Prague may attract thousands of English visitors each year, but as Sarah Freeman discovers there’s an awful lot more to the Czech Republic than its historic capital.
The practice of taking spa water was something we were once pretty good at in Yorkshire.
It was back in the 17th-century that Thomasin Farrer, wife of one of Scarborough’s leading citizens, John Farrer, and herself a pillar of the community, discovered a natural spring bubbling beneath the cliffs of the south bay.
Bitter tasting, but packed with minerals, the water was declared to have medicinal qualities and soon thousands were flocking to the coastal town with the hope of drinking themselves well. And so it continued for a few hundred years until in the 1930s the water was declared unfit for human consumption.
No such misfortune has hit the spa waters of the Czech Republic. Mariánské Lázne boasts more than 40 different springs and has long been popular with Germans and Russians. Spotting English visitors is less easy. The Danubius Group, which runs nine major hotels in the small town, reckons it probably attracts no more than a few hundred guests from England each year.
It’s a statistic the company finds frustrating because while thanks to frequent flights from low cost airlines like Jet2, Prague has become one of the most popular short break destinations in Europe, persuading visitors to venture beyond the famous Charles Bridge has not been easy. It’s a shame because those that do will be rewarded by a country blessed by Alpine scenery and towns and cities which have managed to reinvent themselves since the end of Communist rule two decades ago.
Mariánské Lázne, 100 miles south of the capital, is just one of those hidden gems. Centred around one main street, the buildings, most of which date from the second half of the 19th-century, when the rich and famous rubbed shoulders with European rulers as they enjoyed the curative springs, have a familiar feel. This is a little slice of Scarborough transported to Eastern Europe. However, while over the years the East Coast resort has added amusement arcades, fish and chip bars and souvenir shops to its offering, in the Czech Republic little has changed since the original spa opened its doors at the beginning of the 19th-century.
The towels and the bathrobes might be a little fluffier, but when the hotels talk of spa treatments they mean reclining in a bath of bubbling spring water, not pedicures and manicures. That’s part of the reason why it’s been a bit of a hard sell over here, but with a bit of canny marketing you have to imagine this untapped market could prove lucrative for the hotel owners.
Given many of the hotels come with their own team of doctors there is a slight sanitorium feel to the place. However, while most of the Russian and German guests stay for a minimum of three weeks, a couple of nights will give you a feel for the town.
If you can, book a treatment at Nové Lázne in the suite used by King Edward VII, a man who took bath-time seriously. He visited Mariánské Lázne nine times in all and the Royal Cabin with its marble mosaics is one impressive room.
While there is a dizzying array of treatments now on offer, it’s the mineral baths on which the town’s reputation was built. The tin baths are most original as are the contraptions which pump through the water. They might whirr and clank a little, but the water is warm and the 20 minutes spent immersed is relaxing enough – do it enough and it’s also supposed to help circulation and reduce stress.
The main spa building is filled each day with guests slowly sipping water from the spring best suited to their particular ailment, but for those feeling in better health there’s also a decent golf course, tennis courts and cycle hire.
If Mariánské Lázne is ignored by English tourists then Cesky Krumlov has the opposite problem, at least when it comes to day trippers. A three-hour drive away from the spa town, most of the coach parties which descend each day only stay a couple of hours, which is a shame because this Unesco World Heritage Site is worth much more than a cursory glance.
Built on a bend in the Vltava River, construction of the South Bohemian town and its fairytale castle began in the late 13th-century and building work continued for the next 400 years. Amazingly, Cesky Krumlov was spared the fires which destroyed similar wooden structures in towns across Europe, although look closely and the equally devastating impact of the Communism era can still be seen.
By the time of the Velvet Revolution in 1989 many of the buildings here had fallen into disrepair. The conservation programme began almost immediately and it has been impressive with most of the Gothic, Baroque and Renaissance properties now restored to their original state. However, wander off the main tourist routes and down some of the side streets where the backs of the buildings are still crumbling and the paint peeling and it’s possible to catch a glimpse of the scale of the job which confronted Unesco.
It’s worth booking a walking tour both for a potted history of the place and to get your bearings. The castle is the main draw at Cesky Krumlov and while you can walk around the grounds day and night for free, it’s worth paying to climb the tower which gives spectacular views over the town.
If you do manage a couple of days here, the Museum Fotoatelier Siedel, a photographic studio turned museum which tells the story of the Siedel family who pioneered the use of photography is worth a look, as is the Egon Schiele Art Centrum which hosts regular contemporary art exhibitions.
Stay after sunset when the coaches have moved onto their next destination then head for one of Cesky Krumlov’s bars and order a glass of the Eggenberg beer which has been brewed here since the 17th-century. The only thing then left to do is raise a glass to this special corner of the Czech Republic.
• Sarah Freeman flew to the Czech Republic from Leeds Bradford International Airport courtesy of Jet2. To book flights go to www.jet2.com. To pre-book on-site car parking at the airport or a fast track pass, which makes going through security quicker visit www.leedsbradfordairport.co.uk.
For accommodation and spa treatments in Marianske Lanze visit www.danubiushotels.com.
In Cesky Krumlov we stayed at Hotel Zlaty Andel – www.hotelzlatyandel.cz. Situated on the market square its central location makes it ideal for exploring the town.
For the official Czech Tourism site go to www.czechtourism.com.