Let’s just say it’s not exactly a delicious digestif. Frankly, when the waiter handed me a complimentary glass of the local liqueur, Becherovka, after my meal, I only drank the mix of 20 different herbs and spices to be polite.
Yet perhaps because it gave me a taste for the unusual, perhaps because one drink inevitably leads to another, when I had finished it I went in search of a watering hole offering another beverage unique to this Czech city.
But it wasn’t a bar I was searching for. Soon enough, I came to an ornate bandstand-like pavilion where several people were already sipping from porcelain drinking cups with spouts. Bending to fill my own vessel from a gurgling hot spring, I took a tentative taste of the acrid, sulphurous brew – and recoiled. Nevertheless, I ploughed on through the recommended 400ml: like Becherovka, the water which gushes from the Freedom Spring is supposedly good for digestion.
I’d been in Karlovy Vary only a few hours, but already it was clear that this small Czech spa town is far from your average city-break spot. Strung scenically along the River Tepla amid a forested valley roughly two hours west of Prague, in 2021 Unesco named it one of 11 “great spa towns of Europe”, alongside the UK’s Bath, France’s Vichy and two smaller Czech towns.
Here, the water gushes from several different springs at between 30-73C – and taking the waters is all about imbibing, ideally over several weeks. The liquid is supposedly good for cleansing different parts of the intestine, from the Mill Spring for the liver and pancreas, to the Charles IV Spring for the kidneys. And yes, there’s a science to it; many Czechs visiting the city’s modern spas even have three-week stays covered by their health insurance.
But you don’t need to jump on the medicinal bandwagon to enjoy this beautiful place. Since taking a cure in Bohemia was once the talk of fashionable Europe, the 18th and 19th centuries saw everyone who was anyone flock to Karlovy Vary – from Beethoven and Mozart to Goethe and Emperor Franz Josef I – and a city of splendid wedding-cake architecture spring up as a result.
A stroll along the appropriately named Hot Spring Street takes you between elegant colonnades that were built around the springs, the most impressive of which are the neo-Renaissance Mill Colonnade and the intricate white latticework of the Market Colonnade.
In the modern Thermal Spring Colonnade, a 12-metre high jet of 73-degree water spurts into the air (you can see it on an underground excursion too, and find out about the process of petrifying souvenirs with its mineral deposits).
It’s all easily reached on foot in the historic centre, which is compact but doesn’t feel crowded, with a fraction of the number of tourists who visit Prague; Karlovy Vary fell off the west’s tourism radar thanks to the First World War and the Iron Curtain, and today’s politics mean its once-strong contingent of Russian visitors are notably diminished.
Better still, the slopes surrounding this little city of 54,000 residents are crisscrossed by walking trails, making it particularly pleasant to visit in early autumn, when the weather is ideal for days spent in active pursuits.
Climb or take the funicular to the Diana Tower, then walk along to the Peter the Great lookout (yes, he visited too). From these hilly heights, it’s easy to pick out the golden domes of the Orthodox Church of St Peter and Paul, and the magnificent neo-Renaissance Grandhotel Pupp, where Hollywood royalty are hosted during the July film festival (and whose restaurant was used in the filming of Casino Royale).
A little further on you can see the 14th-century castle tower used by the Holy Roman Emperor and King of Bohemia Charles IV when he came here to hunt. According to legend, it was he who discovered a spring here which helped his gout; the city was named after him.
After several hours’ walking in the hills, you’ll be in need of something a bit more substantial than the sweet spa wafers which are traditionally eaten between sips from the springs.
Thankfully, it’s no problem finding good food in the centre. Every meal I had was superb, from the homemade lasagne at the charismatic Embassy restaurant (embassy.cz), to the exquisite wasabi prawns and gnocchi with truffle sauce at Le Marché (le-marche.cz).
As for drinks, the obvious choice is Pilsen, although the Czech Morovia wine goes down a treat. And there’s always Becherovka, should you be so inclined. Whether you like the liqueur or not, it’s worth going to the Becherovka visitor centre, where you will discover that the alcohol commercialised by the Becher family as a drink – and now owned by Pernod Richard – was originally marketed in 1807 for stomach aches under the name English bitter. You can also try other, tastier versions of the original.
My advice, though, is to follow dinner not with a digestif – either in the form of liqueur or spring water – but with a late-night soak before bed. A ten-minute walk took me to the brutalist Thermal Hotel (thermal.cz), home to the Czech equivalent of the Thermae Bath Spa – except that its eight saunas are swim-suit free zones (you’re given a sheet to cover your modesty).
Its rooftop pool is superb. Bobbing about in its balmy 38-degree waters, I gazed out at Karlovy Vary’s illuminated architecture under the night sky and basked in the health-giving effects of those mineral-rich waters. Dr Vaclav Payer may well have opined in 1521 that the spa water worked better if you sipped it rather than soaked in it – but I know which method I prefer.
Where to stay
The Grandhotel Pupp (pupp.cz) has doubles from £125 per night, B&B.