Discovering wellbeing traditions in the Czech Republic

Josephine Platt
MSc Social and Cultural Anthropology, 2021–2023

A limp, plastic sack is waiting for me on a therapy bed, and I’m being gestured to strip off and climb inside of it. I part the liner and shimmy in, with all but my arms tucked in. A no-nonsense Czech nurse fastens a belt around my waist and shoves a hose deep into the bag. Flooded with CO2, it comically inflates to full capacity, ballooning around me as I think, ‘what now?’

I’m taking a dry carbon gas bath in one of many treatment rooms at Nové Lázně Health Spa Hotel, in Mariánské Lázně, a spa town in the Czech Republic that’s about as far west as you can go before entering Germany. The coach cruised past two-and-a-half hours of lush countryside from Prague before reaching this town some 600m above sea level. But it wasn’t relaxation I was seeking with my first unusual treatment. Instead? Better blood circulation⎯plus the added bonus of feeling like a trendsetter. The only thing is, I’m a couple of hundred years late to catch on.

“Doctors discovered the effects of nature’s healing sources here in 1818,” explains Patrice Irlveková, Esana Health Spa Hotels’ director of sales and marketing. “They studied the springs, mud, and CO2, and tried different healing combinations. By 1818, Mariánské Lázně⎯then belonging to the Teplá Monastery⎯was given the official status of a spa. We offer the same treatments today, but the technologies differ.”

As my feet tingle and I snap selfies over the 20-minute treatment, I think about past fellow wellness seekers who likely found themselves in similar situations⎯minus the iPhone in hand. Over the 19th century (the second half being this region’s Golden Era), writers Twain and Goethe, composer Chopin, and royals such as Austrian emperor Franz Josef I and English King Edward VII made their way to this town. The latter loved the area so much that he returned nine times. 

Mariánské Lázně isn’t the only town in Bohemia to have drawn dignitaries and the cultural elite. It finds competition with Františkovy Lázně and Karlovy Vary. Goethe described the neighbouring town of Františkovy Lázně – 30 minutes away by car, and half its size and population⎯as ‘heaven on Earth’. Much like Mariánské Lázně and Karlovy Vary, the destination brushes up against the dense Slavkovský forest, and retains its Victorian and Edwardian charm, having made it through both World Wars unscathed. Strolling around the colonnades of Františkovy Lázně, you can imagine the snooty aristocrats that came before: opulent women walking arm-in-arm and pointing parasols, men tipping their top hats and exchanging pleasantries around the springs.

Just over 5,000 people call Františkovy Lázně home today, which is 45,000 less than the region’s most bustling destination: Karlovy Vary. This city captured the attention of Charles IV, King of Bohemia, in 1350, when he supposedly healed an ailment when drinking from the mineral springs. As such, the city’s name translates to ‘Charles’ Baths’. Its 80-odd springs aside, Karlovy Vary draws international visitors for the breadth of its architecture⎯described by legendary architect Le Corbusier as an ‘array of cakes’. Alongside the Neo-Baroque and Belle Époque-era buildings that unify these destinations, Karlovy Vary sports Brutalist and modern structures from the last century.

Grouped together as the ‘West Bohemian Spa Triangle’, this trio gained UNESCO World Heritage Site recognition in 2021. It sits alongside Baden-Baden, in Germany, the City of Bath in the UK, and six other European spa destinations that make up the Great Spa Towns of Europe. So, how do you reap the wellness benefits of this healing destination?

The spa at Ensana Nové Lázně Health Spa Hotel, by David Marvan.

Drink the mineral water

Mariánské Lázně alone is home to 40 cold-water springs, each boasting unique mineral blends that are said to present therapeutic benefits⎯such as aiding digestive or respiratory disorders. The spring water is enriched with calcium, magnesium, and iron that imparts these benefits when drank.  

Equipped with a porcelain spa cup (a cup-teapot hybrid developed in the region and a popular souvenir), I dispense a healthy swig of the Ambrose Spring from within Nové Lázně Health Spa Hotel. I choose this spring⎯named so after Abbot Jeronym Ambroz, who wanted to ensure the springs were accessible to all⎯for its high iron content. It faintly resembles a Berocca with carbonated water, and I’m convinced it’s taking the edge off a slight hangover that followed me from Prague.

A further 21 cold-water springs are found in Františkovy Lázně⎯the oldest dating back to 1793. Meanwhile, 12 of Karlovy Vary’s 15 captured springs are fit for drinking and, unlike the other destinations in the region, spurt hot water at up to 72 degrees Celsius.

“Hot springs are mainly used for metabolic disorders and gastrointestinal problems,” says Jaroslav Sára of Hotel Prezident, a design-led luxury wellness resort in the city centre. “Our water is the most complex.” 

His mother, Milada Sárová, is managing director of Hotel Prezident and a leading expert in balneology (the use of medicinal springs as therapy). She has treated such famous clients as former president of the Soviet Union, Gorbachev, to the English actor Sir Michael Palin. She advises her guests to stay for a few weeks to reap the wellness benefits, whilst drinking 500ml of prescribed water before each meal. Does Mialda follow her own advice? “If I’m healthy, I drink wine,” she chuckles. “But if I have a problem, I drink the water.”

Hotel Nové lázně Mariánské Lázně, credit Libor Sváček / Vydavatelství MCU

Get a CO2 or peat mud spa treatment

On emerging from my airtight CO2 bag, I wonder if I feel any different. Clients typically go through a consultation process and the results are measured over a series of treatments, meaning that my test-run isn’t a good indication of the treatment’s efficacy. Many visitors to the region are sent on their doctor’s recommendation: health insurance policies in the Czech Republic cover the costs of medical programmes. 

“The region should see 10 million domestic tourists this coming year,” says managing Director of CzechTourism, Jan Herget. A large portion of these will be those coming for medical or classic spa treatments. Variations of my treatment, such as carboxytherapy (injections) designed to ease joint inflammation, would fall under this medical umbrella. You’ll find them throughout the region – with Hotel Prezident and Nové Lázně Health Spa Hotel among the top places that offer them.

Supplementary to CO2, peat mud is another novel source of natural healing in the Karlovy Vary region. Fished out from bogs, it’s loaded with a high concentration of acids that promote an antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory environment, not far off the skin’s natural pH level. Reportedly, this supports skin conditions such as eczema and psoriasis. 

You’ll notice that peat mud is harnessed in a spectrum of treatments, from body wraps to bathing, where it complements mineral water. Unlike some CO2 treatments, peat is widely available for visitors, without the need for a consultation or prescription.

Karlovy Vary, courtesy of CzechTourism.

Take a radioactive bath

You probably wouldn’t expect to find the radioactive gas radon in a spa session. Yet a radon bath is a popular anti-inflammatory treatment at Hotel Radium Palace in Jáchymov, a 20-minute drive from Karlovy Vary.

Jáchymov was the world’s first radon spa, extracting the substance from the Svornost mine, 500m below ground, in 1906. It’s said that 18 baths, the optimal number over a few weeks, equates to just one lung X-ray.

“People typically come here pre- and post-operation to help with recovery,” explains Barbora Volfová, Sales Manager at Lázně Jáchymov. “People have been known to visit 10 or 15 times because it really helps them.” I’m told to keep my gold jewellery on for the 15-minute soak as radium does a grand job of polishing it⎯as I clamber out of the gigantic aluminium tub, it appears that the nurse knows her stuff.

Františkovy Lázně, courtesy of CzechTourism.

Have an Ayurvedic massage

As well as keeping regional traditions alive, the spa houses in Karlovy Vary aren’t afraid of introducing influence from afar – including Ayurvedic and Thai. Alongside its spa suite⎯outfitted with a herbal steam room and Finnish sauna⎯the Grandhotel Pupp has a dedicated Ayurvedic massage menu open to the public. Drenched in warm coconut oil, I drift in and out of sleep over an hour-long, four-hand Abhyanga massage. 

Ancient Egyptian reflexology is also available to leisure travellers at Hotel Prezident, while you can book in for a knot-busting Thai massage at Nové Lázně or a traditional Hawaiian massage (using nut oils) at Hotel Bohemia in Františkovy Lázně. These treatments allow for an entry point into wellness stays, differing from the intensive medical programmes.  

Be it a long weekend or month-long stay that lures you into the Karlovy Vary region, its historical clientele of returning kings, aristocrats, and writers indicate that it’ll probably be the first of many visits.

Originally published in ABTA Magazine, July 2022.

Title image: Mariánské Lázně, courtesy of CzechTourism.

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