Monday 25 January 2016

Getting elegiac about Marienbad

No doubt that the prize for the most interesting place I visited in 2015 goes to the town of Mariánské Lázně (just hearing the name pronounced in a gravelly eastern European accent gives me the goosebumps) ...

... otherwise known by its German name of Marienbad ... in the Czech Republic.

Everything about this place, especially out of season and semi-deserted in November, has a palpable sense of nostalgia, past glory and faded beauty.

Almost all its buildings date to the town's golden era in the 19th century when Czech spas were for a while the salons of Europe and this was the place to be seen: regulars were Tsar Nicholas of Russia, England's King Edward VII and Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph, besides Goethe, Kafka, Chopin, Mahler, Dvořák, Wagner and Freud, who all came to take the curative waters of the natural carbon dioxide springs in the surroundings of the green mountains of west Bohemia.

 The Krizovy Pramen, site of one of the springs

Here in the colonnade spa-goers would go to promenade and be seen 

Maxim Gorky colonnade, 19thC image (image source

The Colonnade today, with Singing Fountains (in the summer every 2 hours the fountains dance to a choreography of musical compositions)

or wander in the parks surrounded by stately pavilions and mansions, faded and gently peeling now from neglect.

Goethe is celebrated here too - in part for his late-life love obsession with the 17-year-old Ulrike von Levetzow who he met here in Marienbad in his seventies. Her mother sensibly intervened, putting an end to his thoughts of marriage, and the spurned Goethe retreated inspired to write some of his best love poetry: the Marienbad Elegy.

A statue remains in the park to commemorate Goethe and Ulrike

Another abrupt ending came with the communist takeover of Czechoslovakia in 1948, when the country became sealed off from most foreign visitors. It was only after 1989 and its exit from the soviet bloc that big efforts were made to restore the town as a spa resort with a unique history.

Most visitors when I was there seemed to be from eastern Europe or Russia. And I discovered quickly that English gets you nowhere. For local people, besides Russian, the second language or lingua franca with visitors is German. I had to stretch my very poor German skills very far.

The yellow-painted spa hotels, in grand style, are all at the top end of town, alongside a patchwork of parks with statues, lakes and fountains, and bordering a mass of pine forests behind.

At the Nové Lázňe spa the atmosphere was clinical and utilitarian, certainly more soviet-bloc than western pamper-style. I was booked for an alarming-sounding 'gas bath' as part of a room deal - which turned out to involve no water, just dry CO2 from one of the local springs. A sturdy woman in clinical whites instructed me in German to remove my clothes and step into what looked like an oversized bin-bag (or body bag, as my over-active imagination decided). I then lay on a bed while she tied the bag tightly around my ribs, then poked a thin pipe into it which pumped gas into the bag until it blew up around me.  Alarm turned to mild hysterics when she left me in the room like an inflated humpty dumpty, unable to move.

Much more relaxing was a leisurely float in the Roman baths. I also had one of the most spartan and functional but seriously effective massages of my life. And later on the serious-looking men and women I'd seen filing in and out of clinical treatment rooms in their white dressing gowns turned up in the cavernous dining room piling their plates with potato dumplings and apfelstrudel. So all round a pretty memorable spa experience. 

Marienbad / Mariánské Lázně, Czech Republic, November 2015


  1. Now I definitely want to go there!
    Elegaic indeed.
    Nothing so inspiring as fading gentility and gentle decay - of course it gets depressing when buildings actually fall down.
    Karen, such extra lovely photos.
    Warmest wishes from still digging out New York.

  2. Dear Karen, I echo Elizabeth's comment, and will add a question. I love the contrast of the green lawns against the auburn, golden colors of the fallen leaves. This makes me wonder if the leaves are intentionally allowed to remain in place under their respective trees so that those beautiful color contrasts might prevail.

    The entire color range shown in your photographs is very beautiful.



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