No-Frills Pampering in Czech Spa Town of Karlovy Vary

By Mary Ellen Monahan
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, February 8, 2009

A slender blonde sitting next to me on a bench in Karlovy Vary's Spa III got up, tossed off the white sheet she was wearing and jumped naked into a pool 20 feet away. I sat there, paralyzed, wondering how to discreetly grab my clothes and find an exit.

Too late! The gruff spa attendant returned, clucking at me in Czech, pointing first to the pool, then to the sheet clutched tightly about me. Off it went -- along with any shred of modesty -- as I joined the blonde and two plump, orange-haired Russians for a gals-only naked swim. I had no idea the massage I had booked came with nude swim privileges, but suddenly I felt as free as a bare-bottomed toddler.

Western Bohemia is rich with thermal springs, and spas began sprouting up around them hundreds of years ago to harness the waters' reputed healing properties. While initially available only to European royals, aristocrats and the literati, the masses began arriving for rest or medical treatment following the Iron Curtain's descent after World War II.

I was curious about these places since first visiting what was then Czechoslovakia in 1990, but I never made it beyond Prague. Then, while traveling through Eastern Europe last March, my lower back suddenly rebelled. Serendipitously, I was in Karlovy Vary (Karlsbad), the Czech Republic's most famous spa town.

These are not spas in the lavender-scented, chakra-realigning sense from the United States, land of Canyon Ranch's $1,000-per-day packages. Although for those who prefer their pampering more patrician than proletariat, boutique hotels and luxury spas such as the Castle, Karlovy Vary's most popular, have mushroomed since 2004, when the country joined the European Union.

But I wanted an authentic old-school experience, that of the Cold War-era peasant rewarded for a bumper cabbage crop. Two days later, I secretly hoped for another muscle pull so I could stay on.

Spa III, the town's oldest, looked as if it hadn't changed much since the 19th century, when it was built. Employees clad in white walked the long, anonymous corridors. A few geriatric Russian and German visitors sat on vinyl chairs outside the many doors, waiting to confer with a doctor before starting a wellness program.

This often involves "taking the waters," a reference to the centuries-old tradition of drinking mineral waters freely available at numerous taps around town. Such water is reputed to ease digestive and other ailments, but after sampling the stuff -- reminiscent of rusty water -- I thought it might instead cause a few. A shot of Becherovka, the town's famous herb liqueur, proved more beneficial later in the day.

Treatments included such mysteries as "lymphodrainage with apparatus" and "Scottish strikes," but also the familiar: underwater massages, saunas and mud or mineral baths. I booked a 15-minute classic massage ($22). A burly woman in line ordered in Russian; I was prepared with a Czech phrase book and cobwebbed college Russian, but the helpful clerk spoke some English.

In contrast to the corridors, the vintage dressing area (all decorative white woodwork and wrought iron) would've won over even the most zealous communist. I changed, donning a white sheet like everyone else. A gruff attendant then walked me to a bench outside the massage rooms . . . and the nude swim spectacle.

Post-swim, a stout masseuse poured oil on my back and expertly kneaded my muscles while Czech pop tunes played. The room felt sterile, like a doctor's office; in contrast, a recent massage in the United States included vanilla candles, soothing taupe walls and New Age music. But all that seemed superfluous now, and after 10 minutes in the sauna, I was in a steamy, pleasant stupor.

I left to wander along the Tepla River, which slices the town in half and whose rushing sound was trance-inducing. Classical colonnades and pastel neo-Renaissance, neo-baroque and art nouveau mansions competed for attention from both sides of the river.

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