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Published: July 28th 2016
Our 2 week road trip round the Czech Republic starts in the car rental hall at Prague airport. We prebooked a Skoda Superb (surely a contradiction in terms?) as being the car with the largest luggage capacity, an important consideration when there are four of us, with three suitcases between us. Things get off to a bad start when the guy on the desk tells us they had us down as arriving at 8am not 2pm. Clearly, they have rented our car to someone else. He gives us a set of keys. We track down a saloon car with a clearly inadequate capacity. Back to the desk. Eventually we get an Kia Sportage SUV which is far bigger than either Sara or Hannah were expecting or wanting to drive. David drives.
Our first destination is the spa town of Karlovy Vary, to the west of the country close to the German border. It used to be Carlsbad when part of the Sudetenland annexed by Germany in 1938. The hotel, like pretty much all the hotels here, is a nineteenth century spa hotel, offering a vast array of treatments, the most alarming of which require medical supervision. We
celebrate the first night of the holiday with a meal of local specialities (veal cheeks, venison goulash and others) washed down with plenty of Pilsen lager.
Next morning the sun shines as we walk along the river into the centre of town. This part of town in stretched out along both sides of the river which runs in a valley, so the buildings rise up on each side of the river. There are 13 main springs and over 200 smaller ones in the town, which is peppered with places where the water bubbles up to the surface. The ritual seems to be that you buy a mug with a strangely flattened design and work your way from spring to spring, enjoying (if that is quite the right word) a glass of warm spa water at each one. The buildings are all tall, imposing and in varying pastel shades, some in art nouveau style and others that look like overgrown Swiss chalets, or are built in Bavarian style. There are colonnades housing the hot springs, and numerous expensive boutique shops. Judging by the signs, a high proportion of the visitors are Russians but there are also lots of Middle Eastern
visitors. And Mainland Chinese, no idea why on earth they are here. It may be though that they have come to visit the Hotel Grand Pupp which is where the casino scenes in Casino Royale (the Daniel Craig one) were filmed. About two hundred of them have disgorged from their coaches in front of the hotel with their selfie sticks and clad in their ridiculous style-less clothing to take photos.
To escape them, we take a funicular up the hill, from where we can see the town laid out below us. As we descend, the rain begins. It’s hot and there is still some sun, but also wet. We walk uphill away from the main centre to visit the gold domed Russian Orthodox Church we spotted from the top of the hill. It’s next to the Russian consulate, and more impressive outside than in. We walk back towards the hotel down a series of wide avenues flanked by huge buildings, many of them hotels. Here, there are almost no people to be seen, and the place feels slightly surreal. We imagine the buildings house wealthy Russians who have apparently bought a lot of property in town.
In the afternoon, Sara and James set off for a walk towards a forested lookout frequented by Goethe. After a half hour climb, the path is blocked off, and they are forced to descend back into the town, but still get to enjoy good views on the way down.
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