Thursday, July 13, 2006

Karlovy Vary (July 13)

I had a tremendous shock this morning. I woke up and looked at clock and saw that it was a quarter of. I assumed that it was a quarter of seven and that I had managed to sleep about 45 minutes later than usual. I watched the BBC news at the top of the hour, took a shower, got dressed, went downstairs to check my e-mail, when suddenly I noticed that it wasn't 7:45, but in fact, 8:45! Somehow I managed to sleep in nearly two hours later than usual.

I rushed to breakfast thinking it closed at 9, though I quickly realized, it stays open til 10. There was no way I was going to catch the 9 am bus to Karlovy Vary, so I tried for the 10, but they gave me a ticket for the 10:45. The bus was hot, humid, and all I could see where fields of wheat turning brown. I checked my guide book and it said that the public spa in Karlovy Vary is open from 7:30 to 3:00, which meant I wouldn't have much time at it. Well, I would do the best I could.

Arriving in town, the driver said "Centrum," so I made the decision to get off there (I also noticed a large public map posted in the park a block away). This turned out to be the right choice, saving me a 10 minute walk through hot, dull streets. After some confusion figuring out where I was and wanted to go, I set off for the spa.

Karlovy Vary is a very pretty restort town. It is built in a narrow valley with a stream flowing through the middle. On either side is the promenade with 4-story fin-de-siecle buildings, all with nice, fresh paint. The one exception is the communist-era Hotel Thermal, which defies all the bourgeois capitalist excess with its grey, concrete, socialist-realist lines.

Finally I reached the State Spa (Lazne 3). I entered up a short flight of steps into a lobby. Ahead of rose the grand staircase (to the restaurant); to the right and the left were double doors leading to corridors. I went to the information desk on the left and she told me to go down one corridor to room 21.

The corridor vaguely resembled what I imagine a 19th-century sanitarium might have looked like. Tall, 12 foot ceilings, doors bearing ominous cards, such as "Inhalation," in Czech, German, English, and Russian. Finally, I reached #21, which looked no different from the other doors, except for the small sign saying "kassa" (box office). I went in, and asked the woman if she spoke English. Not so much, she mumbled. German? I asked. Yes, German is better she replied.

We went over my options. This was quite different from the spas in Budapest, much more medicinal and controlled. I could have one bath option and one massage option, but not two bath options. My choices were: oxygenated mineral bath (20 minutes), mud bath (10 minutes), or swimming pool (1 hour). I chose the mineral bath and the classic massage.

The woman then led me back through the lobby to the other corridor to find the woman who would arrange the bath. I was wondering whether I should put on my bathing suit, but she said, no, included in price. They led me to another door off the corridor where there was a small room with 12-foot ceilings that had a very large, metal tub, and an inclined bed. Two large spigots filled the tub in two minutes; then she lowered some metal pipes and railings into the tub and it began to fill with bubbles.

She told me to get undressed and into the tub and set the timer. When the timer went off, I was to pull on the cord on the wall, and she would come to arrange the massage. After she left I got. The water was warm, but not hot at all (she came in a minute later and asked if the temperature was all right, and I said yes). The bubbles of oxygen gave the air a strange, pleasant smell. I tried not to think about electrocution in a metal tub filled with pipes or what might happen if someone lit a match in a room full of oxygen bubbles and instead tried to relax. The air coming out of the pipes was a little cold, so I tried not to sit on them. The water was only very slightly oily, quite different from the mineral pools at Ein Gedi.

The 20 minutes passed by in no time at all. The alarm went off so I got out of the tub, grabbed the towel I brought with me to maintain modesty, and pulled the cord. 30 seconds later, the attendent came in, motioned for me to put my towel away, wrapped a sheet around me, grabbed my clothes and told me to follow her. We walked down another corridor, where she put my clothes in a changing room, locked it, and gave me the key. Then she passed me off to the woman who would give me the massage.

We walked through various shower and hot tub rooms until we reached the massage room. She put a sheet on the table and motioned for me to lie down. Then she covered me with the sheet I brought, and then uncovered the section she was going to work on. I've always been reluctant to get massages because I have a low threshold for pain, and I've had neck massages that have been quite uncomfortable, but this was quite relaxing. No pain at all.

She began by working on my feet and calves. I knew she was reaching the end of whatever section she was working on when she did the karate chop maneuver, followed by the open hand slapping maneuver (I have no idea what benefit comes from either move). After 30 minutes she was done and told me to take a shower. I found the open shower room, but there were no knobs to turn. "It's automatic," she told me. I finally go the water to start and it was quite cold, but eventually it warmed up. After that, I found my way back to my clothes, changed, and left.

The whole session took about an hour, so I had nothing to fear about my limited time. The sky was rather overcast and thundery when I came out, but the air was slightly cooler and more pleasant, so I strolled along the promenade and found a cafe where I could sit outside under an umbrella. I had a very nice strawberry sundae, with some very good ice cream (particularly welcome after the very poor ice cream I had had in Poland) and fresh strawberries, accompanied by a nice glass of Becherovka, a distilled liquour flavored with herbs and made in Karlovy Vary. After that, I made my way back to the bus station and bought a ticket back to Prague.

All in all, it was a rather nice outing. Very different from what I was expecting, much more medicine and cure and monitored than the spas in Budapest. Still, I can see why my cousin goes back to these spas every year (though she goes to Mariansky Lazne, not Karlovy Vary).

Time to go get dinner. Tomorrow I'm going to the National Gallery, which I read, has a lot more of the paintings by Kupka that I like so much.

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