KARLOVY VARY, Czech Republic — This town — formerly called Karlsbad — is a very “once upon a time” kind of place.
Its main avenue, alongside the steaming Tepla River, and its hilly residential areas are lined by villas, hotels and small palaces designed in rococo, neo-baroque and art nouveau styles, all painted in confectioners’ colours.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, when most of them were built, no one had heard the term “Disneyesque,” but new arrivals would have understood that they’d wandered into a fairytale kingdom.
In those days, Karlsbad was one of Europe’s premiere spas. Royalty came here: Russian czars, Prussian kings and Austrian empresses. So did the cultural elite: the German playwright Johann Goethe visited 13 times. Composers loved it: Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Wagner, Tchaikovsky, Schumann, Liszt and Grieg walked its streets, presumably humming. Goethe and Beethoven used to take strolls together.
What drew visitors, initially at least, were the waters. The town’s many hot springs pour out a liquid rich in minerals that, since the 1500s, has been believed to benefit those with digestive and metabolic ailments.
In the 19th century Karlsbad became a place to see and be seen, do business, conduct affairs (that was one reason Goethe kept coming back) and buy things. Two of the most desirable items for purchase were Moser glassware and Becherovka liqueur.
Both are still available: Moser makes a non-lead crystal that’s become very popular; Becherovka is a combination of water from the springs and herbal additions, concocted in the 1800s as a medicinal drink, but today bought mostly as a souvenir.
Two world wars ended Karlsbad’s glory days as a haunt of European royalty. In their place came working-class Germans and, after the Soviet Union tightened its hold on Eastern Europe, Russians. For them, a spa week was a reward for outstanding service to Communism.
Milos Curlik, a Prague-based guide, remembers that the grateful winners of such trips were always chaperoned by more smartly dressed handlers from the KGB.
Today, the Russians are still coming. On the main shopping street many of the signs are first in Russian, then in Czech.
The Savoy Westend, a hotel made up of five lovely mini-palaces, next to the Russian consulate and around the corner from the exquisite Orthodox Church and its golden domes, is popular with them.
But not so many people arrive for a full treatment regime — that’s not what the current generation travels for. (And it doesn’t help that in the 1970s the Communists tore down the old thermal baths in the town centre and replaced them with an ugly spa-bunker.)
Consequently, Karlovy Vary has found new ways to attract a younger clientele, notably the Karolvy Vary International Film Festival. Held in early July, it has brought such big names as Gus van Sant, Michael Douglas and Morgan Freeman.
Films are shot as well as screened here: the neo-baroque façade of the Grandhotel Pupp, for example, appears in the casino scenes of Casino Royale.
There may not be royalty to make the town cool anymore, but there is James Bond.
For more information on Karlovy Vary (Karlsbad) and travel in the Czech Republic visit the Czech Tourism website at www.czechtourism.com.