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What a difference a decade makes

© By Tess Bridgwater












































  A decade ago, historic Czech Republic spa towns emerged from a long sleep after 50 years of Russian occupation as the country struggled towards a market economy while sandwiched between Europe powers. Like many picturesque places in Communist bloc countries, the beautiful old spa towns fell victim to isolation politics, becoming the preserve of the Russian elite, closed to the rest of the world and allowed to deteriorate.
     However, since the fall of Communism in 1989, the state spa system has been privatized, and the famous spa towns of Karlovy Vary and Marianske Lazne, better known as Marienbad, have undergone a wonderful renaissance. Russian and Hungarian investment consortiums bought ownership of the hotels, gradually restoring them to modern luxury standards without destroying the historic ambiance.
     Of the three famous historic spas, Karlovy Vary, Frantiscovy Lazne and Marianske Lazne in the western corner of Czech Republic, Marianske Lazne or Marienbad is the best known and although the curative mineral spring was recognized as early as the 13th century, Marienbad, youngest of the three spa towns, was founded only in the early 19th century, Goethe one of the first visitors. About 100 km. from Prague, close to the German border and surrounded on three sides by pine forested hills, access is not easy, but the lovely setting, excellent spa facilities and remoteness make it a treat. In the first years of the 20th century, fashionable Europe including many famous musicians and writers such as Mark Twain, Franz Liszt, Frederic Chopin and Rudyard Kipling found their way here for the cure.
     Soon, it became the haunt of nobility, the most notable guest, playboy King, Edward VII of England, who visited nine times between 1899 - 1908 and helped put the spa on the map, making it one of the most famous in the world. The resort assembled around the natural mineral springs, whose curative powers make it a world renowned centre for balneology (the science of baths or bathing), especially the study of the therapeutic use of mineral baths. and medical research into metabolic and locomotive disorders. The springs are cold but exceptionally high in calcium, magnesium and other curative properties, and the main component of a spa treatment involves drinking the water.
     Apart from the curative powers of the mineral springs (there are 400 in the area, and about forty in the town, of which seven are in regular use), they lie in a scenic valley with a long picturesque main street, lined with unique little shops and fine neo-classical architecture, painted in pastel shades of yellow and pink with white ornamental trim. Across the flower-filled park, the focal point of the town, the elegant wrought-iron Victorian colonnade, restored in the 1980's, contains several drinking wells. Beautiful gardens with a singing fountain connect the colonnade to the magnificent hotels and spa buildings.
     The Symphony orchestra has performed here continuously since 1821, and there are many related cultural events such as the Chopin Festival during the summer season. There's a golf course built for King Edward and the historic casino has been restored.
     It is easy to imagine the gracious life of yesteryear as spa guests strolled among the flowerbeds and entertainment to take their daily water at the colonnade. While there, a colourful festival celebrated each year on May 8, marks the fall of Communism, old times recreated with costumed visitors, outdoor booths offering local arts and crafts and homemade wine. Music fills the air. It was idyllic, but one thing was missing - western visitors who don't seem to have discovered this hidden gem.
     Cultural aspects are secondary to the curative effects of a vacation in Mariansky Lazne. In Europe, spa treatments are geared to therapeutic needs, more than wellness and relaxation as in North America. The spa specializes in locomotor disease and kidney and urinary ailments, and the focus is to provide an atmosphere to rejuvenate and improve the health of guests whatever their problems. Massages, mineral baths and dry, gaseous, carbonated immersions are used regularly, as well as hot peat packs, all good for the locomotive system. Treatments haven't changed much for 100 years. "They don't need to, they are so effective" say the spa operators.
     Our stay at the four-star Hotel Esplanade Spa and Golf Resort met the standards of any North American resort. High on the hill with a spectacular view, it is under Russian ownership and mainly used by Russian insurance companies for rehabilitation of their wealthy clients post surgery. The rooms are beautifully decorated in keeping with the baroque style of the hotel, beds large and comfortable and the food plentiful and varied with menus to satisfy both European and North American palettes.
     The spa services were outstanding, but even here, except for our group, most guests seemed to be from Eastern Europe, and English speaking hotel personnel, although anxious to be helpful, were at a premium.
     Walking in the lovely woodland areas is a recommended part of treatment, and there are also tennis courts and golf. A stay at the hotel which includes breakfast and one spa or wellness treatment costs 180 Euros per night.
     Many other lovely spa hotels around town offer various levels of treatment and full board for less than $200 per night. Since my last visit, supermarkets and chain stores have appeared, and the atmosphere is definitely more market driven but not always for the better. At Kynzvart Castle, once the country home of the Austrian Chancellor, Metternich, near Marienbad where you can still see the desk used for the Congress of Vienna in 1814-1815, the grounds were recently sold to a developer for a golf course, destroying a wonderful repository of Austro-Hungarian history.
     A visit to Czech spas will delight and invigorate you. Although prices have risen, they are still much lower than in western countries. The Czech Republic is famous for its amber, mined in the mountains of Bohemia, and I bought a beautiful locket for $100. In 2011, the Czech Republic will adopt the Euro instead of the Czech kroner, currently worth 68 cents CDN. Expect prices to rise. "Come back before 2011" suggested our guide.

Notes
·  Prague is a beautiful city fully integrated into a market economy without losing its old world appeal. Public transportation is clean and efficient and a pass, good for one hour costs only 18 k. It helps if you can speak Czech, German or Russian, as English is not widely spoken. There are plenty of ATM's and shops and restaurants accept credit cards. Restaurants are plentiful. Service and menus are excellent and cost is reasonable. Lunch in an open-air café overlooking the old town square and the famous medieval clock, costs about 1300 k. for three.

·  Tipping:  Don't flash money about. Overt wealth doesn't impress. Everyone is well dressed with no homeless to be seen. Tip 10% if you feel like it. It is well-received but not expected.

·  Crime:  Low key police presence and not much crime except foreign exchange fraud and car theft. Don't exchange money on the streets at black market prices. You might get worthless Bulgarian kroner in return and make sure if you have a car that it is securely parked underground or you might find it driven away to Russia in the morning.

Tess Bridgwater is a freelance writer based in Cambridge. Ontario. She visited Marienbad and Karlovy Vary as part of a group of International journalists and tour operators who were guests of the Government of the Czech Republic, Department of Tourism, and Czech Tourism, Canada.

Photo Credits
Czech Tourism

If you go
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Czech Tourism: www.czechtourism.com
Marienbad: www.marienbad.cz
Lufthansa: www.lufhansa.com We flew via Dusseldorf on the new service, Toronto-Dusseldorf. A connecting flight takes one hour to Prague.
Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spa_towns_in_the_Czech_Republic
Wikitravel: http://wikitravel.org/en/Czech_Republic

What's happening, money, distance, time?
Media Guide: http://www.abyznewslinks.com/
Currency conversion: http://www.xe.com/ucc/
Distance calculator: http://www.indo.com/distance/
Time zone converter: http://www.timezoneconverter.com/

Transportation, visas, health, maps and temperature
Airlines (Wikipedia): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_airlines
Embassies/Consulates (Embassy World): http://www.embassyworld.com/
Health precautions (WHO): http://www.who.int/ith/en/
Google interactive map: http://maps.google.com/
Temperature (Temperature World): http://www.temperatureworld.com/




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