‘I spent the day in an amazing European five-star spa that cost just £16’

By Staff


Siobhan McNally Czechs into Bond movie spa town Karlovy Vary and the capital Prague for a minibreak filled full of relaxation, beer and some UNESCO world heritage sights

The big fat snowflakes danced in the black sky above me, melting instantly as they met the steam that rose from the hot thermal waters of my rooftop pool.

As I floated beneath the stars, the fairytale spires of the grand spa town I was visiting for the day glittered below me under a fresh sprinkling of snow. The soft hum of friends and families chatting companionably as they bobbed around was the only sound above the gurgle of the bubbling healing waters.

This was the sort of luxury alpine spa experience I’d always dreamed about, but back home it would have come with a hefty five-star price tag. Here in the Czech Republic, the Saunia Thermal Resort in Karlovy Vary is a public spa and costs just £18 a day.

Wellness is considered an important part of the nation’s health, and the resort’s therapeutic atmosphere makes it more of a sanatorium than a cosmetic spa. Staff carry clipboards and look a bit like Russian Bond baddie Rosa Klebb in a white doctor’s coat.

Which isn’t as far-fetched as it sounds, as the town’s nearby Imperial Spa stood in as the very glamorous double for Montenegro, where Bond’s 2006 version of Casino Royale was supposed to be set. Most British tourists centre their stay around Prague but, just an hour or so’s drive west from the Czech capital, European visitors have been coming to take the natural spring waters at Karlovy Vary since 1349.

Legend has it that Emperor CharlesIV founded the eponymous baroque town in the West Bohemia Spa triangle after he injured his leg and it was healed here by a hot spring. If he’d tried to do that in the UK, what would have sprung up in the area would perhaps have been a collection of moist, overpriced municipal outbuildings clamped on the side of a country estate hotel, where you’re more likely to get a verruca than feel rejuvenated. This is why I tend to avoid spas back in the UK.

But I was hoping to break my spa phobia by dipping my reticent toes in the healing waters of the modern wellness centre at the top of the economical Hotel Thermal ( thermal.cz ), a Brutalist building made even more impressive by its location among the baroque splendour of Karlovy Vary.

At the other end of the scale, visitors can enjoy the more traditional splendour of the five-star Grandhotel Pupp ( pupp.cz ).

Named one of the UNESCO world heritage’s greatest spa towns in Europe, Karlovy Vary sits against a backdrop of wild mountains and nature reserves, full of castles, chateaux and ancient monasteries.

Before the Ukraine war, the town was a Russian playground, but now it’s full of Czechs again, as well as German tourists from across the border just a 30-minute drive away, lured by the excellent value they get for their euros.

Cards are accepted in most restaurants and hotels, but everywhere else you’ll need to exchange your money into Czech koruna, despite the country being part of the EU. In the 19thcentury many of Europe’s rich and famous, including Czech royalty, came to bathe in the Imperial Spa, which boasted an ingenious system of filling 100 hot water baths at a time when the poor probably only washed once a year in the nearby river.

Philosopher Karl Marx claimed his cirrhosis was cured here, although the fact that he had to return three times rather disputesthat.

The Imperial Spa is now a venue for the town’s film festival, after it narrowly escaped being turned into a car park in the 1990s. It’s good to know we’re not the only country that can potentially destroy its architectural heritage. Given the Czechs’ traditional diet of pork and beer, and obsession with bowels, it’s no surprise colonic irrigation is one of the most popular spa ­treatments in these parts.

And this being the home of the Bohemians, you’re expected to get your kit off to sit in the steam and sauna rooms. But there’s always modesty sheets for those who don’t like to let it all hang out, unlike some of the older local gents, who really should be putting it away.

You don’t have to spend time sitting in the hot thermal waters, of course – you can just drink it at one of the 80 natural springs dotted around the town.

I’m sure it’s very good for you, but it’s a bit like drinking tepid limescaley water from the bottom of a kettle.

Much better to drink excellent Czech beer, which is served at spas here; none of that silly carrot juice they have back in Blighty. And at £2 a pint, it’s actually cheaper than water in the cafes and supermarkets outside the capital.

Back on dry land, I was staying at the Andaz Prague, a luxury hotel in the heart of the city, for the opening weekend of the Christmas markets.

Only a sprinkle of the white stuff was forecast but the surprisingly heavy snowfall turned an already romantic and picturesque city into a magical winter wonderland.

While the snow lay deep and crisp and even in Wenceslas Square – home of 1989’s Velvet Revolution which ended 40 years of ­communist rule – it was also very slippery without snow boots, which I’d failed to pack.

My group often had to cling to each other as we toured the city streets and Prague castle with a guide (praguecity
adventures.com/walking-tours/ five hours from £73pp).

But it’s a very easy city to explore, and intrepid visitors can purchase a Prague visitor pass ( praguevisitorpass.eu from £71 pp) to keep costs down, and also get around quickly on Europe’s most ­extensive and beautiful tram system and pop-art-style metro.

A lunch cruise up and down the Vltava ( prague-boats.cz, from £36pp) is an excellent way to fill your boots with as much excellent buffet food as humanly possible.

The crowds are always hundreds deep by the gothic Old Town Hall to watch the show every hour from the oldest working medieval ­astronomical clock in the world.

The clock has everything from a procession of apostles, skeletons, celestial bodies and zodiac signs – but I couldn’t actually work out how to tell the time.

We warmed ourselves on hot eggnog served from a retro van outside the city centre’s Café Ungelt where I also bought bottles to take home for gifts. A lot of traditional Czech food is naturally hearty – it helps if you like gnawing on pork knuckle – but fine dining has come to Prague in the form of the Scandi-influenced Štangl restaurant, which pairs natural wines with a tasting menu in an industrial setting.

The festive market is the ideal place to get spangled on mulled wine, then buy everyone a hand-blown glass bauble for Christmas, but natural toiletries made by Manufaktura – the Czech ­equivalent of The Body Shop – also make ideal gifts from its shops all over the city.

Just like rats in London, you’re never far from a spa in Prague. We bathed in hops and drank beer on tap at Spa Beerland ( beerspa-beerland.com, from £40pp) where tourists get to combine this country’s two greatest national traditions – beer and spas. Proving beer is a health drink. Probably.

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