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What's On Tap in Czechoslovakia : The waters of Karlovy Vary, west of Prague, are said to possess healing powers.

March 15, 1992|JEAN GILLETTE | Gillette is a free-lance writer living in La Mesa, Calif

KARLOVY VARY, Czechoslovakia — If your stomach, kidneys or liver are in an uproar, head for the spa town of Karlovy Vary in Czechoslovakia, soak in one of its 12 mineral-water hot springs and chug some Doktor Bier, which brewery director Vladimir Perina claims is "the world's only medicinal beer."

Not only is it reputed to be healthy, a visit to Karlovy Vary is one of the cheapest European vacations possible. A two-week stay, including hotel, all meals, health spa treatment and air fare from Los Angeles, costs about $1,800. And even if your innards are calm, the town is a Victorian jewel untouched by the destruction of wars and occupation.

During a fall visit, my husband and I rented a car at the Prague airport and headed west for about 75 miles, through lush rolling farmland, past herds of grazing cattle and tiny railroad stations and through the villages of Kladno, Lidice and Bochov, finally climbing up pine-clad slopes to Karlovy Vary in western Bohemia.

Near a former lodge of the Hapsburg rulers, the springs of Karlovy Vary were discovered by King Charles IV in 1347 while he was hunting. It's the oldest and largest of Czechoslovakia's many spa towns, which for generations have attracted the cream of European society. The famous and wealthy of Europe, including Peter the Great, Bismarck, Brahms, Liszt, Schiller and Tolstoy, came to take the waters. Heated up to about 160 degrees, the waters of the 12 hot springs around which the handful of spas are built bubble up from a hard crust in the earth. The water allegedly contains 40 chemicals--including sulfate of soda, carbonate of soda and salt--and is used to treat stomach and liver trouble, diabetes, chronic constipation and diarrhea (a puzzling claim). Locals even suggest the waters can be good for high cholesterol.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday April 12, 1992 Home Edition Travel Part L Page 2 Column 1 Travel Desk 2 inches; 49 words Type of Material: Correction
Karlovy Vary spa--Due to a reporting error, a story in the March 15 Travel section incorrectly stated that the Tatra Travel Bureau in New York City offers a two-week, $1,800 package tour to Karlovy Vary, Czechoslovakia, that includes round-trip air fare from Los Angeles. The package leaves from New York and does not include air to and from Los Angeles.

Unlike Prague, whose air is thick with smoke, heavy industry is banned from Karlovy Vary, where good health is considered good business.

The city of Karlovy Vary--sometimes referred to by its German name of Karlsbad--has a population of about 25,000, and the newer parts of town look much like any city in Eastern Europe, with their gray cube-like office buildings, lack of landscaping and parks, dreary apartment buildings and colorless shops.

But the old town, the spa section, is reminiscent of the stage set of a Mozart opera. Tall, graceful Victorian buildings line the banks of the sparkling River Tepla, which flows through the town intersected here and there by ornate bridges. Visitors--no longer only the ailing or aged--rest on benches along a promenade bordered by banks of flowers, sidewalk cafes and enticing shops displaying the incomparable Czech crystal and porcelain. Honeymooners and foreign tourists munch the popular thin, round chocolate or vanilla lazenske oplatky wafers that taste like ice cream cones, fresh from bakeries along the way.

A good place to start a tour of the town is the soaring glass-and-steel Yuri Gagarin Colonnade Spa, marked at the entrance by a statue of the hero, the first Soviet astronaut. Most people call it the "drinking place," and there are numerous fountains as well as the Sprundel Spring: a geyser where visitors sitting in a steam-filled room, surrounded by tall glass windows, watch 2,000 liters of water a minute, heated naturally to almost 200 degrees, shoot like a fountain into the air.

Spa visitors buy strange-looking china teapots with handles on one end and spouts on the other at one of the nearby shops. They fill them from one of the fountains and sip the water, which tastes like a cross between slightly scorched eggs and maple syrup, as they stroll through the landscaped gardens and gazebos.

On the hill above Gagarin Spa is the Baroque Mary Magdalene church, which was erected in the 1730s. The floor plan is octagonal and the dome oval. After being closed for almost 40 years by the Soviets, the church is open and being restored by the Czechs.

In reference to religious observance before the time of perestroika, a young college student from Bratislava confided, "We could go to church if we didn't mind the consequences. Most people, especially teachers, attended in other towns where they weren't known. College students were very careful because we knew if we dared demonstrate against the Soviets, we'd lose our scholarships and even be barred from college."

We spoke for some time, and though she was valiantly trying to learn English and adapt to the new ways, the teaching of her years crept in. Often she referred to "the great workers' revolutionary council," and admitted that it would take years to re-educate young people.

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