Karlovy Vary residents have a favourite joke. Russian President Medvedev says to Czech President Klaus, “If you get any closer to the USA I’ll bomb Prague”. President Klaus says, “If you bomb Prague I’ll bomb Karlovy Vary”. The freshly painted spa town, awash with fur caps and poodles in Dior handbags, feels decidedly un-Czech, largely owing to its popularity with Russia’s nouveau riche, partly because tourists outnumber locals. Peter the Great, Goethe and Beethoven all visited the town, and the old-style pleasures of spa life – hiking in the forest, bathing in hot spring water, and eating sweet nut wafers (oplatky) to chase away the taste of the water – are still the best.
Walking into town with Communist eyesore Thermal Hotel on your right, you’ll pass a series of slender white colonnades built over the springs, which can be sampled for free. The grandest spa is Mill Colonnade (Mlýnská kolonáda), containing five springs. Further up Lázeňská street are Market Colonnade (Tržní kolonáda), a delicate wooden construct, and the Communist-era Hot Spring Colonnade (Vřídelní kolonáda), a spring so hot and powerful that spa guests breathe the vapours instead of drinking the water.