How do you heal yourself while on a holiday? You walk, you drink, then you walk a little more, and drink a little bit more. That’s exactly how my day in the Czech town of Karlovy Vary unfolded during a recent trip, except that the healing was more literal than metaphorical.
For anyone walking the elegant Romanesque colonnades here, replete with natural mineral fountains, drinking becomes the most spontaneous act and takes up most part of the day. Most people I encountered in the town on a nippy autumn afternoon were walking with their spa cups, filling them straight off one of the innumerable fountains, sipping from them as they walked up, looking for the next. The tradition of spa care in the country goes back hundreds of years, with the three towns — Karlovy Vary, Mariánské Lázne and Františkovy Lázne — making up the West Bohemian Spa Triangle. Of these, Karlovy Vary, less than two hours by train from Prague, is the most popular, perhaps, also owing to its proximity to the capital.
In fact, the entire town was built around a spa in the 1350s. Legend has it that Karlovy Vary was founded by the Czech king and Roman emperor Charles IV, who discovered a unique spring here while hunting deer one evening. Consequently, an entire town came up around it. By the end of the 16th century, as many as 200 spa houses had sprung up in this picturesque valley, with its springs having won fame beyond the Bohemian borders as an antidote to several metabolic and gastric difficulties. Today’s treatments range from aquatherapy to drinking the mineral-rich water. No wonder, then, that with an area under 60 sq km and less than 50,000 inhabitants, it’s the visitors that keep it busy and bustling.
The water, which is believed to have immense healing properties, can be quite hot. I was warned to only use the special cup to drink it without burning the mouth. Basically, you fill the cup with water from a spring and drink from the spout. Spa cups are found everywhere — in hotels, roadside kiosks, souvenir shops and even museums; there’s a whole museum dedicated to the cups, holding as many as 3,000 varieties.
What’s as popular as the spa water is the spa wafer — a traditional snack dating back to the 1800s. Cooks would make the wafers, sprinkle them with sugar and serve to the spa guests. Locals like to believe it is the spring water and salt that give the wafers a unique flavour.
Of the 12 springs that are the source of water for innumerable fountains, I was recommended a visit to the pavilion of the Vrídlo hot spring. Vrídlo is the only source of thermal water used for the local spa baths. The mineral water is 162 degrees Fahrenheit and flows at a rate of 528 gallons per minute. After strolling through the elegant colonnades and filling my spa cup several times in the course of the day, it was time for what is often dubbed as the town’s 13th spring — the native Becherovka herbal liqueur.
This article first appeared in the print edition on October 27, 2019 under the title ‘The call of the fountains’.