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Old World Spas : Steeped in grand architecture and inexpensive health treatments at three revitalized spa towns in the Czech Republic

June 29, 1997|AJA BUFKA | Bufka is a Los Angeles-based correspondent for the Czech Republic weekly news magazine, Tyden

FRANTISKOVY LAZNE, Czech Republic — Several months ago, I returned to the country of my birth, to an area that has attracted royalty and artists for centuries and still retains the magic of long-ago Europe.

For the most part unscarred by wars and modern buildings, and rejuvenated since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the beautiful spa towns of Marianske Lazne (also known by its German name of Marienbad), Karlovy Vary (Karlsbad) and Frantiskovy Lazne (Franzensbad) reside in an architectural slice of time that has given way in much of Europe to fast-food outlets and international chain hotels.

Europeans have always come here to sip the bubbling spring mineral waters as health cures. But they also visit to bask in the beauty of the spa's belle epoch architecture and the forestedcountryside, tucked between rolling hills near the Czech Republic's western border with Germany.

Even the prices seem locked in another era. Hotels can cost less than $100 per night, and prices for spa treatments such as massages ($16), mineral baths ($25) and mud packs ($16) are out of the '50s.

I first visited what I think of as the "spa triangle" of Western Bohemia--with Frantiskovy Lazne on the west, Karlovy Vary on the east and Marianske Lazne on the south--20 years ago as a Czech citizen. I returned last October from my home in Los Angeles with a dream: to revisit the places where my wife and I had spent our honeymoon. Happily, I found that the same spas and hotels that had intrigued us years ago had been recently updated and freshly painted, with improved bathrooms and other facilities.

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It was a crisp autumn day and the sun shimmered over lushly forested scenery as I cruised along the winding two-lane highway between Prague and Frantiskovy Lazne in my rented Skoda, a tiny Czech-made car. The distance was only 75 miles, but the trip took four hours, with slow and, at times, tedious and frustrating traffic.

Still, I couldn't fail to note the beauty of the countryside, and when I finally arrived in Frantiskovy Lazne I was surprised by the post-Communist improvements. The original styles of the spa structures--from neo-Baroque to Art Deco--had been carefully renovated, and new spas and modern hotels had been constructed. New owners with financial backing from local and international banks have rebuilt most of the spa buildings, reconstructed the unique colonnades and modernized the facilities while preserving their rich architectural past.

Streets and promenades have been decked out with plants, fountains and benches that serve as meeting places for visitors, who walk along sipping mineral-rich water from springs believed to have healing properties.

The waters are what traditionally have drawn visitors to this part of the Czech Republic known as Western Bohemia, which is awash with thermal springs. One example is the Karlovy Vary Geyser, which sits in the middle of one of the three main cities that make up the Bohemian spa triangle and spouts 530 gallons per minute of carbon dioxide- and salt-infused water. More than 60 natural springs can be found in Western Bohemia.

It was the discovery of mineral springs, mud and peat--all thought to have medicinal powers--that prompted creation of the first permanent spa settlement of Karlovy Vary in about 1350. The settlements at Marianske Lazne and Frantiskovy Lazne followed.

But on this day I was not concerned with history. I parked on the outskirts of Frantiskovy Lazne and walked into town. (The central districts of all three spa towns ban automobiles.) A 10-minute stroll took me to Narodni (National), a cobbled pedestrian boulevard lined with spa hotels. Narodni ends at a nicely manicured park that is the site of Glauber Springs, one of the best known of the city's 23 springs.

Frantiskovy Lazne's springs are celebrated for their laxative effect. But devotees also make pilgrimages for treatment of gynecological disorders (peat, used in heated compresses, is used to treat infertility) and for heart, vascular and circulatory problems.

The treatment for various maladies, including sterility, is made from ground peat mixed with water, heated and used for compresses and baths--its curative effects having been documented since 1800.

After a morning spent exploring the town, I was ready for breakfast. I passed up the more refined settings of the restaurants found in the small luxury hotels and returned to my own hotel, the Pyramida, a new and pleasant contemporary-style place. My $5 buffet breakfast included tasty dark bread, ham, spicy sausages and salami--a menu that would certainly shock the health-conscious. For them, there were dishes prepared according to prescribed dietary needs, under the supervision of a nutritionist.

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