Karlovy Vary Diary

ImageI had not properly visited the west Bohemian spa town of Karlovy Vary, sometimes referred to as Carlsbad or Karlsbad, since 1991, when I was a tourist mesmerized by Czechoslovakia and the Czech language. True, I had changed buses and trains here many times – on the way to Bečov nad Teplou Chateau and Loket Castle, for instance, but I had never devoted an entire day to the town that boasted five impressive colonnades with 13 curative springs. So, I decided to travel by a comfortable Student Agency bus to see the city that Emperor and Bohemian King Charles IV founded during the mid-14th century, after one of his hunting dogs was burned by a hot spring.

From the Market bus stop it was only a short stroll to the center of town. I stopped at the main post office, erected at the turn of the 20th century, to stare at its incredible façade. It was dominated by large, allegorical sculptures. One stood for a telegraph while another represented the postal services. I also spotted sculptures depicting sea and rail transportation. The remarkable sculptures seemed to jump out at me, compelling me to gape in awe at the Renaissance style building’s ornamentation.

ImageNext I came to the hideous structure called the Hotel Thermal, a tall building made of steel and concrete. Its architecture reminded me of the stagnation of the totalitarian era, during which it was built. The building marred the cityscape. The hotel did not fit in with the majestic buildings and elegant colonnades but rather appeared as a permanent scar in the town. Just looking at it almost made me nauseous. Inside the monstrosity there was a hotel and sanatorium plus halls used for festivals. A big banner announced the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival that was going on during my visit, and a red carpet led into the hotel. I wanted to see the hotel’s outdoor pool that was carved into a rock above the building, but the receptionist said it was closed that day.

ImageI did not plan to come to Karlovy Vary during the International Film Festival. That just happened to be when I had time. Still, it was nice to see the town boasting such an electric atmosphere.

From there I went straight to the Hot Spring Colonnade, where I had an appointment to tour the underground area below what used to be a stunning, 19th century wrought-iron pavilion. That former structure was designed by the Viennese architectural duo of Ferdinand Fellner and Hermann Helmer, who were responsible for many buildings in the town. I walked by the other colonnades, but I decided to devote time to them after lunch.

The Hot Spring Colonnade, made of glass and concrete, hailed from 1975, when it took on an appearance that was almost as hideous as the Hotel Thermal. Like the hotel it was an eyesore, not at all meshing with the romantic buildings surrounded by woods.  I tried to imagine it as it had been during the 19th century, when Fellner and Helmer had done their architectural magic. Then I went inside. A geyser gushed from the Hot Spring, sending 2,000 liters of water into the air per minute to a height of 12 meters.  I just stood there, not moving, entranced by the geyser’s movement. It was an incredible thing to see.

ImageThe underground tour gave me insights into the workings of the thermal springs. I learned that because the springs spewed out so many tons of minerals per day, there were small outbursts that could not be totally controlled. I saw an object created by the seeps. It looked like an abstract tower perched on a cliff. The guide also explained how souvenirs – such as pieces of porcelain or paper roses – were covered with mineral water.

Behind the Hot Spring Colonnade was the Baroque Church of Saint Mary Magdalene, but it was only possible to peek inside. I wish I could have seen the interior of this sacral building designed by prominent Baroque architect Kilian Ignác Dientzenhofer from 1732 to 1737.

From there I headed to the town theatre, designed in Third Baroque style. It was the magnificent work of Fellner and Helmer, erected during the late 19th century.  I was impressed by the many sculptural creations on the exterior, especially the angel and cherubs making music on the parapet. One pudgy putti figure held a horn. The theatre was not open, but I did get to go into the foyer where stunning stucco work greeted me.

I wanted so badly to see the auditorium! I knew that Gustav Klimt, his brother Ernest and their friend Franz Matsche had created the ceiling fresco and the curtain, which showed an idyllic setting. Called “The apotheosis of the art of poetry,” the curtain scene was focused on a poet and beautiful women representing muses of the arts. Chubby cherubs also joined in. The entire curtain was rendered to resemble a banknote. I would have to come back to see it with my own eyes.

ImageDisappointed that I could not see these masterpieces, I decided it was time for rest and a snack. I sipped green tea and ate a croissant at the Café Elephant, which actually was adorned with a golden elephant. Later I would read that the building had been built as a late Classicist building with Italian Neo-Renaissance features during the 19th century. The foyer was lined with unique, straw tiles. It had the atmosphere of an elegant café where customers could peruse the paper for hours or scribble notes about philosophy in their diaries.

From my table outside, I peered at the charming buildings exuding an elegance that characterized the town, despite the Hotel Thermal and the Hot Spring Colonnade. A forest was set in a hilly background. I tried to imagine Johann Wolfgang Goethe, who spent 13 spa seasons here, strolling down the main street or Franz Kafka brooding in a café.  What had been Russian Czar Peter the Great’s impressions of Karlovy Vary when he had visited this popular spa resort? I knew that Frédéric Chopin and Ludwig van Beethoven had also graced the colonnades.

ImageThen it was time to explore the Grandhotel Pupp. The world famous hotel took its name from Johann Georg Pupp, a confectioner who, along with his wife, bought what were then individual buildings. During the 19th century the hotel prospered, and near the turn of the 20th century, Fellner and Helmer reconstructed the buildings into a single Neo-Baroque complex. Many notable figures had stayed there. English King Edward VII, Empress Maria Theresa and Karl Marx were just a few. Casino Royale and Last Holiday were two of the films shot here. I wanted to see the casino that had been featured in the James Bond thriller Casino Royale, but it was closed. Just by gazing at the exterior, I sensed the luxury and grandeur that were associated with this top-notch accommodation.

I went inside, but there was not much to see. I saw a dining room filled with late risers and people with the festival. At reception I asked if I could see a typical room, but there were no vacant rooms. I looked at a price list and discovered that one night in the presidential suite costs 40,000 Czech crowns. I gathered that I would never have enough money to be a guest here, but who knows? In the Neo-Baroque Festival Hall films were being shown, so that was off limits to me. The other lavish lounges were now offices. I would have to come back when the hotel was not full, I told myself.

ImageNext I walked back up the main street and took a left onto an uphill road that took me to a tranquil, tree-dotted quarter. The atmosphere was so different from the hustle and bustle of the town’s center. The leafy, winding street led to the Russian Saint Peter and Paul Cathedral, its four blue domes and golden central dome dominating the horizon. I stared at the remarkable paintings of saints on the façade of this shrine built in the second half of the 19th century. The architecture had been influenced by 17th century churches in Russia.

The interior was breathtaking, too. I marveled at the impressive woodwork at the main altar. Icons were sprinkled in the sacral space, and I noticed altar crosses as well. It reminded me of those churches I had entered in Saint Petersburg, where I had spent a week absorbing art at the Hermitage and seeing the other major sights. I knew that Karlovy Vary had a large Russian population, and I had dreaded that I would have to resort to my very basic Russian to make myself understood. Luckily, all the people I had met in Karlovy Vary spoke Czech.

ImageLunch was the next priority. I found a quaint and almost empty restaurant in a cellar of a hotel on a leafy street.  While reflecting on what I had seen so far, I had tasty potato soup and delicious chicken. The prices were reasonable, too.

Then I explored the colonnades. First, I was off to the Market Colonnade, my favorite because the façade looked like a Swiss chalet with delicate, white, lace motifs. The light and airy appearance appealed to me. It had a sense of fragility as if the façade would break if someone touched it. The romantic colonnade was yet another masterpiece by Fellner and Helmer from the late 19th century. I also noticed the gabled roof and columned arcade sprinkled with wood décor. I spotted the relief portraying the founding of the town as Emperor Charles IV’s hunting dogs wandered upon the Hot Spring.

ImageThe Castle Colonnade was situated above the Market Colonnade, but the Upper Castle Colonnade seemed to be closed. The Lower Castle Colonnade was only accessible to guests of a spa there. The tower that once was part of a Gothic castle loomed above the main promenade.

The Mill Colonnade, composed of a nave and two aisles, was next on the agenda. The pseudo-Renaissance style building was characterized by an elegance totally different from that of the Market Colonnade. The Mill Colonnade took me back to antiquity with its 24 elegant Corinthian columns on the roof. There were also 12 allegorical statues above the portico, each standing for a month of the year.  I admired the stone reliefs in the orchestra pit. They illustrated scenes from the town’s rich past.

ImageLast but not least I visited was the Park Colonnade, situated in a small park. I walked down the veranda and admired the wrought-iron ornamentation in Neo-Renaissance style. I liked the Snake Spring with its water spout shaped as a snake’s head. I also saw the nearby Liberty Pavilion, which also had a Swiss-style design, too.

I had time to pop into the Karlovy Vary Museum, where I saw Madonna statues, historical weapons and armor from the 17th century Thirty Years’ War. Blue and gray jugs flaunted grotesque reliefs forged in the 1600s. A Renaissance intarsia chest dated from 1600. There was also an admirable collection of clocks. A Meissen porcelain figure played a lute while another looked for inspiration with an easel and paintbrush. A bureau decorated with intarsia was adorned with a picture of the Karlovy Vary landscape. The 19th and 20th century colored and Moser glass designs intrigued me, too. I loved town museums because they often held an array of delights from archeological finds to present day objects. Their contents were always diverse and often held hidden treasures. Placards explained the history of the town, but I thought it was a shame that they were only in Czech. English-speaking tourists could not learn about the town’s history by visiting the museum.

ImageI decided to return to the Café Elephant for a snack before I made my way to the bus station. Sitting outside again, I watched passersby get their photos taken with people who I assumed were film stars, though I did not recognize them. One female tourist paused at a stand selling all sorts of porcelain drinking cups. She deliberated over whether to buy one shaped as a pink cat or one adorned with a picture of the town panorama. A thirty-something man licked an ice cream cone, chocolate on his chin.

I wanted to visit the Becher Museum, dedicated to the Czech herbal bitters Becherovka, which was made in Karlovy Vary. With a strong cinnamon-like flavor, it is considered therapeutic for digestive ailments and arthritis. I had read that the museum featured the original factory cellars and acquainted visitors with the beverage’s history and manufacturing. I did have a few minutes to admire the rustic, brick masonry of the façade, though.

Practically across the street from the museum was the bus station. Yes, Karlovy Vary had exceeded my expectations. I was most impressed by the diverse architecture. The Neo-Renaissance Mill Colonnade and the Neo-Baroque Grandhotel Pupp were only two examples of the architectural richness of the town. The renovated facades of many buildings on and near the main street also sported various architectural styles.

There were other sights I did not have time to visit. I would have loved to have ridden the funicular from Theatre Square to the Hotel Imperial. It dated from the early 20th century. There was an underground funicular, too. It took people to a lookout point where there were spectacular views of Karlovy Vary.

Next time. There would definitely be a next time.

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