealthy people wanted to stay at the hotel.”
In its first years, the Radium Palace welcomed the likes of Egyptian King Fuad I and composer Richard Strauss. The first Czechoslovak President Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk was also a fond visitor, even spending his eightieth birthday at the hotel. The hotel boasts beautiful 1920s interiors, which include a “winter garden” porch café and an art-nouveau bar.
But the initial prosperity of Jáchymov’s spas did not last. In 1938, the town was annexed by the Third Reich as part of the Munich Agreement, and Czech inhabitants were forced to leave. The spa houses were converted into soldiers’ quarters, with the Radium Palace becoming the property of a Berlin Hospital.
The end of World War II meant a second forcible expulsion, this time of the German citizens of Jáchymov, who for generations had made up an overwhelming majority of the town’s population. With the dawn of the atomic age came a new radioactive craze, as Czechoslovakia signed a uranium export deal with the Soviet Union in 1945. Mining in Svornost and two other Jáchymov uranium mines was ramped up commensurately. Whereas in 1945, some 300 people were working there, by the 1950s, that number grew to over 40,000. A third was made up of political prisoners, who lived in harsh conditions, fenced in with barbed wire in camps around the town.
With uranium mining taking an immense cost in human suffering and environmental damage, the spa industry became an afterthought. It was not until the 1960s that the prison camps were closed, and mining scaled back.
Spa life in Jáchymov then gradually rejuvenated as construction began on new spa facilities. The first new building, the Běhounek Hotel, opened in 1975, not far from Radium Palace. It was followed by the large Currie spa complex in 1992.
Today, Jáchymov is once again first and foremost a spa town. But, in contrast to a century ago, charlatan drinking cures are no longer promoted. Jindřich Maršík, the head doctor at the Běhounek Hotel, told Czech Radio about the radon bath, a safer form of radiation therapy now on offer.
“For the radon baths, we use stainless steel tubs, which are slowly filled with radon water from the bottom up so that whirlwinds don’t appear, so as to limit the amount of radon gas escaping from the tub. Patients then enter the water, which has a temperature of 36 degrees Celsius. Each patient undertakes such a procedure six times a week, so every day except for Sunday, which is a rest day.”
Besides the radon baths, spa guests can try the so-called “Jáchymovské trubičky” procedure, in which a box filled with radon salts is placed on the body to reduce inflammation. For visitors too anxious to try therapy involving radioactive particles, Jáchymov’s spas offer the usual selection of conventional rehabilitation and balneological treatments. First opened in 1911, the Agricola Spa Center is the oldest preserved spa building in town. It underwent reconstruction in recent years and now offers a modern aquatic centre as well as a state-of-the-art “sauna mine”, which combines wellness with reminders of the local mining history.
Having gone through large fluctuations of its population over the years, Jáchymov is now one of the smaller West Bohemian spa towns, with a little over 2500 inhabitants – in 1534, in comparison, it had 18,000 people and was the second-largest Czech town after Prague. As a result, the town is not as well-maintained as the larger Czech spa towns and contains more dilapidated and abandoned buildings. Still, Jáchymov’s sloping main square is worth seeing for the historical architecture of the town hall and the Renaissance-style royal mint. The town hall’s basement, formerly a dungeon and later home to a popular restaurant, now houses an exhibition of rare Latin books that were discovered in the building’s attic. The royal mint next door is now home to the Regional Museum. There, visitors can see a permanent exhibition that tells the story of medieval silver mining and the Joachimstaler coins that used to be minted here. There is also a newer exhibition entitled “Jáchymov Hell”, about the local labour camps and uranium mines that some 60,000 prisoners passed through in the 1950s.
The surrounding nature, now mostly recovered from the plundering it endured during uranium mining, has been nicknamed the “green colonnade of Jáchymov”. Ana Plačková of the Jáchymov Information Centre took Czech Radio on one scenic hiking path, called the “Emperor’s Alley”.
“It’s a charming path lined by giant linden trees, which were planted between 1898 and 1903 to mark the 50th anniversary of the reign of Austro-Hungarian Emperor Franz Josef I. If you take the path in the afternoon, the sun is behind you so there is an incredible view of Jáchymov on the right-hand side. Even before you get there, from Jirásková Street leading up to the path, you can already see the Svornost mine shaft, the church tower, and the ‘Jáchymov hell’ hiking path above it, which goes along the remnants of the old prison camp watchtowers. The whole route is about 2 kilometres, and, once you climb up to the Emperor’s Alley, it’s quite flat.’’
The hiking trail also offers a great view of the nearby Ore Mountains, which form the Czech Republic’s natural land border with Germany. In the winter, visitors can take a short trip and spend an afternoon skiing at Klínovec, the mountains’ highest peak and one of top-ranked slopes in Czechia, before heading back to town to recuperate in a hot radon bath. With such opportunities, a stay in Jáchymov, which has seen the best and worst of West Bohemian history, is among the best experiences that Czech spa towns can offer.