Karlovy Vary, or Karlsbad in German, is the most visited, world-famous spa resort of the Czech Republic, with its famous promenades winding along the valley of River Teplá (or Warm), hugged by mountain ranges. The incomparable natural environment is combined with the special atmosphere of spa resorts redolent of age and the colonnades of drinking wells. Around twenty of the 83 thermal springs have been exploited, and the high-temperature medicinal waters have been consumed for centuries for their high mineral and trace element contents (mainly sodium, potassium, calcium, magnesium, hydrogen carbonate, sulphate, chloride, lithium and burr) and used for balneotherapy. The upper layers of rock in the area around the town are mainly granite, and the fractures in the rock allow the thermal spring originated from infiltrated rainwater at a depth of 2,000 metres to spout. The highest runoff, 2,000 litres per minute, comes from the Vřidlo or Sprudel (Springing in English) spring, which has a temperature of 73.4 °C. This spring, which rises 6-12 metres, was first discovered in the 14th century.
The boom of the bath city
Karlovy Vary was founded in the 14th century by the Czech King and Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV, after a hunt they found the steaming springs that rose in the Teplá riverbed. A bath was built in 1350 and soon afterwards, the town was granted town privileges and eventually named after Charles IV (as was Charles Bridge in Prague). From the 14th to 16th centuries, the town was already considered a curing place. At that time, the thermal waters were used only for bathing, and bizarre healing methods were preserved, whereby 'patients' were required to stay in water baths for almost a whole day until their skin cracked and thus their diseases left them.
In 1522, at the suggestion of Wenceslas Payer, medicinal water began to be consumed as a cure, and from then on, several litres of water a day, rich in minerals, were added to the treatments. In the 17th century, the first medicinal house was already open on the area of the later Old Town. In 1707, the town was granted the status of a free royal town, and during this period, it became really popular owing to the celebrities, artists and monarchs of the time who came to be cured here and its number of visitors was more than ten thousand people a year.
In the second half of the 17th century, the physician David Becher, the 'Hippocrates of Karlovy Vary', was active, and whose name is connected with the chemical analysis of thermal water and the distillation technique for the Karlsbad salt. This salt, obtained from the Sprudel spring water, contained minerals and trace elements dissolved in the water in the form of powder and was recommended mainly for digestive complaints. Becher also underlined the importance of the combination of bathing and drinking and the importance of physical exercise during the therapy. He called for the construction of colonnades, where covered walkways to drinking wells can be used for daily walks and medicinal water consumption in bad weather as well. It is interesting to note that the '13th spring' of Karlovy Vary, the Becherovka herbal liqueur, was created by the famous doctor's nephew Josef Becher in 1807, originally for stomach complaints, based on the original recipe of an English doctor, Christian Frobrig. Today, you can taste the bittersweet drink with secret recipe at the Jan Becher Museum.
Medicinal water admired by monarchs and artists
In 1785, Johann Wolfgang Goethe visited the famous baths, which he later visited on thirteen occasions. Among the many visitors seeking health and relaxation were Maria Theresa, Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Dvořák, Schiller, Gogol and Kafka. Of course, Hungarians have also visited Karlovy Vary, most famously Ferenc Liszt, János Arany and Ferenc Móra, whose correspondence from Karlovy Vary can be browsed in our database. János Arany visited the baths for the first time in 1867, and went on to visit nine more times. A memorial plaque in Czech on the wall of his former lodgings commemorates his stay and a memento to the poet was placed on his favourite bench in the forest walkway of Eccehomo Chapel as well. Arany also wove into Toldi's Love the origin story of the discovery of the thermal spring during a deer hunting, and the poet himself appears in the poem as an old man hoping to be cured by the curative waters.
In the 19th century, the balneological palette was further expanded with steam bathing, treatments exploiting the iron content of the water, and a sanatorium specialising in diabetes. Major building projects, such as the construction of most of the colonnades, were carried out during this period, which still dominate the townscape today. The town, which functioned as one of the strongholds of health tourism, was linked into the European bloodstream in 1870 with its railway network.
In 1869, the newspaper Gyógyászat (Medical Science) described the daily life of visitors of the bath city:
“The drinking of the medicinal water is usually done while walking; from five o'clock in the morning till eight o'clock, a great movement of patients animates the streets around the fountains, and to avoid intrusion, the guests cluster in pairs and rows around the most frequented fountains; no one has the right of overtaking; sometimes 200 couples step in succession, making a pilgrimage to the refreshing gurgling point, and winding a long procession into the interior of the streets. At the fountain, pretty, adolescent girls dressed in red-sleeved white aprons, called Naiads, scoop medicinal water into each guest's own cup, who goes off to sip their warm light breakfast. Eight to ten glasses is the maximum serving; for the weak, the doctors also recommend a soup made from the water of the "whisk" (Sprudelsuppe). At the strolling hall around the "whisk" and the "mill well", musical performances are given at this hour appreciated by the applause of walkers.”
Translated by Zita Aknai