Karlovy Vary is a small town nestled snugly in a narrow valley along the banks of the River Tepla, and is famous for its charming fin de siecle architecture huddled below picturesque hills and its twelve natural hot springs.
It's also full of old people. Per square foot they out number the young and blossoming by about 4 to 1. Now I'd like to be able to say that I have nothing against old people, but I do. They're bloody annoying. And their majority status in Karlovy Vary is the major failing of this little spa town next to the German border.
It's a bit like a land locked version of Cocoon - a place where the old come to die, which is something that statistically they're far more likely to do than the young. Here they do what they do best in their twilight years, getting in your way on purpose, grumbling and mumbling, and just looking wrinkly. The reason they come here at all is the health treatment that apparently stems from the natural goodness of the hot water springs.
The pranksters of Karlovy Vary joke that their famous herbal spirit, Becherovka, is the town's 13th spring. Ho ho ho.
This strange yellow drink which most places sell for about 30Kc a shot, has supposedly medicinal qualties and you can visit a special museum devoted to its history and manufacture. (Details at Kur-Info)
It depends on your source, but one version of the origins of the town goes back to when Charles IV was on a killing animals trip sometime in the 14th Century.
One of his hounds was injured chasing a stag, and was then immediately healed after walking through a puddle of hot spring water.
The water was then analysed by experts, and proclaimed to have miraculous healing properties - Jesus in liquid form as it were.
Charles' Spa subsequently lost any hope of becoming a thriving party town, as the fleeing stags were replaced by thousands of sick Germans and Russians being hunted down by the Grim Reaper.
Having said this though, Karlovy Vary does as a result have an atmosphere that makes a very refreshing break from the noise and smog of Prague. There is a relaxing silence in the air, and a cleanliness in the breeze that soothes the mind as well as the body. But what do you do there if you're not booking yourelf in for a lengthy period of treatment?
The obvious start is a little stroll along the river to get a feel for the place. Even arriving from Prague, the architecture is beautiful, enhanced by the lack of distracting tram cables and a distinct absence of graffiti.
The first landmark you'll be aware of however, is the towering Hotel Thermal, which casts an extremely ugly shadow over the town. It's so ridiculously ugly and out of place, that you have to sit back and marvel at the architectural think tank which came up with it.
If you were designing a prison for blind criminals you'd have better looking blue-prints than the ones that brought this baby into the world. Built in 1976, and charging quite a lot per night for a double room, its almost worth staying in so you're not aware of it when you look out of the window in the morning. I say almost, because the interior design is pretty hard on the eye as well.
The bright red chairs on the reception floor would look gharishly out of place in the Star-Ship Enterprise, and the whole unsettling dark space is laughable until it becomes offensive.
The good thing about Hotel Thermal for non-residents is the swimming pool perched up on the hill behind. For 90Kc you have sauna and pool usage for 2 hours, and if you just want the pool, its 30Kc per hour. You reach it via a furnicular style lift that slides diagonally up the slope.
This is quite a surprise after you enter what seems like a regular elevator and you suddenly get shoved across to one side by the laws of phyics - surely the cause of much bruising over its life-time.
When you get to the top, it is easy to get confused, as the woman behind the till shouts things at hyperactive children and different corridors go off in different directions. At this stage, and for a little longer, you might be deciding that it's not worth the effort as you get changed in door-less cubicles, and negotiate slippery floor tiles with the female cleaner who wanders about with an unhygenic looking mop while you struggle into your speedos.
Forget your swimming trunks in the sauna though, because nudity is obligatory. It's mixed, and therefore potentially quite interesting, but it's also very small, and once a couple of fat men have established their territory in there, there's no room left for the Slovakian lovely you met on the stairs.
Apart from the sweaty fat men and their flacid penii (which are a hazzard of any sauna), it's quite a nice change from Prague, in that it's a voluntary decision to sit here and sweat whereas on a tram its just an uncomfortable nusiance.
So out of the sauna and into the swimming pool. Facilities-wise it's quite basic - a few sun loungers, a bar (but you've left your wallet in the locker upstairs) and that's about it. But the view while you breast stroke is almost as pleasing as the one when youre stroking breast, and is the whole point of the exercise. A low flying bird's perspective of Karlovy Vary from the comfort of warm spring water and hot sun is a fine way to spend an afternoon.
Drinking the spring water is another cheap way of doing the Karlovy Vary healthy thing - some patients being prescribed dozens of cups a day.
Little fountains with rusty bottoms spurt out the miracle eau, and you're traditionally supposed to drink it from the spouts of specially made cups. This is probably just a marketing brain wave to keep the porcelain manufacturers in business however, and you can drink it in any manner you choose.
The first people I saw imbibing just grabbed handfuls and chucked it down their mouths. I did the same and would have suffered 3rd degree burns, had it not been for my panther like reflexes. Discover for yourself why they're called hot springs and not tepid springs, or slightly luke-warm springs.
Expletive justifyingly hot is what they are, and the reason the old people can collect an ample reservoir in their palms without flinching is the reason they're in Karlovy Vary in the first place. They've got no f*cking nerve endings. The water tastes foul as well, and I very impolitely spat my first mouthful out onto the street. I apologise for any offence that causes, but I am a prime example of Darwinian theory, and I survive because if something that tastes like metallicly enhanced detergent goes in my mouth it doesn't stay there very long.
For a more pleasant tasting afternoon drink, head for the Muhlbrunnen Colonnade, a big mother of a Neo-Renaissance thing that was built in the 1870s by Joseph Zitek, who as you well know, was also the brains behind the National Theatre in Prague. It's an incredibly grand building stretching along in a series of arches and pillars, which are perfect for escaping unwanted travelling companions.
Inside is Cafe Art, a small cafe/restaurant decorated with as much taste as the above mentioned spring water. Bright pink table cloths are spread over cheap catalogue furniture like a teenage rebellion against the splendour of the space in which it lives. A tea room looking for angst.
Out on the enormous roof top which is too big to be called a balcony, you can enjoy a reasonably priced drink and watch the folk down below. The statues along the roof are supposed to represent the twelve months of the year, but from my seat I could only see the backs of their heads and arses, so it might be a lie for all I know.
Another building worth visiting, but for what's inside rather than the exterior, is the greenhouse style building which houses the hottest and probably worst tasting spring and is worth looking at and inhaling. In the same building is Kur-Info, the tourist office. The staff are knowledgeable and helpful, which is always a good thing, and all the usual brochures and advertisments are here telling you what to do, where to stay, where to eat, and how to leave again.
Where to eat is a particularly pertinent question. A day of heat treatments, fresh air, and avoiding cripples can work up quite an appetite, but unfortunately the grub is on the whole nothing to belch contentedly about. Along the main street, many of the restaurants advertise their products with glossy photos on boards, which takes away the mystery side of dining out, and none of it looks that good either.
One place with reasonable fare is Caffe Pizzeria Venezia, at no 43 Zahradni. They have photos of guests from the film festival they have fed over the years, honouring the greatest best-boy grips and assistant wardrobe consultants the cinema world has ever known. The pizza is OK and cheap, and the service was reasonable until a few of the waiter's buddies turned up when it was in danger of becoming self-service.
Eating out is when you really realise from where in the world most of the Karlovy Vary visitors come from. Now I don't consider myself an imperialist, but I do take pride in being a fluent speaker of the internationally dominant language. It does not wield much influence here however. In Karlovy Vary , I suddenly became part of a linguistic minority, as the understandable section of the menu stood in a miserable fourth place after Russian, German and Czech. All very nerve racking.
Also quite nerve racking is wandering the streets of Karlovy Vary after dark. Not, of course, because of knife wielding drunks or muggers a la Narodni Trida, but because of the eerie silence that descends after about 10 o'clock. Apart from the fort-night of the film festival, when it's THE place to party, the much reported lack of activity after night-fall is not exaggerated. Justifiably famous for its night death.
One place that advertises a disco til 3 in the morning is Cafe Montmartre on Kolma, a little way up the steep slope from the baroque church of St Mary Magdalene. I walked in via the wrong entrance by mistake, and the hilarity my error caused to onlookers is surely proof that this town needs something more than spas. After being directed to the correct door, I walked into the dark disco area which was the size of a newspaper kiosk with a dancing pole.
I pushed my way through nobody at all, and went up the stairs to order a couple of drinks from a friendly waitress who became far less likeable when she served tonic water that had less fizz than saliva. Good views though.
Wandering onwards down the river, there are a couple of places which promise to serve until about 11, but real hope was raised when we spotted Variete Dancing Restaurant, which is open til 4. Its up on the 3rd floor, so they use the magic of photography to advertise the attraction.
A picture of a tackily decorated room and a scattering of customers sporting hair styles of various levels of dodge, listen to a man in the corner playing a Casio keyboard, and when you arrive, its like walking right into the poster. Exactly the same people are there, listening to exactly the same keyboardist - or maybe they're cardboard cut-outs. I didn't hang around long enough to get chatting.
Further down at the river's next bend is the famous Grand Hotel Pupp. A magnificent building this one, and home to a kind porter who let me wander the rooms and sit in the lounge to watch the football. Round the back is Becher's Bar, where the wild cats drink cappucinos - sometimes until midnight.
I asked the waitress where all the young dudes of Karlovy Vary hang out and she looked very confused indeed. She mentioned the downstairs joint in the hotel which is open til 4 but which looked and felt more country club than dance haven, and then mumbled something about getting a taxi to bars outside of the town centre.
But after being slightly put out that there's nowhere decent to get drunk into the wee small hours of the morning, the fact that you're obliged to head for bed comes as a strange sort of relief. It's like an unwritten part of the theraputic qualities of the town - a good night's sleep with no risk of a hangover the next day.
No sweaty smoky drinking dens to pop into on the way home where you shout conversations with drugged up backpackers. No slipping on urine covered rest room floors. No thumping bass coming out of speakers which register on the ricteur scale and force you to grip your pint glass for safety reasons, and no tripping over crap dancers in a bar area that just wasn't meant for dancing in. Thank God for havens like Karlovy Vary.
Just silence and the arms of a cool pillow. Lovely.
Before I set my athlete's foot onto the walk-ways of Karlovy Vary, other illustrious visitors have visited and added to the appeal and popularity of the place. Russian Tsar Peter the Great did great things for the tourist industry in the early 18th Century, and Europes in-crowd of the 19th Century - including composers Liszt, Strauss, Brahms and Wagner - helped increase its fashionable status.
Kavarna Astoria, Vridelni 23
For a bite to eat, the Kavarna Astoria is a popular option, being busy and atmospheric, and arranged into sets of cubicles so you can keep your annoying eating habits to yourself. On the menu are variously vague and ambiguous options such as 'fried fillet with pickled cucumber' for 90Kc, or for a little extra, 'grilled 3 sorts of meat on a stick'. Sounds great.
Even if you're not an ageing mass of bad health, you can still pop in to a few places for a few hours of pampering. Prices vary according to whether you want to be caked in mud, massaged under water, or just punctured with nails. For a pedicure, Karlovy Vary expert Klara Janouskova recommends Grand Hotel Pupp, and the proof is in the beauty that lies within her flip-flops. Quite a feat.
The best way to get to Karlovy Vary from Prague for those without a Skoda or the time to hitch hike is by bus from Florenc. They leave more or less hourly, and a one way ticket costs 160 Kc. The journey takes about two and a half hours and may well include a 10 minute stop off at a small shop where you can buy refreshments. Did someone say backhander?