Karlovy Vary (meaning Charles’ Baths, also called Carlsbad in English) is a spa city in the Karlovy Vary Region, 66 mi/106 km west of Prague. It lies at the confluence of the Ohře (which flows across the city) with the Teplá and Rolava rivers. It takes its name after Charles IV, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Bohemia, who founded the city.
Karlovy Vary is the site of numerous hot springs (13 main springs, about 300 smaller springs, and the warm-water Teplá River) and is the most visited spa town in the Czech Republic. Its historic city center is, by law, an urban monument reservation, and it is the largest spa complex in Europe. In 2021, the city became part of the transnational UNESCO World Heritage Site under the name “Great Spa Towns of Europe” because of its spas and architecture dating from the 18th through the 20th century.
The Mill Colonnade
Josef Zítek, architect of the National Theatre and Rudolfinum in Prague, designed the Neo-Renaissance Mill Colonnade structure, built between 1871-1881. It features a nave and two aisles with 124 Corinthian columns and measures 433 ft/132 m long by 43 ft/13 m wide. There are twelve statues representing the twelve months of the year above its Portico and a raised orchestra space for the spa orchestra, which gives regular free concerts. Critics initially reviled the structure, and by the time it finished, many believed it had blemished the town center.
In 1893, the Colonnade extended to include the well-known Rock Spring—in total, it covers five of the fifteen major hot springs (over 80 altogether) in Karlovy Vary. Renovations in 1982 added stone reliefs portraying important moments of Karlovy Vary’s history to the orchestra space by 1995-96. Furthermore, by 1949, a bridge over the adjacent portion of the Tepla River and the area in front of the Colonnade created a small plaza.
Since May 2016, it has become a yearly tradition to create a sand sculpture to commence the spa season in the town. In 2018 when we visited the temporary piece by sculptor Tomáš Bosambo depicted the country’s first president, Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, on his favorite horse Hektor to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the founding of Czechoslovakia.
The Grandhotel Pupp & Kaiserbad Spa
And here’s a little trivia for Bond fanatics: In Casino Royale, James & Vesper Lynd arrive by train to Montenegro, get into a black limousine parked at the railway station, and drive to the Hotel Splendide where 007 is set to play poker against the conniving Le Chiffre! Meanwhile, that hotel was actually the Grandhotel Pupp in Karlovy Vary. To the east of the Grandhotel Pupp, just across the Charles IV Gardens city park, is the Emperor’s Spa (Kaiserbad Spa), the building used as the actual Casino Royale, whose facade is on the movie’s poster and DVD cover.
*images by Athina D. Pantazatou for Kicking Back the Pebbles