Where the nouvelle riche of Russia go on holiday- Baths in Bohemia
Goethe composed poems during his stay in Karlsbad around July 1806 of which several contain references to the healing waters and clays of the mineral springs. He did more for Bohemian bathing culture than anybody else and he probably owed his Faust-like creativity and libido to his stay here, having drunk the waters then as we do today, from a small spouted cup decorated with roses.
The City of Karlsbad.
Next to the ruins of the old castle of Burg Königswart this little spa town of c.1600 people has a wonderful baroque castle with an exquisite restaurant on the castle grounds. The spa buildings are built in a classical Viennese style and are best known for their treatment of people with breathing difficulties and skin problems.
“One tries to make a better person of you by taking away all the pleasant things to which you are used”, mark Twain joked during his visit to the town in 1891. He described Marienbad (today c 14000 residents) as the most modern town on the continent and as pretty as you could wish for.
The nostalgic charm of the town was caught on celluloid in Alain Resnais’ film ‘Last Year in Marienbad’. It shows its best side in the main street (Hlavní třída) with its mighty Art Nouveau hotels and town villas that line the hill on both sides.
The Healing Waters
The Egerer Becken (a water catchment area) between the Erzgebirge in the north and the Kaiserwald in the south was formed as the Alps forced the Bohemian massive to disintegrate. This was the cause of increased volcanic action. An advantage of this was found after the discovery of water rich in minerals providing the Bäder Hexagon (bath hexagon) with their revenue. Karlsbad, Marienbad, Franzensbad, Bad Königswart, Konstantinsbad and Gieshübel. The spa towns were then popularized in the 19th Century by Kaisers and other members of the aristocracy.
The Karlsbad Marktbrunnenkolonnaden(the famous Russian inspired colonnades in Karlsbad).
There are 40 hot springs in the town, and over 100 further springs in the surrounding area. If the smell of sulfur puts you off you may like to wander along the promenade through the Kurkolonnade (spa colonnade built in 1888-89). The wonderful coffered ceiling and the fantastic Art Nouveau frescos by Jan Vyletal draw your eyes upwards, but don’t miss the singing fountain that provides classical accompaniment to the scene. The Royal Golf Club was one of the first to be opened in continental Europe by King Edward VII in 1905. The history of the region and the story of the world famous Bohemian glass production are told in the Karlovarské museum in Nová Louka 23. If you prefer more contemporary art the Galerie umění in Goethova stezka 6 has exhibitions. Jan Becher’s infamous herb liqueur Becherovka is available all over the town, as are waffles, the best of which can be bought still warm at a stall next to the Sprudelkolonnaden. Bohemian glass can be bought at Glasfabrik Moser (Moser glass factory) in Dvory, a suburb of the town where there is also an exhibition. Jarosie 46/19. www.moser-glass.com
The healing waters of Marienbad.
Right in the middle of the royal forest, (Slavkovský les), lies this pretty little porcelain town surrounded by little valleys and gushing streams and tiny villages with timber frame houses and mills. The town houses around 6000 residents, and although after the war several renaissance buildings were torn down, the Georgskirche (The George Church) and the baroque Spitalkirche St Anna are very much worth the trip.
The wealth of the Upper Palatinate and Amberg with its official residence and importance at the centre of the mining industry influenced the architecture in the area greatly. Between the ‘Hammerschlösser’ (the mansions built by the aristocracy near their works) a union of the owners of the mines and iron works was established, the Hammereinigung (1387-1626), a fore-runner to the European agreements of today and a kind of mining union enabling the free trade and transport of the materials between signatories was ratified.
It is at this stage of the journey that the Golden Road splits. The good took the ‘right’ way through Weiden and Bärnau, the bad through Wernberg and Waidhaus, which in the end proved to be the cheaper of the two. Despite the popularity of two routes the trade that Charles IV supported and promoted brought much wealth to many a town and the region in general. Majestic town halls sprang up in which the tradesmen could do business. Later during the baroque period the acanthus leaf found fame in interior architecture and decoration. The Ancient Greeks and the Romans used the motif widely, and it was ‘rediscovered’ and used in the embellishment of many an altar and church.
Kaiser Barbarossa made Eger the seat of his Kingdom and the surrounding area was redesigned and refurbished, creating what was to be an example to all regions under the name of Provincia Egrensis. Later as Kaiser Ludwig of Bavaria had to give up the town to his rival and successor Charles IV the region retained its importance and its own parliament until 1806 when it became a part of Bohemia.
The neighbouring Stiftland, or as it was known the ancient province of Tirschenreuth, was under the jurisdiction of Cistercian monks in Waldsassen during this time and they kept a very close contact with Egerland.
The Kaiser ordered the use of his own official route but was also very aware of the advantages of the ‘forbidden’ option. Charles IV sent his own Imperial Regalia on the forbidden street through Waidhaus, which shows that there was indeed good reason to circumnavigate the heights of Bärnau as proved by the routing of the A6, the modern alternative to the ancient trade route, which seems to follow the unauthorised path.
The Golden way, or Zlata cesta drives a path through Bohemia, a blessed land that had been cultivated for years by the locals until it was torn to pieces in the Nationalist uprising of the 1930’s and 40’s. Villages and towns were raised to the ground and all that remains are mere traces that might be stumbled upon by the more adventurous of ramblers.
At the time of Charles IV Prague was one of the largest cities in Europe with over 40,000 residents. The Prague of today has 30 times that many and it houses the inhabitants in seemingly endless rows of high-rise concrete blocks. The tradesmen of yesteryear were spared this rather grey view of the town, and that is why we chose to approach the city of a hundred spires along a different route. Prague was not only full of churches, but also surrounded by a ring of castles and fortified houses that should not escape your attention. But first we will stick to our original plan and near the town of Udolky, the last port of call before Prague, we will visit a fictional medieval village.