Holy Water and Wafers in the Czech Republic’s Karlovy Vary

I had walked for an hour in the northern Bohemian spa town Karlovy Vary looking for a place to eat. I have a general rule when I’m in these tourist-crammed towns: no hotel restaurants and no obvious tourist trap eateries, of which this town formerly known as Carlsbad has plenty. I walked along the babbling Tepla River reciting the words to the Joni Mitchell’s heartbreaking “River,” a song I haven’t been able to get out of my head lately. I strolled until the prettied-up 19th-century buildings faded into grim 20th-century Communist-era apartment blocks and the over-priced restaurants morphed into pubs where the night’s main entertainment was two dogs wildly humping each other in the corner as bar patrons gleefully rooted them on (well, at least at one of the places I popped my head into).

As darkness began to envelope the town, I turned back toward the center and walked until I found a pub with a sign for Platan, an excellent south Bohemian beer, a rare sight here among the signs for Pilsner Urquell and Budweiser (the Czech variety). I stopped in to the five-table pub. There were no amorous hounds inside; just quiet-talking couples taking up all the tables but one. I sat down, ordered a beer and a klobasa and dove into a book, figuring I’d settle in for another melancholy evening of sipping better-than-average beer and reading about Burma. Within a few minutes, though, three middle-aged women joined me at the table. They didn’t speak English, so they began asking me questions in Czech. Where was I from? How did I speak Czech? Do I have children?

They laughed at my bad jokes and feigned interest in what I had to say about my life. Finally, I was able to ask something: “What brings you to Karlovy Vary?” All three of the ladies put their hands to their chest and said, in unison, “We’re sick.”

My heart sunk, but I should have known better. It’s the reason why most people come to Karlovy Vary. After all, for centuries everyone from the rich and royal to the ordinary have been gravitating here to “take the waters,” which flow liberally from fountains throughout the colonnaded center of town. The mineral waters are said to have curative properties and today people the world over limp around Karlovy Vary, drinking from the natural springs in between spa treatment appointments.

I was glad the women didn’t ask me why I was here. They probably just assumed I was there for the same reasons they were. But my survival didn’t depend on being in Karlovy Vary. Not that I had the ability to explain in Czech my own struggles, the dark quicksand with which my mind has been sinking; I can barely explain it in English except to paint a picture of being at the bottom of a dark pit with no way out except to ponder the worst scenarios. I had no idea what I was expecting to find in this famous spa town. I knew I’d encounter sick people and pickled-looking Russians and sick pickled-looking Russians (Russians, in fact, own 65 percent of the town and nearly all of the city center), but I came here not just for work but I wondered if this town, which for hundreds of years has been a metaphor of last hopes and survival, would somehow help me too.

Travel, I had rationalized on the two-hour bus ride north from Prague a couple days earlier, comes from the word “travail,” suggesting, inherently, struggle and pain and challenge. And with that, we hope, comes renewal. And wisdom. Either that or death, metaphorically or physically.

As I strolled through the town the morning after my encounter with the three women in the pub, on my way to catch the bus back to Prague, I pulled out the porcelain cup I’d bought on the promenade my first afternoon in town and, like the rest of the visitors, began sampling one last time the various springs. And then, when I saw someone in the distance selling fresh spa wafers, I got an idea. In addition to being where people go to hopefully not die, Karlovy Vary is the wafer capital of Central Europe.

Maybe because they’re light and not too unhealthy, wafers became an in-between-therapy-session snack for the rich and sickly. I’d always heard that you could buy these thin cracker-like circular treats (with chocolate or vanilla smeared in between) on the streets of Karlovy Vary.

There were boxes of wafers piled up to the heavens (at the low, low price of $1.40 each) with flavors that went way behind the traditional chocolate or vanilla: sour cherry, Algerian coffee, gingerbread, tiramisu, white chocolate and orange peel, and even chili pepper.

A young woman was smearing chocolate between freshly baked wafer crackers. I bought one and continued down the promenade, breaking off pieces and stopping at each spring to refill my cup. At the last spring, inside an arched high-ceilinged room with a sculpture of a water nymph placed above the spouting water (the most cathedral like of all the springs), an old frail woman watched as I filled up my cup one last time before I would flee this town perhaps forever. I sipped from the piping hot, fresh-from-the-earth water. The old woman looked down at her empty plastic cup. Signs warned against using plastic cups and bottles. The heat of the water will melt the plastic and could be dangerous for one’s health. I walked over to the old woman and handed her my sipping cup.

“Here,” I said. “Would you like my cup? I’m leaving town.”

Her trembling hand extended toward me. She wrapped her miniscule fingers around the cup, overlapping on to my hand. She didn’t pull away and for about five long seconds we stood there in the empty vaulted room, the sound of splashing water echoing through the space, joined together by this cup–this, as some might say, life-restoring vessel–staring at each other.

Finally, we let go and she took the cup. I then handed her the rest of my host-like wafer. She thanked me profusely in Czech. I smiled and walked out of the sheltered space, my eyes welling up with tears for some reason. On the way back to Prague, I kept thinking about the people I’d encountered there: the three women at the bar, the old woman I’d given my cup to. The history-making events they’d probably been through. And now they come here to this spa town, one last gasp, one last hope, one last wish, in their own personal struggles for survival. They’d traveled here, like me, with hope.

After two days, I felt no real change. No epiphanies. No great insights. No clarity. No rope thrown down to me from the top of the pit. It was silly for me to think otherwise. Yes, the travail of travel sometimes changes people, but not always on the spot. Not always as quickly as we’d like. I might only hope I someday to have the courage of the people I met in Karlovy Vary.

I turned my iPod on and listened to the song I’d been humming the last few days and quietly sang along, “I wish I had a river, I could skate away on…”