Worth a Detour: 'Beer Wellness Land'
In the village of Chodová Planá, 20 minutes by bus from Mariánské Lázně, the beer spa at the Chodovar Brewery is the perfect spot to simultaneously explore both of western Bohemia's claims to fame: world-class spas and beer.
'Beer spa' treatments at Chodovar's self-proclaimed 'Beer Wellness Land' include a couple of glasses of the village's liquid gold. There are other tantalising menu options, including massages, hot stones and even a 'beer bath for two'. Couples can book in for special Valentine's Day packages.
The beer spa experience goes something like this: after disrobing, you sink yourself into a hoppy bath of warm beer. Confetti-sized fragments of hops and yeast stud the water, and the overriding aroma features the grassy, zesty tones of world-renowned hops from nearby Žatec. The bath is heated to a comfy 34°C (93°F), and you're even allowed to sup on a glass of the Chodovar Brewery's fine golden lager for the duration.
After a relaxing soak of around 30 minutes, an attendant brings you your robe and leads you into some granite tunnels (used for 'lagering' beer as far back as the 12th century) for yet more rest and relaxation. According to the brewery's marketing spiel, the procedures will have 'curative effects on the complexion and hair, relieve muscle tension, warm-up joints and support the immune system of the organism'.
In the attached gift shop there's beer soap, shampoo and cosmetics. After all that hoppy goodness, visitors can even the score with tasty meat-heavy dishes and more brews in the subterranean restaurant and beer hall. Another above-ground restaurant features official beer sommeliers who can instruct in 10 different types of beer.
Worth a Detour: the 'Third Spa' of Františkovy Lázně
When people talk of western Bohemia's spas, it's usually only the two big ones that are mentioned: Karlovy Vary and Mariánské Lázně. There is, however, a third spa town, Františkovy Lázně (frantish-kovee lahz-nyeh), which is worth a day trip from Mariánské Lázně if you're in the area and have the time.
Indeed, with its sunny veneer of yellow paint, well-tended parklands with statues and springs, and spa patients and tourists walking around ever so slowly, Františkovy Lázně may better fulfil your expectations of what a real spa town should look like.
Beethoven and Goethe were Františkovy Lázně's most famous guests, but they were more likely drawn by the lively cafe society than the spa, which was best known for the treatment of female infertility. Czech author Milan Kundera was obviously intrigued by the idea of so many young women concentrated in such a small town that he set his tragic-comic 1970s novel The Farewell Waltz here. These days that kind of action (or indeed any action at all) is entirely missing. The walks and pavement cafes are soporific, but in a pleasing, relaxing sort of way.
Like its two big-brother spas, Františkovy Lázně is rather short on must-sees. The biggest attraction is simply to stroll the main drag, Národní, admiring the impossibly cute spa architecture and stopping for coffee or cake every couple of hours or so. The key sights are the Church of the Ascension of the Cross (kostel Povýšení sv Kříže) on Ruská, and the town's central spring, the Františkův pramen, at the southern end of Národní. To get a better understanding of the spa's history, drop by the City Museum. You can also hire a boat at the small pond, the Rybník Amerika, about 1km from the city centre.
For a good meal, try Restaurant Goethe for well-prepared international dishes served by waiters decked out in period-piece garb. Hotels line the main drag, though most of these are fancy four-star affairs booked by the week for those seeking spa treatments.
You can get to Františkovy Lázně by bus or train from Plzeň (two hours via Cheb) or Mariánské Lázně (around an hour). Alternatively, the largish city of Cheb is just 30 minutes away by bus: from here you can catch regular trains back to Prague.