By Anita Draycott
Last summer my friend Margaret and I literally sloshed our way around the Czech Republic. If we weren’t steeping in thermal springs or sipping mineral waters, we were knocking back the country’s many liquid libations—from Slivovice to Absinthe to Pilsner.
I should explain that Margaret, an expert on all things distilled and fermented, makes her living writing and opining on wine and alcohol.
In the name of research we thirsty travellers began our jaunt about 180 km south of Prague in the fairy-tale town of Cesky Krumlov. Just before sunset we boarded a raft and for forty-five minutes our guide poled us along the Vltava River that loops through the medieval town’s impressive collection of Renaissance and Baroque architecture dominated by splendid castle towers.
Cesky Krumlov was established in 1253. After German occupation during World War II many gypsies came to live here. The vagabond spirit still pervades, especially at Cikanska Jizba, a lively bar when tourists and locals cavort and Diego the dog is a regular. It was here that I got my first taste of Absinthe, a green potion, flavoured with wormwood. It tastes like licorice and packs quite a punch. Legend has it that “The Green Fairy” was the tipple of choice of Oscar Wilde and that Ernest Hemingway penned For Whom the Bell Tolls under its influence.
Groggily, the next morning, Margaret and I hiked up the hill to visit the second largest castle in the Czech Republic. This rococo gem houses the best preserved Baroque theatre in the world, complete with original hand-cranked wind and thunder machines, sets, props about 650 costumes and candle-lit orchestra pit.
No doubt the second most popular place in town is the Eggenberg Brewery, established in 1560. After a tour and some free samples (they even make a beer for diabetics) we washed a substantial lunch of liver meatball soup, potato salad, schnitzel and strudel down with a tankard or two.
En route to the spa town of Marienbad, we made an obligatory pitstop in Plzen, home to Pilser Urquell’s Beer World. This is the place where in 1842 the golden lager that many have tried to copy, originated. The comprehensive tour culminates with more free suds.
When Bads are Good
With forty hot mineral springs, Marienbad (German) or Marianske Lazne (Czech) has been luring those who come to take the waters for centuries. Its illustrious visitors have included Russian and English royals, Freud, Chopin and Goethe. We arrived on Saturday night. To say it was dead would be an understatement; the casino reminded me of a funeral parlor.
However, on Sunday morning the town was full of well-slept seniors slurping the mineral waters from the various arcaded fountains. Margaret described the taste as “rusty pipe spiked with sulphur.” However, folks swear by the therapeutic powers of Marienbad’s springs and the its pristine forest-fresh air. A tour of some of the spa facilities revealed a mind-boggling array of treatments including cinnamon packs, carbon dioxide baths and injections, bowel cleansing, flasking and lymphodrainage. In case your purified body craves some toxins, I noticed cream puffs in a revolving refrigerated case, as well as cigars, cigarettes and bottles of booze on sale in one of the spa hotel reception areas. Perhaps the most exciting entertainment to be found was a musical fountain in the centre of town that plays classical tunes every two hours.
The livelier spa oasis Carlsbad (German) or Karlovy Vary (Czech), about two hours from Prague, is beautifully situated on the Tepla River. Thanks to the fact that during the Communist regime there was no money to tear down the classic 19th century “wedding cake” Art Nouveau buildings and put up proletariat eyesores, the elegant architecture remains intact both here and in Marienbad.
Carlsbad’s twelve natural mineral springs are purportedly good for what ails you—from gout to obesity. As in Marienbad, folks taking the “cure” slosh around this Bohemian town’s four drinking pavillions filling their spouted cups with the thermal gold. The spout allows you to sip the water without staining your teeth. Rush hour occurs about one hour before mealtimes.
Fearful that too much of the sulphurous waters would have purging effects, we decided to indulge in some spa treatments. First we soaked up to our necks in a bubbling tub redolent of rotten eggs. Then came the massage, a half-hour pummeling by a brick of a woman lacking what I’d call people skills. The Czech’s have not adopted the North American concept of spa as place to be pampered. Also keep in mind that Eastern Europeans are blasé about nudity so it’s not uncommon to find yourself in a sauna or hot tub with “members” of the opposite sex. Don’t say I didn’t warn you!
Margaret with her inquenchable thirst for new libartions decided we should find a drinking establishment and order Carlsbad’s locally produced Becherovka liqueur. If I thought the Absinthe was awful, this bitter brew, with hints of clove and cinnamon, was brutal. It was originally invented by Josef Becher, a Carlsbad pharmacist, to relieve stomach ailments.
To her credit, Margaret consulted some locals and they suggested it was best downed in one quick swallow followed by a pint of piva (Czech for beer). Many demonstrations of Becherovka bravura followed. Somewhere along the line, we found ourselves dining with these merry Czechs. When I suggested the meal was sitting rather heavily in my gut, a new cure was procured from behind the bar. Slivovice, yet another national treasure, is plum brandy designed to digest the heaviest of duck and dumplings.