14 Sep,2017 By Jagabond
In the 1800’s there were roving fly-by-night circuses that swept into towns suckering people out of money. To save on business costs they often had a meager and poorly trained group of animals with them. Some of the beasts were taught only a single trick to perform. This was the origin of the phrase ‘one trick pony’.
Karlovy Vary is a one trick pony.
Set only two hours west of Prague, this is a spa town…and not much else. I’ve seen it listed multiple times as a top day trip option from Prague, but I disagree. Unless you are actually traveling there for a scheduled, therapeutic spa treatment, the experience may disappoint you. When you remove the single trick from Karlovy Vary, it becomes a strange town with a confused personality and little culture that is evident.
So there I was, in this heralded spa town with no interest in spas. I thought there would be more, and even if not, I figured I would peel back the onion and get a deeper understanding of the city. Leaving with more questions than answers, and a multitude of odd memories, I am thus documenting the weirdness for posterity.
1. The Russian thing
Russians aren’t the most loved people in Czech Republic. The Soviet influence was harsh for many years, and the older generation still remembers. However, Russians have somehow taken over large parts of Karlovy Vary. Many of the shop signs are in Cyrillic, and I even saw souvenirs depicting Putin, Gorbachev and Yeltsin.
2. Drinking the spa water
I can see bathing in spa water, but drinking it? Karlovy Vary has fountains and dispensers throughout town where you can sip on sulfuric-smelling hot water. Visitors even walk around with these tiny porcelain cups in case they need a sudden fix.
3. Odd decorations
As I walked by a booth selling the internationally revered Moldovan wine (sarcasm), I looked up and spotted something that looked like the Washington monument…only a mini version. In the old town there was a sand sculpture commemorating a marathon held in Karlovy Vary every year. When it comes to quirkiness, there’s a fine line between cool and weird.
4. Zero nightlife
A young local advised us that Friday night was the only chance at nightlife. We were there on Friday, and everything closed by nine. We heard rumors of a lone dance club that was open late, but when no one provided clear directions it seemed more like myth than reality. I found a pub advertising ‘nonstop’ action…closed of course.
5. Mexican music
We heard music coming from an outdoor square, and flocked to it like sailors to beautiful sirens. I was imagining something traditional, or maybe a gypsy band, but instead witnessed the Czech version of Mexican song and dance. Not bad, just unexpected.
6. ‘Fake’ buildings
My friend made the keen observation that all the buildings looked really nice and important, but when you looked closer they were just hotels or storefronts. At least in Las Vegas you expect and embrace the fake. This was more like those gimmick towns in the U.S. that have a wild west or Bavarian theme.
7. Good fish
This was a positive weird thing, as I actually had a good meal. Czech Republic never won a competition for finest food in Europe. However, Karlovy Vary had moist, flavorful trout, possibly from one of the nearby freshwater lakes.
8. Money exchanges
Everywhere we walked there was another store boasting a better exchange rate than the last. I’ve seen this before in European cities, but never to the degree of Karlovy Vary. We briefly played a boring game of ‘find the best rate’ while mindlessly meandering through town.
9. Abandoned cars
The main garage in Karlovy Vary also doubled as a long-term storage facility. I’m not sure if the owners will ever come back for these gems, but if they do luckily the garage also has a car wash operation inside.
Bottom line: Unless you pre-book a spa treatment, or are a hypochondriac who wants to drink some healing water, I would pass on Karlovy Vary. There are better day trip options from Prague.