Karlsbad, Czech Republic — MIST coats the hills around Karlsbad in the early morning, but the old Czech spa town doesn't sleep in.
Even before hotel breakfast buffets are laid, people trickle into the streets carrying plastic bottles and porcelain mugs. Young and old, fat and thin, solo or in salt-and-pepper-shaker couples, they head to fountains where 12 mineral springs bubble up.
Each font dispenses water at slightly varying temperatures, with varying amounts of carbon dioxide. It's thought that each has a different therapeutic power. Spa doctors tell patients suffering jangled nerves, acne, obesity, gout and gastrointestinal disorders which one to drink. When patients reach the recommended spring, they fill up.
Only then does a summer day in Karlsbad begin.
Covering about three-quarters of the globe, water may seem common. But in Karlsbad (known in the Czech Republic as Karlovy Vary) and its sister spa Marienbad (a.k.a. Marianske Lazne), both west of Prague, there's nothing ordinary about H2O. For centuries, people have sought cures in the piping-hot mineral water of western Bohemia.
I came here in June with no particular malady, only a desire to buff up my healthy glow and to spend a few days in the slow lane, sampling the civilized, old-fashioned, highly affordable pleasures of the two Czech spas.
Odes have been written to them, and architects have created graceful, colonnaded canopies to shelter the noble springs. Grand hotels, theaters, churches and concert halls rose alongside them, showing off a glorious melange of then-current Art Nouveau styles. In the heyday of these spas, which was around 1900, the world came to these two watering places. The bon vivant English king Edward VII regularly traveled to Marienbad, and an aging Johann Wolfgang von Goethe fell in love with a teenager there. Richard Wagner started "Lohengrin" in Karlsbad, and wise-cracking Mark Twain wrote letters home about spa-goers' chief topic of conversation: their livers.
But both towns fell on hard times in the 20th century, especially during the late 1930s when western Bohemia, then a part of the largely German-speaking Czech Sudetenland, became a part of the Third Reich.
After that, the Iron Curtain fell and sequestered Karlsbad and Marienbad in the mountain-locked valleys of western Bohemia, leaving them chiefly to health-seekers from Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union.
Only in the last decade have these spas begun to reawaken and spruce up. Given their illustrious past, they didn't have to start from scratch, unlike other rediscovered places in Eastern Europe where tourist facilities are unsophisticated or altogether lacking. A convenient day-trip away from Prague, they are prime Czech destinations, with helpful tourist offices, reliable hotels and multilingual populations, though I found few Czechs in western Bohemia who speak English, probably because most visitors are Russian and German.
At the same time, the spas seem sweetly lost in time, like Eureka Springs, Ark., and California's Carlsbad.
Between treatments, spa-goers walk in the woods, take rides in horse-drawn carriages, play cards, listen to concerts in the colonnades or simply sit on park benches. In the afternoon, they drink more spring elixir and then, magically, it's time for dinner.
Old-world style, tidy and frugal, dedicated more to wellness than to beauty and fitness, the Czech spas are to Canyon Ranch and the Golden Door what Dr. Scholl's sandals are to Manolo Blahnik heels. Public spas and hotels have delightful hot and cold pools full of the region's fabled mineral water, but fancy toiletries, robes and towels are rare.
Massage therapists are highly skilled, but the average session lasts only 20 minutes and is likely to be accompanied by bright lights and loud Czech rock music.
Many of the treatments offered are as hygienic and esoteric as any you would find at the Golden Door, but their execution is more clinical than hedonistic. You're put in a plastic body bag filled with spring-generated carbon dioxide, wrapped in local peat or given a mineral-water gum massage with no herbal tea, orchids or recorded wave sounds. That, coupled with the Czech spas' de-emphasis on exercise, made them refreshing.
The prices are right
THEN there's the cost. Rancho La Puerta, just south of San Diego in Baja, Mexico, and widely considered one of North America's best moderately priced spas, recently offered me a week's stay for an all-inclusive price of about $3,000. Even if airfare is high, you can get a week of treatments in Karlsbad or Marienbad for less than $1,000.
I started in Karlsbad, surrounded by mountains barely as high as the Adirondacks. Its parks, colonnades and main street line the shallow Tepla River, with winding lanes and backyards yielding to shaggy oak forests.
At the center of town, the most famous of its dozen springs, the Sprudel, emerges in an Old Faithful-like geyser.