Saturday, June 19, 2010

A Spa Day in Karlovy Vary

Friday night we went to dinner at the Alchemist Garden, a restaurant next to our pension. This is a lebanese-themed restaurant, and despite the coolness of the weather, we ate in the garden (Annie and Cherie sat next to the heater, I, enjoying the weather, sat as far away from it as I could get).

As it happened, there were two people dining there that we had met earlier in the day at the Kampa Museum: a mother from Los Angeles and her son who had just graduated high school. In an amazing coincidence, we discovered that her son and Cherie had not only both acted in the same summer acting program, but they had even appeared in a play together. In yet another coincidence, it turned out that the son would be attending Cherie's college in the fall.

After dinner we all walked to the refugee festival in Kampa Park, but at 10 pm, the music shuts down (by law).

On Saturday (yesterday), our rental car was dropped off for us a little after 9 am, and we made our way to Karlovy Vary. I HATE driving in foreign countries and Annie loves it, so it worked out quite well. I navigated the poorly marked streets and in no time at all we were on the main road to the spa town. The Czech countryside is gorgeous: very green with small hills and little patches of forests. Mostly it was fields and farmlands. Sometimes we passed large fields of wheat that in some cases were just beginning to change from green to golden; other times, we passed fields of another kind of grain (I think rye), that grew straight upright and had slightly bluish green stalks. Sometimes we past fields with climbing vines attached to poles, but we couldn't figure out what was growing there. We past at least one strawberry field where you could stop and pick your own.

Karlovy Vary is about 112 km west from Prague, and the area around there is far more hilly and forested. It took us slightly less than 2 hours to negotiate the roads, and after being nearly trapped in a pedestrian zone, we parked and walked. The town is like a multi-colored Victorian confection. Brightly colored buildings, delicate lace porticoes on the promenades and colonades, green parks with white gazeboes, and the river flowing through the middle. Most of the people carry little white ceramic cups with ceramic straws, in order to drink the hot mineral water without staining their teeth.

We stopped briefly at Lazne III, the public spa that I used in 2006. This is the one with two story corridors and communist-era service. After that we found the spa I used in 2007: Zamecky Lazne. I had tried repeatedly to find it on the web in order to book us, but I had not been able to find it. Luckily, we had no trouble coming as a walk in. I got the four-hour "Superior" spa treatment. jThis included a 40-minute classic full-body massage, one "major treatment," and two "minor treatments." For my major treatment I chose the "pearl bath," which is a tub with small little water jets that focus acupressure on different muscles of the body. For my minor treatments, I chose the Kneipp hydrotherapy and the electroaerosol inhalation.

Our spa visit was to start at 1 pm, but it was already 12:30 and we needed to have lunch before we went into the spa (they only have tea and water available inside), so we ran into the restaurant next door. There were no seats in front, so we went inside and found a free table. As I looked at the decor, I became more than a little uneasy: maps of the Sudetendeutschen, local maps of parts of "Sudetenland," lots of kitschy albums and pictures of Sudetenland musicians from the 1970s, lots of South German knick knacks. We were eating in a restaurant that catered to former Sudetenland Germans (most had been expelled in 1945 by Stalin). I ordered the schnitzel, which is my fall back choice when I'm not sure what else is safe. Annie thought about getting the dumpling, but I told her she dodged a bullet by getting the broccoli. Czech dumplings are not like kneydlach; they are large, heavy, white, beige-tasting things, sliced into hockey puck like shapes, drowned in brown gravy and then decorated with globs of sour cream. We all enjoyed (if you can call it that), a bizarre statue of a stuff fox smoking a pipe, with strange yellow wooden eggs hanging from his underside.

We made it back to the spa just after 1 and were introduced to the procedures. We each received a plush robe and towel and a wrist band that opened the door to our own changing room. The robe and towel appeared to be the same ones I received in 2007, the exact same ones. They had been washed to an inch of their plush little lives (sort of like the towels at our hotel, which serve the dual role of simultaneously drying and exfoliating). After we had changed with went in.

The main hall has a large tepid water pool. Annie and Cherie were surprised how cool it was, but I think it's part of the Czech spa tradition. The Czechs approach spas as medicinal; each procedure is prescribed and medicinal. A hot water pool is a specific treatment, not something general.

I started off with the Kneipp hydrotherapy. This is designed to stimulate blood flow in the feet and calves. There are two small pools adjacent to each other and connected by small steps. One one side the water is ice cold, on the other it's very hot. The Czech attendant explained to me that I spend one minute on the cold side and then thirty seconds on the hot side (Annie thinks I misunderstood and got the sides reversed).

As I walked into the cold side, I first thought: cold! Then, wow this really cold. Then, oh my God this really cold! How much longer? Twenty seconds. Ten seconds. Five seconds. Then up and quickly over to the hot side. Ouch! Hot! Hot! Hot!. How much longer? Fifteen seconds. Ten seconds. Five seconds. Quick over to the cold side. Ah. But then, ooh, this is cold!

By the third cycle it stopped hurting. The hot side was pleasantly warm, but after twenty five seconds it started feeling uncomfortable. Then it was over to the cold side where now my feet tingled and felt like they floated. The cold only started to become uncomfortable just before I went back to the hot side. At the start, I thought this would be the longest fifteen minutes of my life, but by the end, I was sorry to see it over.

I swam in the pool for a while, and then lay out on a lounge. They then called me over for my massage. I've only had a full-body massage once before (also in the Karlovy Vary), so I must admit I was more than a little anxious about it. In 2006, my masseuse was a large, middle-aged, stocky, plain Czech woman; yesterday, I got her matching husband. He started on my legs and it was going fine until he reached my knees. I'm very ticklish there and I started to laugh uncontrollably. Thankfully, this was the only problem. He was quite good and the massage felt like it was over in no time at all. In fact, I checked the time when I got out to make sure it was really 40 minutes (it was).

My next procedure was the electroaerosol inhalation. This is a cave-like room with rough stone walls and a mechanism spraying atomized particles of electrically charged mineral water into the air. The room was warm, but surprisingly not humid, with a very faint mineral scent.

My final procedure was the pearl bath. The first time I did it, in 2007, it really relaxed me, but not so much this time. I still enjoyed it, though.

We left at 5 pm, and went for some cafe und kuchen at the Grand Hotel Pupp. This is the finest hotel in Karolvy Vary, and, according to my guide book, believed by some to be the finest hotel in the Czech Republic. A British woman we met by our hotel the other day pronounced the name "poop," which caused us much amusement. Not wanting to say that I would like to go for a "poop" coffee, I called it the Grand Hotel Pupik (belly button in Yiddish).

The coffee house was gorgeous. Wood paneled with windows facing the river and town, elegant and well lit, with copies of various papers to read, including the International Herald Tribune. I ordered a chocolate coffee and a chocolate roulade. The cake came warm. It was a thin chocolate nut meringue, sort of like a dacquoise, but then coated in a deep, rich chocolate sauce (spiked with a kahlua-like liquour) and then rolled up and dusted with powdered sugar and some schlag (whipped cream).

Afterwards, we walked through the amazingly beautiful dining room and lobby. This hotel was the backdrop for the main hotel/casino in the recent Bond film Casino Royale, so if you've seen the film, you now know what Karlovy Vary looks like.

We drove back to Prague in the late afternoon, getting lost only once as we tried to find our way back to Mala Strana. We parked in the neighboring lot, but it very late (8:45 pm). My last meal was the schnitzel at 12:30, followed by the small slice of cake at 5 pm, so I was starving. After much discussion, I insisted we get something to eat in the neighborhood and at 9:30 we went to the Cafe de Paris one block away. I asked if they took credit cards (we don't have that much cash left) and the waiter said "we prefer not to." After confirming that they would take it despite their preference we sat down.

I ordered the entrecote with pommes frites and a glass of Czech red. The wine was lovely, though the side salad was very dijon mustardy. The waiter asked if I wanted my steak medium (apparently the default position among tourists to Prague), but I said no, "a pointe, s'il vous plait." It was perfect; very well cooked accompanied by a sauce Bernaise (tarragon).

Annie and Cherie got into a long conversation with the couple seated next to us in the restaurant. They had brought their adorable three-month old puppy Ferdo into the restaurant (it's not America after all) and we all enjoyed playing with it (he was very well behaved). However, the long wait for dinner followed by wine and a very heavy late meal just wiped me out. I found it very difficult to stay awake or concentrate, and the smoke started to give me a head ache. By midnight I was just ready to collapse, which is what I did a few minutes later after we got back to the hotel. I immediately fell asleep, and only woke up seven and a half hours later.

I'm not sure what we're doing today. Originally, I was supposed to meet a colleague in Terezin, but I found out yesterday that he's changed his plans and is going on Monday. We may drive out of town this morning after they get up, and then come back for a last afternoon in Prague. On Monday, we have our longest train ride: 4.5 hours to Vienna.

1 comment:

Steve said...

i hope you don't mind...i have been forwarding some of your Prague commentary to a work colleague who lives there (british expat Martin). I think the two of you might hit it off so if you are still in town and want to make the connection. let me know. Martin and his family made aliyah (as it were) to Prague from the UK and he is a Support Account Manager for some of our EU Mobile operators. Anyway i encouraged him to provide native commentary particulalry to some of your more humorous comments. So if Martin chimes in you'll know who he is... Have fun!