Zur deutschen Fassung dieses Artikels.
It seems that the Corona virus will impede long-distance travel for quite a while. In that time of need, maybe we’ll finally discover what has always been so close. Writing for an international audience, it’s hard to generalize what counts as close, of course.
For me, living in Bavaria in Germany, it’s the former Iron Curtain, which is still limiting most Westerners’ travel options like a veil of self-imposed ignorance. Luckily, I have long been more interested in the other side of that curtain. Thus, last summer, when a house-sitting gig got cancelled, I spontaneously jumped on a train and went to the first small town in the Czech Republic, to Marienbad.
Follow me on this journey and get inspired to make some discoveries in your neighborhood as well. Or, if you can’t, use this blog to come along on a virtual journey!
Before we get started, a few words about the name. Of course Marienbad is now Mariánské Lázně. It’s not hard to pronounce, but hard to type without a Czechoslovak keyboard. So, for the international readers I will use the German name, which seems to be more commonly known in English, without wishing to imply any irredentist claims to a Great Germany or Great Austria.
My first impression of Marienbad is that it is not a city at all, but rather an enormous park with houses in between.
Or should I say villas and castles, not houses?
The post office looks like a palace.
This is where I mailed the postcards for you.
The library resides in a castle, as libraries should do everywhere to protect themselves against book burnings.
Probably even the prison looks majestic here. Unfortunately, I won’t manage to get arrested during my stay in Marienbad, so I cannot report from personal experience.
Pavel, from whom I am renting an apartment for a few days, himself came to Marienbad as a visitor, more than ten years ago with his mother from Moscow. The mother liked the spa town so much that she wanted to stay. In order to do so, she had to buy a house, which she converted into a boarding house. As a good son, Pavel joined and supported her. There is something wailing in his voice as he is telling this story.
“It’s a beautiful city to live in,” I try to cheer him up, because that’s the impression I have gotten in the first hours.
“Well, if you’re from Moscow, it’s pretty small and quiet here.”
I think quiet is nice, but if what I see in June is supposed to be the high season, I can imagine that it can get a bit boring in winter. In the Czech Republic, as is well known, much larger cities go into hibernation.
Asked about the seasonal fluctuations, Pavel explains: “January and February are very bad. March is also very bad.” And, after a pause for thought, “April is also really bad. May is a bit better. And from October on, it gets really bad again. The religious festivals are very important, many pilgrims come for them.”
I wouldn’t have expected this at a health resort in the predominantly atheist Czech Republic, but in tourism, you probably have to diversify.
“Most people come to celebrate the day when Jesus was born. How do you call that in English?”
“No, the other one. Where he died first and then he was born again.”
Well, if religion is so important here, I shall go to church immediately. I will pick the Orthodox one for now.
Because the entrance fee is set so low and because the church is not overrun by visitors, I even refrain from taking out my student card to avail myself of a discount. Hopefully, the Russian Orthodox Church won’t use the one euro to bless weapons in the Donbass.
The church is small but pretty. It is particularly proud of the iconostasis, the three-winged porcelain picture wall, supposedly the largest piece of porcelain in the world.
But I am even more impressed by an icon depicting all the saints of the Orthodox annual calendar, all on the size of one standard piece of paper. Someone must have had a very steady hand and a nanometer-thin brush. Next to the picture, thankfully, there is a magnifying glass, and I decipher the Holy Father Simeon Stylites and his mother, Saint Martha, the martyr Aithalas of Persia, the Holy 40 Female Martyrs and Ammon, the Deacon and their teacher in Heracles in Thrace, the martyr Kallista and her brothers Evodios and Hermogenes from Nicomedia, the Righteous Joshua, the son of Saint Meletios of Greece, the neo-martyr Angelis of Constantinople, Saint Evanthia and the Holy Monk Nicholas of Crete. These are only the stars of September 14th, the first day of the Orthodox liturgical year. And so it continues, 365 times, all in millimetre size. Whoever painted this was more pedantic than artistic.
The photo is blurry, unfortunately, because you are not allowed to take pictures in the church and I didn’t dare to violate this eleventh commandment too openly.
Not quite as holy, but also important were the kings and emperors who once gave Marienbad its splendour. At the Hotel Weimar, there is still a sign informing us that King Edward VII of Britain spent several holidays here. Maybe he knew Europe well enough that he would have been against Brexit. Too late.
By the way, this palace is standing empty now, not the only one in the city. This is how the ruins look like in Marienbad. Even abandoned and decaying, they are a hundred times more beautiful than the blocks that contemporary architects want to sell us as apartments or hotels. They should be ashamed of themselves, those concrete botchers!
Napoleon III, Otto I of Greece, the Shah of Persia and Emperor Franz Joseph I also came to Marienbad. Since every royal retinue wanted to be in the limelight, it had to be coordinated between the empires who would spend their holidays where and when. This, by the way, is the historical origin of travel agencies. Before that, in the so-called Migration Period, people had simply gone on uncoordinated road trips.
Once however, in August 1904, there was a misunderstanding or a booking error, or maybe malice. The English king and the Austrian emperor had booked the trip to Marienbad at the same time, both at the Hotel Weimar. When two railroad trains arrived from two different directions with a lot of ballyhoo, the gentleman at the reception started to sweat. Franz Joseph I was not only Emperor of Austria and thus the ruler of Marienbad, he was also quite explicitly King of Bohemia, and therefore the guest with a stronger claim to Kaiserschmarrn and lodging. On the other hand, Edward VII was a regular guest, he had travelled the longer distance and he gave generous tips.
Ten years later, the discord resulting from this meeting lead to World War I. You know that yourself: A small argument about a towel on a beach chair or about parking in front of the house escalates, then you don’t talk to each other for ten years, and suddenly one of you kills the other. Happens all the time.
The whole city is spacious, with wide avenues and cycle paths, huge parks and enough benches for all 12,000 inhabitants to relax at the same time. The communists were really good at urban planning, I’ll give them that.
Wonderful spots to read, study and smoke cigars. The latter is forbidden in some areas, though, probably because the water-vending clinics do not tolerate the competition of the healthy tobacco fumes.
Pavel had warned me about the healing waters. Although they are supposed to cure, they can also kill if the dosage is a little bit off. “The water here is so strong that you must not drink too much. You should consult your doctor before drinking it.”
But the water being properly applied, one would definitely get well, I was assured. Rudolph’s Spring and Ambrose’s Spring supposedly help against anemia and urological complaints. The water from Cross Spring and Ferdinand’s Spring supposedly has both laxative and anti-allergenic effects. Caroline’s Spring and Mary’s Spring would prevent bladder stones. The Forest Spring would free the lungs.
“And you have to use a sippy cup, because otherwise the iron in the water will attack your teeth, and you’ll run around with brown teeth for a month.” A straw would probably do it too, but we know that dolphins and cormorants choke on those. Or a clever cup maker came up with the whole story.
The tap water is perfectly okay, by the way, which makes me wonder. Doesn’t all this water come from the same groundwater? How can it cure cancer 200 meters further on when it bubbles out of the tap at home with no extra effect?
At some springs, there are tables with values of different elements that don’t tell me anything because I don’t know whether 141 magnesium or 0.103 zinc in water is good or bad, which values are normal and what unit of measurement they even pretend to use. To me, it seems like charlatanry with charades and logogriphs.
For those who do not believe in the healing power of water, there is the “Beer Spa”, a decadent bath in beer.
This is nothing for me, because I like neither beer, nor advertising with half-naked people. (I am however going to meet the lady in the bathtub in chapter 38, after all.)
About 45% of the visitors in Marienbad seem to come from Germany, another 45% from Russia, and the rest from all over the world. And they are mainly older guests. Only the Asians are lowering the average age. They also bring a bit of style, which is sorely needed among all the short-trousered Germans and Russians.
When visiting a country that was once occupied by the Nazis (which means almost all of Europe), I always have some inhibitions about speaking German, so after the Czech greetings, I switch to English. Most of the time I get an answer in German right away. Tourism heals wounds. Or maybe it just covers them up.
As the clock strikes the full hour, the fountain in front of the Colonnade frightens me with kitschy music. More spa town kitschy than capital city kitschy, so not as bad as in Skopje. But nothing more than shallow fountain music.
The building behind the fountain, the Colonnade, is something like the symbol of Marienbad. Although its purpose is not quite clear, I am always drawn to it. It is a long, slightly curved hall that is largely open to one side. If you stroll in it or drink a coffee, you feel half inside and half outside, a nice in-between feeling. And the metal construction gives you an Eiffel Tower feeling, without any queues, expensive entrance fees or fear of heights.
One day, something is happening, but I don’t understand what it is. Groups of girls are performing some circus show, swirling sticks through the air. Judging by their bonnets, they are either bakery saleswomen or a communist youth organization.
You wouldn’t expect it from a traditional and dignified spa town with visitors who are mostly in their third stage of life, but the mayor of Marienbad is a member of the Pirate Party.
And while other countries throw tons of money at desperate attempts to increase the share of electric mobility, Marienbad has long been using electric buses and police cars.
The most important landmark in Marienbad when asking or, as happens more often, being asked for directions, is the traffic light at the intersection of Chebská with the main road. There is only one traffic light in the whole town, and it is proudly marked on the map.
Although the healing springs all work wonders, they are marketed differently. Cross Spring, for example, is covered by a classicist temple, which is only open during the day. This is probably the healing water for wealthy private patients.
Alexandra’s Spring, on the other hand, is open around the clock, making it something like the emergency pharmacy among the healing springs. It is also free of charge, so I can finally try some water myself.
Eeewwww! If there weren’t sick people standing around the spring, whose last hope rests in these gulps, I would spit it out again. I’ve never drunk water tasting so horrible! The water is dripping with sulphur. Devil’s Spring would be a more suitable name.
The only tasty fountain in the city, as far as I have tried, – my desire for further attempts was not very pronounced after Sulphur Spring, and only the journalistic mission kept me going – is the spring at the entrance to the large park opposite the King and Kaiser statues (see chapter 5). Here, the water tingles and tastes like mineral water. Here, one can fill the bottle for a hike.
When visiting a health resort, a box of cigars has to come along, that much I remember from the Magic Mountain.
When I sit in the park with an aromatic Maria Mancini, it should attract the Russian oligarchs who are now being spurned by the FPÖ. This will lead to interesting conversations, adding the necessary spice to this report. That’s the plan, at least.
In fact, it only attracts a young lady who immediately makes herself unpopular with unsolicited advice: “Smoking is not good for your health!”
“It makes me happy, and happiness is an important component of health,” I explain.
Turns out she knows more about health than I do. She is a doctor, has just been transferred to the hospital in nearby Cheb/Eger, and is in Marienbad for the first time. This allows me to make myself popular with unsolicited advice about where to go and what to do in Marienbad.
And I finally have a competent person for the question that has plagued me all the time: “Say, this alleged healing water, is that based on science or just a marketing hoax?”
“People here believe that water cures them?” she asks in horror.
“Oh yes. The whole town is built on that.”
“And I thought it was only back home where people believed such nonsense. That it still exists in Europe …” Ipeleng is from Botswana, which sends doctors around the world as part of its development aid. (Given that Botswana is less corrupt and more democratic than the Czech Republic, sending politicians, civil servants and judges would also be a welcome move).
Cheb is a little bit far from Gaborone, but anyone who works in the public sector in the South African country is used to it. The European colonial states had drawn arbitrary borders in which people of different ethnicities, languages and cultures were suddenly one state, but had no common identity. When Botswana became independent in 1966, it had in mind the experience of the Congo, of Mali, of Nigeria, where conflicts and civil wars broke out after independence. So the Botswana government came up with a simple idea: teachers, doctors, police officers would be transferred to other areas of the country every few years, so that people from different ethnic groups could come into contact with each other, perhaps start families, and thus create a Botswana identity.
“I was once transferred to a hospital nine hours away from my home town,” says the doctor. “In some cases, that’s hard, especially for relationships. But it’s good for the country and the community, because that way we get to know each other instead of having prejudices about each other.” We should have done the same in Germany after reunification, I am thinking.
In the later course of the conversation, Ipeleng repeatedly asks me to drink water instead of cola on such a hot day because the refreshing fizzy drink is diuretic, whatever that’s supposed to mean. Apparently, even she is deeply involved in the water industry, like everyone else here.
By the way, Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain is the perfect book for a stay in Marienbad. There, a resourceful doctor, who is more of a businessman than a physician, sells fresh air. Here, the spa doctors sell tap water. Here as there, the healing effect of the stay, if at all, results from staying in a somewhat secluded place, surrounded by beautiful nature. Here and there, even the most theoretical healing effect is overcompensated by sumptuous cakes.
Another vice in Marienbad is gambling. I would love to investigate these financial institutions, but I lack the funds to post the required deposit. There would be a spring in Karlovy Vary/Karlsbad that helps against poverty, it is said. I should have gone there first.
As I already know the Magic Mountain, I took Thomas Mann’s novel about Goethe, Lotte in Weimar, with me. There, the poet says:
Holy water, pure and cold – holy not less in thy soberness than is the boon-and-blessing, sun-and-fire-combining gift of the vine! Hail, water!
Goethe did visit Marienbad several times, and the city makes absolutely certain that you won’t fail to notice that: The square in front of the palace-like Hotel Royal is called Goethe Square, and in front of it there is a statue of Goethe, even if it is no longer the original, which was melted into cannons during the Second World War.
The Goethe Stela at Goethe’s Place points out Goethe’s View.
The town museum is located in Goethe House, but more about that in chapter 37, and everywhere it is mentioned what Goethe did where and when, what he ate, and what he said. No wonder that he got annoyed by the fuss made about him. The following year, he booked a package holiday to Italy instead.
As bloggers do, Goethe took note of everything that happened to him, planning to use it for future articles. So when a date went badly, he turned it into a turgid poem, the Marienbad Elegy. Fed up with the constant questions about how things were in Marienbad, he wrote an article, not without mentioning his hobby, which no one else was interested in: “Marienbad in general and especially with regard to geology”. Lucky you, because in my case, the hobby is history instead of earth science.
However, Marienbad does not appropriate the same attention and appreciation to the other artists who inspired each other here, possibly with the exception of Fryderyk Chopin, for whom there is a festival every August. Richard Wagner could have had that as well. Along with Bayreuth, he had Marienbad in the final selection for the venue of his festival. But in the end, Bohemia couldn’t pay any subsidies, because these had all been paid to Andrej Babiš.
Anton Bruckner, Johann Strauss and Antonín Dvořák also hung out in Marienbad. The latter even wrote a piece for the singing fountain.
Plenty of writers showed up, too, but they came in the cheaper off-season. Less distraction is better for writing. In addition to Übergoethe, Adalbert Stifter, Henrik Ibsen, Arthur Schnitzler, Stefan Zweig (who dedicated a chapter in Shooting Stars: 10 Historical Miniatures to the Marienbad Elegy, which seems slightly exaggerated to me, but maybe Goethe wrested it from him at the poker table), Maxim Gorki, Nikolai Gogol, Ivan Goncharov, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Jan Neruda, Rudyard Kipling and Mark Twain visited Marienbad before me. I would not be surprised if the latter wrote just as mockingly about the water cure.
But the most skeptical of all was Franz Kafka:
F. kindly picked me up from the train station in Marienbad, but still a desperate night in an ugly room facing the courtyard. Unhappy night. Impossible to live with F. Unbearable to live with anyone. Not regretting it; regretting the impossibility of not being alone.
Moved to an extraordinarily beautiful room on Monday, now staying at nothing less than “Balmoral Castle”. And there I will try to cope with the holiday, beginning with the not quite successful treatment of the headache.
For writers, it should be obvious that it is better to travel and to live alone.
Friday night at 8 pm, and there is no action, nowhere, just as Pavel lamented. The young people are probably all on the express train to Pilsen or to Prague. And the older spa guests are already in bed.
My age is exactly in the middle between the two groups and I have the whole town to myself.
Marienbad is one of the few places that had more tourists a hundred years ago than today.
And this in a town which may soon be a UNESCO world heritage site!
You can only find this in Eastern Europe. But then, even in Marienbad the travel agencies have posters of Neuschwanstein and Paris in their windows, instead of Novy Afon and Peleș, driving people in the wrong direction. Be smarter than the masses!
The only guy enjoying the park with me is General Patton, the old warhorse.
If his presence puzzles you, I know that you have not read my article about Pilsen (especially chapters 46-53, only available in German so far). However, in Czechoslovakian times, the citizens and visitors of Marienbad were not supposed to know that they had been liberated by the US Army instead of the Red Army. Thus, in 1976 a monument was erected to the Soviet liberators who had not liberated anyone here.
Lesson: Don’t trust everything you see.
The ruins of Hamelika Castle, overlooking Marienbad, aren’t real ruins and there was never a real castle. They were already built that way in 1876. Decaying walls and ruins were fashionable at the time and were considered romantic. Naturally, this desire to see destruction and ruins led to World War I.
At the time, the main street was called Kaiser Street.
On the upper left you can see the Russian Orthodox Church, and the bigger building on the lower left with the two towers, well, that doesn’t exist anymore. It was the synagogue that burned down completely during the pogrom in November 1938. Only one month before, Marienbad and the Sudetenland had been granted to the German Reich in the Munich Agreement.
Opposite the former location of the synagogue, this is commemorated by a memorial stone, albeit only since 2015.
What Marienbad did with the place of the former synagogue is a much more poignant memorial, though. They have left the gap on the main boulevard. Much simpler than any monument, but a very effective symbol for what is missing.
By the way, the Sudeten Germans did not need the invasion of the Wehrmacht in 1938 to become Nazis. Like many Germans living abroad, they did so voluntarily and with great enthusiasm.
One of the first known victims of National Socialism, the writer Theodor Lessing, was shot dead by three assassins in Marienbad as early as August 1933.
I notice that you are not in the mood for assassinations and anti-Semitism, but rather for woods and hiking.
Just outside of Marienbad, there is Slavkov Forest or the Emperor’s Forest, a huge area with hiking trails in all directions, well signposted, as always in the Czech Republic.
Between the woods, there are clearings and lakes, also moorlands, sometimes a small chapel or a cottage in the middle of all the green.
And in Kladská, there is a hunting cottage in Alpine style, the first proper stop on my several-hour hike. Prince Schönburg-Waldenburg had it built in the 19th century to hunt deer, stags and wild boar.
There is not much hunting happening now, but in the U Tetřeva Inn (named after the wood grouse), they still have food and rooms for overnight stays. A single room costs 30 €, I read in the menu, looking for something sweet. Unfortunately, the weather forecast for the rest of the week is full of rain, otherwise I would spend a few internet-free days here in the middle of the forest.
Nearby there is a lake, surrounded by a path of wooden planks. Always as close to the shore as possible, wide as a promenade and wheelchair accessible. As I attempt to leave the wooden path, I immediately realize its importance. The ground gives way several centimetres, and if I stepped even further away, I would probably sink into the bog.
Then I discover a piece of shore suitable for staying, with a view to an island just large enough to live on. At least for a person like me who doesn’t need much stuff. Too bad I don’t know how to swim.
Let me rest here and transfer the observations and thoughts of the last few hours into my notebook, for them to delight the worldwide readership, instead of leaving this task for the evening, when I will fall into bed exhausted and the memories will secretly, quietly and silently disappear, as thousands of their unfaithful colleagues have done before.
A Czech lady is walking friends from Germany around the lake, telling them that Czech universities are stretching the curriculum for Turkish students to extend the length of their studies: “We are doing everything we can to ensure that they don’t have to go back to Erdoğan”. Sometimes you learn more from listening to other people’s conversations than from newspapers.
As they are walking past me, the professor proudly says: “You see, young people in the Czech Republic are creative, they write, they paint, they make music.” Usually, I am a relentless fighter for truth, but now, I cannot correct the misconception about my age and background. Otherwise it would become obvious that I had been eavesdropping. I don’t want to awake any StB trauma.
And she’s right. On my visits to our neighbouring country, I have also noticed that fewer people than in Germany (and even fewer than in North America, for example) are driven to work as much as possible, just in order to buy the biggest possible cars and houses. Many of them are interested in other things, in artistic or intellectual activity, in social commitment, impressively demonstrated by the protests against abuse of power and corruption, or they like to go hiking, fishing and camping. In chapter 31 of my article on Pilsen I had already suspected that the low unemployment rate contributes to a certain relaxation when it comes to planning one’s life. But it must be something else, an appreciation of intellectual pursuits, which I have also noticed in other post-communist societies.
The era of the writer as president is over, but at the last Leipzig Book Fair, 60 Czech authors were introduced to the German market, some in translation, some circumventing the need for translation by writing in German. Another example that continues to have an impact: since 1919, every municipality in Czechoslovakia, no matter how small the village, was required by law to have at least one public library. Although this no longer applies since 2001, the Czech Republic still has the highest library density in the world. And, last but not least: even restaurants in the Czech Republic are named after literary figures
Suddenly I hear loud grunting and smacking in the bushes.
A wild boar!
But no, it was just someone pressing the button for the boar sound on one of the information boards. The dogs running past are even more scared than I am. Fortunately, nobody pressed the button for the rattlesnake sound.
In order to get out of the geographical vicious circle of walking around the Emperor’s Lake all the time, I cut into the bushes at one of the branching streams, curious to see where the water will take me.
Soon, the stream turns out to be a canal, dead straight and with a raised and clearly visible path on the right side. Sporadically, fallen trees block my impetuous walk, but then I simply jump to the other side of the canal, which gives you a good indication about its width.
Wide it is not, but long it is. Slavkov Forest is criss-crossed by a system of canals, which is related to tin mining, the operation of mills and the transport of wood. The engineering masterpiece, with a complicated network of communicating canals, more than 30 km in total, was already laid out in the 16th century.
For about two hours, I am walking along the canals. They still carry water and look as if they would work just fine. I don’t meet a single soul, although the sunny weather is perfect for a Sunday walk. Only a few deer, looking up curiously and running away. And I hear a cuckoo, this time the real one, not the one from the tape.
Slowly, the forest opens up and I am looking over wide fields, beautiful hills, and the grass and purple flowers swaying in the cooling breeze.
To be honest, I think I got lost. Until I discover a prominent hill with three crosses. That should be on the map. Indeed: tři kříže. Damn it, I have been wandering further and further away from Marienbad. Now, I have to walk back another 14 km, although I am not in the mood for more exercise. It has been a hot day.
But while I’m here, let me climb Golgotha Hill. A Czech family is trying to decipher the inscription, which dates from 1849 and is in German.
On the way back, I pass through Prameny. The village shows what Marienbad would look like if it had not been renovated after communism.
The saint guarding the bridge has lost his hands, but otherwise it is well preserved. The inscription in German informs me that the place was once called Sangerberg. So this is one of those places from which the Germans were expelled after 1945 and which then partly fell into disrepair. Not because there was a curse on them, but because the area near the border in Czechoslovakia was often reserved for military purposes rather than for living.
Thus, the number of inhabitants has shrunk from more than 2000 to 109 people living in houses which have become too big for them. Like the other health resorts in the area, Prameny also wanted to tap a mineral spring, but the project turned out to be too ambitious and the municipality remained with debts of 1.2 million euros. That’s a lot for 109 people. Under these circumstances, no candidate for mayor was found in the December 2009 elections, and the village was placed under government administration. Strangely enough, the Sudeten Germans, who have been mourning the loss of their homeland for 70 years, did not want to return after all. Maybe people aren’t that emotionally attached to the field where their ancestors came from, after all.
I, for one, am moving on quickly, not that someone will spot me and call out: “Hey, there’s a guy who looks like he has no work. Let’s make him mayor!”
It’s another 10 km to Marienbad, the sun is high in the sky, and I didn’t dare to knock on any door in Prameny/Sangerberg to fill my water bottle, because one thing is still very German about the village: Every garden is guarded by an aggressive dog.
What’s the solution? Hitchhiking, of course! The fourth car stops, but admittedly not because of me. Two girls are checking the map, apparently lost. I look at the number plate and can’t believe the amazing coincidence: Like me, they are from Amberg-Sulzbach County in Germany. That’s a good reason to approach them and ask them where they need to go.
“We are looking for the easiest way back to Hirschau.”
Well, that doesn’t really go via Marienbad. But it wouldn’t be much of a detour either. I explain my situation, and the two girls say right away: “Then we’ll take you to Marienbad!” The world is such a good place.
They are visiting the region regularly, it turns out. The grandparents of one of them were expelled from this beautiful region to barren Upper Palatinate after the Second World War.
This time, they came to the Emperor’s Forest to look for the inn in Nimrod that their grandparents told them about. It had existed since the 18th century and had served its Kaiserschmarrn even to royal guests.
When they found it, there was an enormous pile of rubble in the forest. The dredger operator told them that they had arrived three days late. The historic buildings had just been demolished.
We all agree that’s a pity. We also agree, by the way, that it is a bit of a shame for us Germans that many Czechs speak German very well, and on the other side of the border hardly any schools teach the language of the neighbouring country.
On the short trip together, I forgot to ask them for their names, but I would like to thank the two young ladies for saving me about three hours of arduous walking!
After the day’s hike, I go to the park in the evening, treating myself to a Churchill-sized cigar.
A German family is passing by (you can tell the Germans by the fact that the man is pushing the pram), and the father expresses his horror at his wife and daughter, whom he apparently does not trust to be observant enough: “Look at that person, he is smoking a cigar.”
“Would you like one?” I offer.
“No,” he shouts as if in protest, “it smells terrible.”
Ten minutes later, a man sits down next to me on the bench, although there are several free benches all around.
“здравствуйте,” he introduces himself. He’s about my age, with a well-groomed beard and a friendly, attractive appearance.
“здравствуйте.” A handshake signals that I don’t mind the company and am ready to interrupt the reading for a chat.
In a mixture of Russian, Czech and German, as is customary in Central Europe, we have a very limited conversation. He is visibly interested in the cigar and I offer him a puff. He insists that I try his Marlboro in return.
Unfortunately I cannot explain in Russian that cigars are not to be inhaled. Too late! He can’t stop coughing, looks like he is dying. Now, where is the doctor when you need her? I notice that she forgot to give me her phone number. My new friend indicates that he feels very dizzy.
“Yes, it works like alcohol.”
“Like a whole bottle of vodka,” he specifies. “Or rather like a bottle of vodka and a few beers together.”
Speaking of vodka, he takes a bottle out of his denim jacket and offers me a sip. We are drinking straight from the bottle like teenagers who have known each other for a long time.
He wants to take another puff from the cigar and almost collapses again. His eyes are turning red. He can’t believe how I can smoke the cigar so easily. He probably thinks I have lungs of steel.
After he has taught me a few more words in Ukrainian, he urgently has to say goodbye. Too bad, because the vodka was good. Hopefully he won’t feel too bad at night! But his goodbye handshake is still as strong as was his first one, so I think he will survive.
If these two encounters are symptomatic, then I prefer the Russians or Ukrainians over the Germans.
Shortly after the vodka has left, the music fountain strikes again. Tonight, it plays the Exodus soundtrack.
This reminds me that I wanted to go to the museum to learn more about the people represented by the gap in chapter 25.
Given the local Goethemania, the fact that the city museum is housed in Goethe House is not surprising. And indeed, the writer lived in this house in 1823. Some of the rooms still contain the furniture of that time, others contain facsimiles of his manuscripts, and cute dolls reenact historical encounters.
In the section about the town history, I am struck by how small Marienbad was until recently. The town was only founded in 1808, before that, there was an uninhabited, inhospitable gorge.
But already in 1818, it became a spa town, and soon a world-famous one. Quite a career. Or as Goethe wrote in 1820:
Then I visited Marienbad, a new important institution […]. The architects and the gardener know their trade and are used to working with a free mind. The latter, one can easily see, has imagination and practice, he doesn’t ask what the terrain looks like, but what it should look like. Removing and filling landscape doesn’t bother him. I felt as if I was in the loneliness of North America, where forests are cut down to build a new city in three years.
Another push was brought by the railway, which, from 1872, connected the small town directly with Prague, something that today’s visitors still benefit from.
The museum includes a huge cinema, and although I am the only visitor on this early morning, the museum lady asks if I would like to see a film about the short history of the city. Of course I would!
The film offers an interesting overview of the founding history, maybe with a little bit too much detail, like this article. Once it approaches the 20th century, I am thinking: “Now it’s getting exciting”, but the German occupation is dealt with by saying that Marienbad was a military hospital during the Second World War. And then the war is already over. No invasion, no Holocaust, no expulsion of the Sudeten Germans, nothing.
And from 1948 on, everything is happy hunky dory: “The healing springs and spas were nationalized and thus made available to the working people of Czechoslovakia.” Yay, the big hotels are now in the hands of the proletariat! The film dates from 1987.
It’s the same in the whole museum: a lot about the spas, about the famous guests and of course about the healing power of water. Oh, and the lady in the bathtub apparently not only works at the “Beer Spa” (see chapter 8), but has long been part of Marienbad marketing for machos.
What I did miss in the museum, though, was information about the former synagogue and, which would be very interesting in a spa town, about the phenomenon of resort anti-Semitism in general. Because when Germans and Austrians went on holiday, they didn’t forget to pack their anti-Semitism, and that was true long before National Socialism.
In Marienbad and the other spa towns in the region (Karlsbad/Karlovy Vary and Franzensbad/Františkovy Lázně), a Bohemian peculiarity, the so-called winter anti-Semitism, occurred. This refers to the anti-Semitism of the hotel and restaurant operators, which they shelved, for business reasons, during the summer months and only reactivated at the end of the season. If Wagner had known that, maybe he would have stayed in Marienbad after all.
Each time I walk past the city theatre, it is closed.
That’s too bad, because it would be nice from the inside too.
Hence I miss the exhibition of “Masters of the Bohemian-Moravian Hills”, which is on display during the breaks of the theatre performances.
Speaking of hills: If anyone feels deterred by the long walk through the Emperor’s Forest, don’t be! Around Marienbad, there are also several shorter hikes of a few kilometres. One of them, the Metternich hiking trail, runs mostly through the forest, offering protection from the sun. It’s a relaxed morning in a quiet forest.
And here is one spring where the water does seem to be of different composition, for it is as red as blood.
The hike leads past the cemetery, which, as befits a spa town, is located sufficiently outside so that those hoping for recovery are not confronted with the probability of death. Because with death in mind, not even the placebo effect of the water treatment would work.
In the cemetery, I find traces of the German-speaking past, but also signs that the descendants have long left Marienbad. Most of the graves are overgrown.
A war memorial shows how pointless heroism can be: A column commemorates “the fallen heroes of the 1914-18 World War”, concealing the fact that the country for which they died no longer existed at the end of that war.
More beautiful monuments of past times are the houses in the second and third rows behind Kaiser Street.
The cars from that time seem to receive more love and care.
The whole week I’ve been wondering why I like Marienbad so much that I wouldn’t mind staying here for a bit longer. It is beautifully green and spacious. I like to see all the gradations of decay and reconstruction, like a cross-section through the centuries. A place in the Czech Republic that grew up in Austria and where German and Russian are now spoken quite naturally, it is also very European. And I like places that used to be bigger, more important and more significant than now, where you walk around between magnificent architecture like in a sweater that’s too wide, but still more comfortable than all those sweaters that fit like a glove.
But Marienbad also offers something special: The city was built for kings, for the rich and for the famous. And now it is open to everyone, even for relatively little money, because the kings are beheaded, the rich do not find Central Europe ostentatious enough, and the famous have no taste anymore. Here, I can feel a little sublime, although I am just a simple citizen, a student even.
- Marienbad Is well connected by train, either via Marktredwitz and Eger/Cheb or from Prague or Pilsen. By the way, tickets in the Czech Republic are much cheaper, so it is better to buy only the outward journey in Germany or Austria. From Amberg to Marienbad, for example, the outward journey cost 28 € (Bayern-Böhmen-Ticket, whereby the second passenger would get away much cheaper), and the return journey on the same route cost 259 Czech crowns (about 10 €).
- Buses leave from Marienbad to all towns and villages in the area, even to Kladská in Slavkov Forest.
- Pavel, the extremely helpful and informative young man, is renting out Apartment Maria as well as several apartments in Villa Shafaly. If you use Booking.com via this link, you will get a discount of 15 €. Not only in Marienbad, but worldwide.
- If you rather try AirBnB, you can use this link to save 25 €.
- More articles about the Czech Republic.
- And many more travel reports.
- The Tourism Office of Marienbad as well as the Czech tourism page. The country is really worth a great many visits.
- Mirjam Zadoff wrote a book about Jewish life in Marienbad, Next Year in Marienbad.
Oops, that turned into something long. Now you know why I don’t even start writing about big cities like Prague or Rome. But if the article helped you a little bit with your travel planning, I would be very happy about your support for this blog. Thank you!