9) Poděbrady – a spa town “for the heart” (and soul)

Poděbrady Spa

“Poděbrady is for the heart”: that is the motto of Central Bohemia’s main spa resort, which for nearly a century has specialized in cardiology. Besides top-class balneology, the charming town on the banks of the Elbe River boasts a beautiful spa park and splendid architecture. Thanks to its proximity to Prague, Poděbrady was a playground for politicians and luminaries of the First Czechoslovak Republic.

The first thing to strike a visitor on the drive into Poděbrady is the stately castle on the bank of the River Elbe, which stands as a reminder that the town was once an important feudal outpost. It is also one of the contentious birthplaces of the 15th-century Bohemian King George of Poděbrady, a skilled diplomat credited for coming up with an early concept of European political integration.

Poděbrady chateau | Photo:  Radio Prague International

The castle is also important for Poděbrady’s history for a different reason. At the start of the 20th century, the town’s first mineral water spring was unearthed here. As Josef Rambousek of the Poděbrady spa resort told Czech Radio, at the time, a serious water shortage was making locals’ lives harder and hindering the town’s economic development.

“Back then the castle was owned by a Count Hohenlohe, who used it as his residence. In 1905, he had as a guest a Prussian dowser named Karl von Büllow. Since there was not much quality water in Poděbrady, he asked Büllow to find an underground spring. He determined it to be under the courtyard. The digging took a relatively long time, but, eventually, at the depth of 98 metres, the strong spring of the now-famous Poděbrady mineral water sprouted out of the ground.”

Flower Clock | Photo:  Radio Prague International

Initially, the discovery of the spring was met with disappointment, as it quickly became apparent that the metallic-tasting water was unsuitable to meet the town’s everyday needs. But the people of Poděbrady soon realized that it could be used for balneology. Between 1906 and 1912, several other springs were unearthed. Always ready to turn a profit, the entrepreneurial Count Hohenlohe decided to open a spa resort not far from the castle.

Photo: Markéta Vejvodová,  Czech Radio

That resort saw its biggest boom in the interwar years. During that time, Poděbrady’s colonnade and most opulent spa buildings were built, along with the functionalist train station, designed in the shape of a locomotive. Another landmark from that era is the Flower Clock in the middle of Poděbrady’s central spa park. First planted in 1936, the clock’s appearance is formed by a different array of flowers each year. The start of every new hour is marked by a small statue of a dwarf striking a metal mushroom with a hammer.

According to Josef Rambousek of the Poděbrady spa resort, the town’s proximity to Prague allowed it to become a favourite destination for the well-heeled of the capital during the two decades preceding the Second World War.

“From the historical photos I’ve seen, it is apparent that Poděbrady was a very alluring place sought out by the crème de la crème of Prague. Numerous important figures came here for treatment and wellness stays. Presidents Masaryk and Beneš as well as the [comedic] actor Vlasta Burian, for example, were among the guests.”

“Poděbradka”, high in iron, carbon, and great for blood flow

Photo: Radio Prague International

At the outset, the mineral spring water was the focal point of spa treatment in Poděbrady. Known as “Poděbradka”, it has a distinctively metallic taste and a high iron and carbon dioxide content. Much as at the spas of Libverda and Luhačovice, it is used for bubble baths, which can help improve blood flow and mitigate heart pressure.

Poděbradka has also been bottled and sold outside of the resort since 1911, and today you can find it in virtually every grocery store in the Czech Republic in a variety of flavours. The numerous drinking fountains around Poděbrady’s spa park offer the water in its pure form. Josef Rambousek again:

“We have four springs in our care that emanate outside of town, and their water supplies the resort. Here, one can taste the real, unadulterated Poděbradka, which is not flavoured or modified in any way, just as it is 100 metres underground.”

Libenský Colonnade | Photo: Radio Prague International

Libenský Colonnade - a professor’s lasting legacy

One lovely place to stop for a drink is at the Boček Spring fountain, by the Libenský Colonnade. Built in 1936, the Colonnade itself is an interesting constructivist style structure in the park centre. It shares its name with Hotel Libenský, the largest spa facility in town. Mr Rambousek told Czech Radio about its namesake.

“The hotel got its name from Professor [Václav] Libenský, who made one of the biggest contributions to the development of the spa resort. In 1926, he opened the first medical facility for treating heart disease and other cardiovascular disorders, setting the foundations of modern cardiology that we continue to build on today.”

Poděbrady | Photo: Radio Prague International

Since Václav Libenský established his cardiological institute, the resort in Poděbrady has focused on heart health and established itself as among the best spas in its field. Patients include people recovering from heart surgery or cardiac arrest.

For them, the local G-Rex Hotel runs an early rehabilitation programme. The patients remain bedridden at first before transitioning into an active rehabilitation routine. For that purpose, Hotel Libenský is equipped with a top-class gym. Víta Mařatka, a doctor at the Poděbrady resort, told Czech Radio more about the treatments on offer for patients suffering from cardiovascular diseases.

“Our main treatment is cardio rehabilitation, which basically means supervised physical activity. The mineral water played a bigger part before we had standard cardiovascular medication. Today, our procedures are more modern, and Poděbradka serves more as a complement. So, the main procedures for patients with heart and blood-vessel disorders are different movement activities.”

Wellness in Poděbrady

Photo:  Radio Prague International

The Poděbrady spa philosophy places great emphasis on staying active for its healthy wellness clients too. The town has a network of bicycle paths that connect to the Elbe River route to Prague and Dresden. But one does not have to go as far as Germany to enjoy a ride along the river. The paths around Poděbrady are mostly flat and therefore suitable even for untrained cyclists, and visitors can rent bikes directly from the spa resort. With its many tree-lined paths, the spacious spa park in the town centre is popular with walkers.

Besides balneology, Poděbrady has also excelled in another industry. Before they had the town’s first mineral water spring dug up, Count Hohenhoe and his wife, Chariclea, contributed to the founding in Poděbrady of the Bohemia Company glassworks. Over the next century, the company’s crystal glass became renowned as a quality product around Europe. The glassware is a popular souvenir among spa guests, and visitors can buy it in a large shop at the entrance of the spa park, right across from the train station.

King George Cruise Ship | Photo: Michal Louč,  Wikimedia Commons,  CC BY-SA 4.0

Another attraction outside the spas is the King George Cruise Ship, which offers trips to the neighbouring town of Nymburk. Its well-preserved town centre is one of the most beautiful in Czechia, with medieval and renaissance era architecture. The writer Bohumil Hrabal grew up in Nymburk in the 1920s and 30s, and he eloquently depicted the town in several of his novels, notably Postřižiny (Cutting It Short).

The King George also sails upstream, to the confluence of the Elbe and Cidlina rivers. From there, it is not far to the village of Libice nad Cidlinou, a significant mediaeval archaeological site. The Libický luh nature reserve, part of the largest constellation of floodplain forest in the country, is also close by.

With its top-class healing facilities and beautiful environs, Poděbrady deserves its place among the most acclaimed spa towns in the Czech Republic. Whether it’s balneology, architecture, or pristine natural surroundings, there is something here for everyone.