I’ve known for a long time that I wanted to visit a Czech spa town. The only problem is, the most famous ones are too famous. I didn’t want to spend my holiday among the foreign crowds that flock to the famous Spa Triangle formed by Karlovy Vary, Mariánské Lázně and Františkovy Lázně in the west. Being surrounded by ostentatious Russians all day is not a recipe for relaxation.
So I went east instead to the sedate Moravian spa town of Luhačovice, where I saw no Russians. Or Germans. Or any other nationality you might expect to see in one of the Bohemian spa towns. Indeed, during a four day visit, I saw one other set of tourists. They were from Slovakia – approximately 20 kilometers away.
Luhačovice is a lengthy – but direct – four and half hour train ride from Prague. Czech trains aren’t usually very modern but often they make up for it with cheerful service and polite but friendly passengers. In carriage-style cars, the custom seems to be to greet everyone when you arrive – dobrý deň – and then bid them farewell – na shledanou – when you leave. My Czech is just about up to this level of interaction. It is most definitely not up to making conversation with the friendly refreshments man who came by. And he was not only friendly but helpful, pointing out to my mother how small the wine bottles were when she bought one (of an excellent local Moravian white wine) to accompany her lunch, doubtful that she would find it sufficient. He was right, naturally. He also supplied us with chocolate Tatranky (a brand of wafer that was essential to my mother’s childhood) so we were naturally in a wonderful mood when we reached Luhačovice. Wine and chocolate on the way to a spa holiday cannot be beat.
Spa-going is part of the culture in much of Europe. It’s not about indulgence or decadence, but rather about health, wellness and relaxation and it’s something everyone can partake in. Each spa has its own specialty so if you’re going for medical reasons you’ll head to the spa that specialises in your disorder. And if you’re going for medical reasons, you’ll often go for a long time. Doctors prescribe spa stays as part of their patient’s treatment or recovery and usually prescribe by the week, if not the month. But spa towns are also a place to unwind from your busy life so you see young couples, families, and shockingly fit retirees alongside those there for medical reasons.
Luhačovice’s popularity began at the beginning of the last century but it was really during the 1920s and 1930s – the golden years of the Czechoslovak Republic – that it became popular. And it was during this time that my grandmother’s family used to vacation here, coming back year after year. Walking the streets, it was strange but lovely to see places I knew from family photographs, still familiar despite the eighty or ninety years that have passed. The town is an intriguing mix of architectural styles spanning the 20th century. You have buildings with intricate gingerbread or painted facades from the earliest years, some rather bleak concrete buildings from the early years of communism, and, my favourite, the functionalist villas of the 1920s.
Representing a number of these styles is the beautiful spa park with it’s long, flat promenade that runs between the spa buildings. This is where everyone comes between treatments to stroll, sit in the sun, maybe play a game of tennis or take in a concert during the summer, or, best of all, use the community piano to sing folk songs and spontaneously dance with a group of strangers. Group bonhomie is the best.
If you’re feeling up for something a little more active, Luhačovice is also surrounded by hills full of well-marked hiking trails, which is the reason we chose it. My mother and I were visiting for relaxation and, for me, hiking is the best way to relax. We visited in late September, just as the leaves were turning, and it was absolutely perfect. It was also mushroom time so whatever hike we went on we were sure to meet mushroom hunters heading out with their baskets and trusty knives. Aside from that, the forests were quite empty. The local favourite seems to be the walk to the dam. Czech people love water but it is a nation sadly devoid of lakes. Wherever there is a dam, you will find happy people flocking to it. And, in this case, gathering around and singing folk songs – again. This isn’t something I can guarantee will be replicated – I’d never heard a single Czech folk song sung in thirty years of visiting family in rural Bohemia – but it was charming. Perhaps Moravians are just more musical? Or maybe it has something to do with all the local wine…
We also stumbled across a national holiday. St Václav (Wenceslas) is the patron saint of the Czechs and many of them decided to celebrate by descending on Luhačovice. The quiet streets were suddenly full of pensioners and an all-day market featuring local products, performers, and lots of food. I loved seeing the handmade lace and the regional pottery but what I found most fascinating were the intricately iced gingerbread. No matter how many times I see these cookies I cannot get over how beautiful they are.
We hiked, we strolled, and each day we returned in the afternoon to our hotel for a spa treatment, a cup of coffee on the sunny terrace, and, in the evening, a gourmet multi-course meal. There are parts of the Czech Republic that are as expensive as North America or Western Europe. This is not one of them. The boutique hotel where we stayed, the Hotel Radun, was absolutely perfect. With half-board and spa treatments included, the cost was approximately $115 CAD per night ($90 USD or £65). Even better, it is the one place in town where I found multiple people who spoke English. Marek, the owner, was generous with his time and knowledge and his commitment to serving his guests was extraordinary. I would go back in a second, both to the hotel and the town.