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Phil’s Travels – Karlovy Vary, Czechia (11.23)


Phil’s Travels – Karlovy Vary, Czechia (11.23)

My spa journey began with standard public transport across London (Tube then DLR) on a miserable Sunday afternoon. The DLR through Docklands to City Airport showed me that sugar was still being spun in East London (the sugar factories were still there on their prime river-frontage sites). Even Millennium Mill was still there (in form if still not in function), some 30 years after I first visited the Docklands area to undertake hotel needs assessments, site identifications and an overarching hotel development strategy for the then London Docklands Development Corporation. From my carriage I also noticed a big hole in the ground (the new Silvertown Tunnel to Greenwich Peninsula, the first new tunnel under the Thames in over 30 years) and that ExCeL was extending (adding a further 25,000sqm). What a success story (although its C19 repurposing was a waste of time and money, especially as staffing it was a flawed afterthought).

City Airport security was faster than slurry off a shovel. No need to unpack. No need to take off my boots. I was told to put my undisturbed, unopened bag on the conveyor-belt and to simply allow the new tech to scan everything in situ. Superfast and very pleasant. The departures area had not changed much since my last time through City (probably when I went to Luxembourg with Foster+Partners in 2010s) but they had managed to squeeze in a ubiquitous (mini-) Prêt in the west corridor. Prêts are literally everything. They will be in your confessional soon.

The plane was small and the flight was empty. Prague Airport was busy and a good proportion of the customers were English speaking (perhaps heading home from multiple Stag Dos, for which Prague had something of reputation pre-C19). I had no recollection of my last time in Prague Airport (circa 1997). But I am certain that all of the development around the terminal buildings was not there back then: hotels, offices, multi-storey car parks, et al. The airport had come a long way in over 25 years.

A car drove us north and west along a road that was part highway and part local road and 1.5 hours later we entered Karlovy Vary. The same journey by train from Prague can take over four hours! A car or bus were the only viable options, and both will be quicker still when the highway is completed all the way.

Karlovy Vary (aka Karlsbad or Carlsbad) is a major spa town (the largest spa complex in Europe) in northwest Czechia (formerly Czech Republic, renamed in 2016), very close to Bavaria and Saxony in neighbouring Germany. It became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2021 because of its natural waters and incredibly elegant and consistent architectural heritage along the Tepla River. The spa status is centred on its hot water springs. In addition to the 15 official fountains from which anyone can drink, there is a geyser right in the heart of the town, housed in its own Hall of Fame. An incredible sight. There is so much hot mineral water bubbling up from the ground that much of it simply flows out into the Tepla itself.

In addition to its spa credentials, Karlovy Vary is famous for its Hollywood performances. For example, our hotel was the inspiration for The Grand Budapest Hotel (the façade is a match, although somewhat elongated in the movie for Hollywood’s purposes). The nearby Grandhotel Pupp starred in Casino Royal and Last Holiday. The town is a veritable Quality Street of gorgeous architecture and colour schemes.

Our hotel comprised a mix of buildings on a hilltop, all connected underground by a system of tunnels, spas and health facilities. My room overlooked the gardens to the modern end of the town and was decorated in a classic style. It was so quiet that I had difficulty falling asleep.

After our first day of meetings, we walked into the old town along the river with it spirting, spluttering and spouting mineral water fountains, fissured torrents and tamed geyser. As if water coming up from the ground was not enough, it also came from above. It rained for much of our evening stroll. It was around 18.00 and most of the shops had closed already but we did find an open souvenir shop so one of my companions could acquire a couple of Karlovy Vary mugs as souvenirs. These unusual mugs come in all shapes, sizes and colours but they all have one thing in common. The handle doubles as a spout so that when you drink the hot mineral water from the many fountains at least it has a chance to cool down as it flows through the handle and out of the spout before passing your lips. Very clever and extremely elegant. The styles were endless. Even well-known artists have designed Karlovy Vary mugs.

Armed with his souvenirs, we headed along the river and both my companions employed same souvenirs to sample the waters from Fountain #8. There are 15 fountains in all. The hottest being closest to the geyser and getting cooler the further away you go. As had the many hundreds of other people wandering around town during our visit, I eventually succumbed to the magic of the place, bought my own souvenir and tried the water from the hotter #6. It tasted salty, minerally, sulphurous and had the texture of a comforting consommé. As it cooled, the flavours were tamed but still noticeable as something completely different. They say it is good for the digestive system and diabetics. To be fair, I had no tummy trouble all trip.

On the second day, I met with a very nice man at the Info Centre, was reunited with my companions and we visited multiple hotels, had a quick lunch at the famous Grandhotel Pupp (under the watchful eye of Brian Cox) and dined in a highly rated local Italian. Over some delicious Mediterranean comestibles, I was asked to identify three outstanding thoughts regarding this amazing town. My responses were: (i) the fact that the mineral water was so readily available and drinkable throughout the old town; (ii) that there was an active geyser right in the middle of town; and (iii) that the architectural heritage was so rich (indicating that there must have been fabulous wealth in the town some 100-200 years ago). And who knows about this amazing destination? Very few, I would argue. The Russians knew about it (pre-C19, more than 70% of visitors came from Russia) and they obviously kept the secret to themselves. Today, thanks to events elsewhere, Karlovy Vary is having to reorient itself and find new markets to survive.

I also discovered that Karlovy Vary is home to the Moser factory, perhaps the king of Bohemian Glass. Glass making in Bohemia goes back centuries. It is said that the Venetians, who monopolised glass making at the time, uniquely, gave some of their tech and knowledge to some Bohemians and the rest is history. A long one. During my Prague visits in the 1990s I bought some very distinctive Moser tumblers, which I still drink from today, but I never realised they were made in such a beautiful place as Karlovy Vary.

The drive back to Prague Airport was uneventful but being during daylight we could see the new highway links in construction. It should be finished in a few years and the full length should reduce the drivetime from airport to spa town to under 50 minutes. At the airport we dropped off one companion and two of us went into the city for separate meetings. As I wandered about the city in search of my meeting venues, I took some nostalgic meanderings around the Old Town, Charles Bridge and Wenceslas Square. The area has not changed much in 25 years, except perhaps more shops and of course way more tourists (even on a wet Wednesday in November, the streets were chocka). I walked past many of the hotels I used to visit and interview as part of my work in the 1990s, bringing back lots of fond memories: Hotel Paris, Grand Hotel Bohemia (not to be confused with Grand Budapest Hotel), Grand Hotel Europa (currently in works), Marriott (now a Hilton) and the former Atrium (now also a Hilton). I passed sites I had worked on back in the day, including what are now the Four Seasons, the Alcron and Radisson Blu. I even walked past my favourite site of all, an historic building near the Old Town Square, called U Sixtu, which was finally in development after all these years (use, however, unknown, I could not identify it from the hoarding, but hopefully to become a gorgeous hotel after all).

My impression was that Prague had not changed much in 25 years. It was still very pretty and lovely to walk around. Loads of wonderful architecture and history. Sure, there were more people, more shops and it had become more commercial, but it was as if I had never been away.

Prague Airport was as far away from City Airport slick as it was possible to be. The ticket barriers worked and passport control was polite but security was a horror show. Security arose at the gate and was of the old-fashioned sort. This meant unpacking all our pull-alongs to show our duty free was indeed bought at the airport and not from some dodgy retailer downtown. We had to unpack our laptops, toiletries, shoes, belts, watches, boots, everything. Well nearly everything. They let us keep our shirts and pants on. Net result? Long queue to enter our gate and a delayed flight.

Our landing into Heathrow was further delayed by headwinds and a couple of loops over Tottenham. We landed 60 minutes late but at least the Lizzie Line was in the station waiting for me and I got home in time for a late supper, duty free and Karlovy Vary souvenir mug intact.

Karlovy Vary? An incredible time capsule. A hidden gem. An amazingly well-kept secret. Keep an eye on the horizon, as in these days and wellness, health and an increasing obsession with longevity, this delightful destination is coming your way.

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