culinaria eugenius in karlovy vary: taking the waters

My only small excursion away from Prague in the Czech Republic was a delightful visit to the old town once known throughout Europe as Karlsbad.  Karlovy Vary, still a spa town in Western Bohemia, as it has been for hundreds of years, is unlike anywhere I’ve ever been.  Bright pastel facades, many of them fronting hotels, line a small canal of spring water bisecting the old town.  The town rises steeply from the canal, with similar buildings piled up into the foothills.  Massive resorts hulk over the town further up, and a funicular railway allows tourists a vantage point with which to see the whole area.  Well-groomed trails in the woods above the town, also there for centuries, provide leisurely hikes.

Photo by Mia McIver

A friend and I took the 2-hour bus trip to this lovely place.  Since my camera battery was dying, she took most of the photos, and I am grateful: her photography is excellent.  It was so nice to travel with someone who likes taking pictures of food as much as I do.

Photo by Mia McIver

Once landed in Karlovy Vary, we partook in the centuries-old pleasant task of strolling and taking the waters.  There are several colonnades in town, very long covered porches, if you like, where little spring fountains continually emit water for drinking.  I’m not sure I’ve ever had a post on Culinaria Eugenius about drinking water, so here it is.

The first photo shows a colonnade built in the late 19th c., and the second shows a Soviet-era indoor colonnade, the only one in town, with a fancy modernized spring.

Photo by Mia McIver

The gazebo pictured below holds another spring.  Each spring has a different temperature and mineral content.  Even more healing, in my view, is the local tipple: Becherovka herbal liqueur.  Here, one can partake in a drink of hot spring water, then wash it down with a bottle purchased at the Becherovka kiosk.  Commercial production began in Karlovy Vary in 1807, invented by a collaboration between an Englishman and KV chemist Jan Becher.  Like Hungarian Zwack or German Jagermeister, this sweet, bitter brew serves as an apéritif or digestif.  It’s marvelous for quelling nausea and soothing a cough, as well (I speak through personal experience).

Although the town has a long history of drinking the spring water, the whole idea of bathing in the water didn’t really catch on until wealthy Russians started moving in to the place.  While what they brought to the town in the 70s (including a monstrous concrete modern hotel squatting in the middle of town like a toad) and in the 90s (serious investments that refurbished the old facades) provided capital improvement and foreign money infusing the local economy, the Russian presence created a resort town full of useless high-end jewelry stores, china shops, and boutiques with garish, overpriced fashions.

This was fine, I suppose, during boom times, but now, with the economy in decline, the diamond-buying crowds have thinned, and regular travelers like me don’t have a single bakery at which to buy some bread or an inexpensive cafe at which we can pick up a sandwich.   All the shops in town are geared toward the tourist industry, and the restaurants are extremely expensive and unappealing.

There are a few state-run (I think) spas, with numbers like Lazne 3 and Lazne 5 (aka Elizabeth Spa), but they’re kind of baffling to understand.  If I had known what features either of these places had I would have most likely taken advantage of them, but because the only spa that had a transparent menu and description in English was right next to my hotel, I took the waters bodily at a new spa, Zamecke Lasne (Chateau Spa).

Pictured to the right, the spa is relatively expensive, and you have to buy packages of 2-, 3-, or 4-hour treatments.  I chose a massage, an underwater massage (done in a bathtub by a nurse holding a powerful showerhead under the water), gum irrigation (a ceramic Y-shaped attachment was fitted to a hose and a sink, and you sit over the sink for the longest 15 minutes of your life with the thing in your mouth, water gushing out down your face), and “Dr. Kniepp’s hydrotherapy,” alternating hot and cold baths in which you immerse your feet and calves, marching in place, for 30 minutes.  With the “treatments” comes a nice fluffy robe, unlimited use of a springwater massage pool (like an oversized hot tub, but lukewarm), a Japanese rock bath in which you walk on rocks to stimulate your feet, a tiny sauna, and all the tea/water you’d like to drink.

The real kicker was the “Spirit of the Springs,” a laser light show that happens in the spa main room from time to time.  The old spring in a grotto alcove of the main room, non-operational when we visited, is one of the main Karlovy Vary springs, but privatization has made it inaccessible to the public.  This could be a good thing, given that the spring is inhabited by an oft-angry Spirit.  The Spirit appears in the main room when he is angry, darkening the entire room, causing the pool to turn red, bubble up, froth, and emit a water jet from one side as thunder peals and lightening jags across the starry sky above.  The Spirit himself appears, illumined in red, in the alcove, looking for all the world like Zeus on a spa holiday.  Picture 4 in the link above shows The Spirit.  And I couldn’t say it any better.

After this brush with the deities and being the picture of good health, we were ready for some healthy spa cuisine.  The manager of the hotel had no idea what we meant.  Salad, perhaps?  A cool vegetable soup?  Ah, fish.

Photo by Mia McIver

OK, so it wasn’t exactly the fish dish we think of as spa cuisine, but the trout was fried perfectly, and it had a nice cabbage salad and those delicious, creamy Czech potatoes.

I had the spicy minced beef in a potato pancake, which turned out to be a pork ragout with canned corn.  The one meal I didn’t like my entire trip!  But that’s ok, since one can’t go wrong with a potato pancake.  For dessert, we opted for the locally famous spa cookie, the oplatky. Catholics will see it’s basically a giant communion wafer, and familiar to those of Polish extraction as the Easter wafer. We washed it down, non-traditionally, with swigs of Becherovka.  On my way back to the bus station, I saw the tiny shop in which they are made, complete with a very Industrial Revolution conveyor belt oplatky pressing machine.

Photo by Mia McIver

I also managed to drink at least a cup full of the aforementioned hot spring water in my special Karlovy Vary cup with the list of springs imprinted on it. The handle of the cup is hollow, and one uses it as a straw to drink the hot, slightly smelly, healing mineral water within.  I soon realized that the way the water healed you was to cause diarrhea.  Ah well.

This concludes my Prague trip.  If you’re interested in the other posts in the series, check out Preserved Prague, Prague Street Food, and Czech gravy. Next up, Montana!  Will Culinaria Eugenius prevail in a state that doesn’t even have an official state food?  Stay tuned…