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Karlovy Vary - Urban Monument Zone 

 History of Karlovy Vary

The foundation and development of Karlovy Vary (English: Carlsbad, German: Karlsbad) has always been inseparably intertwined with the beneficial curative effects of its thermal mineral springs. They influenced the history, architecture, economy, as well as the overall spirit of the spa town. Since time immemorial, the springs have fascinated people, nourishing their imagination. Likewise, the popular legend according to which the Carlsbad springs were discovered by King of Bohemia and Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV when hunting deer in the middle of the 14th century belongs to the realm of fantasy. It goes without saying that the foundation of the spa town at the confluence of the Ohře and Teplá Rivers during the reign of Charles IV was no romantic happenstance as the old legend puts it, but an almost unavoidable result of the development of a place known for ages with a long-lived curative tradition.

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The precise date of the foundation of the town remains unknown. First permanent settlement by Vřídlo (Hot Spring) dates back to the period around 1349. Nonetheless, traces of human presence near Karlovy Vary are much older. Archaeological excavations provide proof of a number of pre-historic settlement sites (i.e. Tašovice, Dvory and Drahovice) on the territory of the present-day spa. The presence of ancient inhabitants on the territory at later periods is supported by the fortified settlement in Drahovice where people had lived in the late Bronze Age. Evidence of Slavic settlement near Karlovy Vary is documented, for example, by findings in Tašovice and Sedlec. It is beyond any doubt that people lived in the immediate vicinity of later Carlsbad as far back as the 13th century and we presume that they must have been aware of the curative effects of Carlsbad thermal springs and that they used the water for healing purposes.


Karlovy Vary - Urban Monument ZoneKarlovy Vary - Urban Monument ZoneThe written history of the spa town began on August 14, 1370 when Charles IV bestowed upon the existing settlement the same freedoms and rights as enjoyed by the nearby royal town of Loket at that time. The paramount status of the spa is supported by the numerous privileges conferred upon it and continuously acknowledged by the rulers of Bohemia until 1858. From the Middle Ages until the late 16th century, the cure in Carlsbad had largely consisted of baths. The idea of the benefits of a drinking cure began gaining ground at the Hot Spring upon the initiative of Václav Payer, a doctor of medicine, who published his first professional book on the Carlsbad cure in Leipzig in 1522. In his book, he recommended drinking the thermal waters in addition to the traditional baths. Local physicians, Michael Reudenius and Johann Stephan Strobelberger, continued in Payer's efforts and eagerly promoted the drinking cure in Carlsbad in the early 16th century. In the 17th century, the drinking cure gradually outweighed the bathing cure; nonetheless, it often led to extremes, such as the case when some people drank as much as 50 or 70 cups of mineral water per day in the 1750’s.

In the late 16th century and early 17th century, prosperity and building development in the spa town were unfavourably affected by two natural disasters. On May 9, 1582, Carlsbad suffered a huge flood. On the 13th of August 1604, the town was completely destroyed by a fire, during which 99 houses out of the total number of 102 were burnt down. Despite its privileged status of a spa, Carlsbad could not avoid the hardships of the Thirty Years War, in the course of which the town was repeatedly exposed to ravaging armies, fires, diseases, and starvation. The turbulent times along with the adverse economic consequences of the war years namely manifested themselves in substantially lower numbers of visitors coming to the spa town and thereby, also in the overall economic development of the town. The inhabitants of Carlsbad were thus forced to find other ways of earning their livelihood that was not dependent on balneology. As a result, typical Carlsbad handicrafts and trades were gradually appearing in the 17th century – i.e. tinners, gunsmiths, needle-makers, and cutlers. The end of the 17th century endowed the spa with new life due to the inflow of wealthy aristocratic visitors from the Saxony and later also the Russian and Polish royal courts. The reputation of Carlsbad was boosted by two stays of the Russian Tsar Peter the Great in the years 1711 and 1712.

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Until the late 17th century, Carlsbad had retained its enclosed Gothic character with traditional town gates and densely built-up space around the Hot Spring. The small town was dominated by a Gothic tower of the former small hunting castle of Charles IV built on a rock rising over the market. In 1520, the town hall was built under the rock and next to it the town pharmacy. The Hospital of the Holy Spirit was built opposite the town hall in 1531. A Late Gothic half-timbered Church of Mary Magdalene, first mentioned in 1485, had stood on the right bank of the Teplá River above the Hot Spring. In the 1500’s, a small Church of St. Andrew was consecrated on the hillside of U tří křížů (At the Three Crosses). The houses were mostly half-timbered with shingle roofs.

The 18th century brought decades of prosperity and fame to the spa town. In 1707, Austrian Emperor Josef I acknowledged all the privileges enjoyed by Carlsbad, explicitly denoting it as a free royal town. In the first half of the 18th century, Carlsbad was highly favoured by the Habsburgs, in particular by Empress Marie Theresa. Loyalty to the Viennese court reflected itself in financial subsidies granted for the building development of the town and in the improvement of its administration. In 1719, the town council issued special town laws that were to govern every detail of life in the spa town. New town regulations entitled "Instruction politica" were adopted in 1739. Numerous buildings serving for social, as well as for spa purposes, were built in connection with the development of balneology. Among them were the Saský sál (Saxony Hall) in 1701 or Český sál (Czech Hall) in 1728, on the site of which Grandhotel Pupp was later constructed. In 1711, Mlýnské lázně (Mill Baths), the first public spa house in Carlsbad, were built on the site of the present-day Mlýnský pramen (Mill Spring). The town began spreading sidewards in the early 18th century, Stará louka (Old Meadow) was built up and became the centre of social life for spa guests. The first rather modest theatre was built in the spa town in 1717. In the course of years from 1732 to 1736, a new Baroque Church of St. Mary Magdalene was built on the site of the old Gothic church according to the design of architect Kilian Ignác Diezenhofer.

The lifelong efforts of Dr. David Becher (1725 - 1792), the most merited of all spa physicians, was quintessential for the modernization of Carlsbad balneology. He introduced a number of new treatment methods (e.g. drinking water at the springs, walks as a part of the therapy, well-balanced drinking and bathing cure, etc.) and he also contributed to the further building development of the spa.

Promising spa development in the first half of the 18th century was abruptly interrupted by a devastating fire destroying 224 buildings on May 23, 1759. The aftermath of the disaster, however, was overcome in a rather short period. The subsequent reconstruction of the town after the fire was completed in a more systematic and large-scale manner. Stately multi-floor stone houses with rich stucco facades and flap pantile roofs replaced the original half-timbered houses.

The old town gates hindering the expansion of the town were not rebuilt. The revived and comely spa town attracted more and more spa guests. Carlsbad burghers were becoming wealthier with the growing number of visitors and thus, they were able to continuously enhance the appearance of their town by ever more expensive reconstructions. These reconstructions were also funded with the aid of revenues from spa tax introduced in 1795. In 1762, Mlýnské lázně (Mill Baths) underwent thorough renovation. A modern Hot Spring Hall was built in 1777 in response to the application of Dr. David Becher's treatment principles emphasised the importance of drinking water at the spring. In 1764, Carlsbad began producing and exporting, once again upon the initiative of Dr. Becher, thermal salts from the Hot Spring. Revenues from the sale of this salt partially funded the building of a new theatre in 1788. Poštovní dvůr (Post Yard), a popular destination of excursionists, which later became famous among spa guests thanks to concerts given by the Orchestra of Josef Labitzký and many famous musicians, was built in 1791. The wooden Nový Pramen (New Spring) colonnade was built a year later. The New Spring Colonnade was the first structure of its kind in Carlsbad and it allowed the spa guests to come to the springs even in bad weather. It was rebuilt by builder Giessel from Dresden in 1811. In the late 18th century, the Czech Hall became a highly popular place of social gatherings among the nobility. It was purchased by the confectioner Johann Georg Pupp in 1775 who thus laid the foundations of the largest hotel and restaurant facility in Carlsbad – the Grandhotel Pupp. The increasing number of spa guests lead to the introduction of lists of spa guests, which were known as the Kurlist. The first preserved Kurlists date back to the late 17th century, lists had been written by hand until 1794 and from 1795; they were printed by the local Franieck Publishing House.

The early 19th century brought another boom of balneology to Carlsbad and not even the turbulent times of the Napoleonic Wars could jeopardize the thriving spa. The method of cure laid down by David Becher was further enhanced by a number of excellent Carlsbad spa physicians in the 1850’s, whereas greatest merit should be attributed to Dr. Jean de Carro (1770 - 1857), Dr. Rudolf Mannl (1812 - 1863), and Dr. Eduard Hlawaczek (1808 - 1879).

The generosity and the ostentatiousness of the wealthy visitors of Carlsbad facilitated the rapid enlargement of the network of walking paths and trails in the spa surroundings. In the 1800s, a Scottish peer, Lord James Ogilvy, Earl of Findlater, belonged among the major benefactors and admirer of the thermal spa. He funded the construction of many wood promenades. By World War I, the total length of the spa paths in the surroundings of Carlsbad amounted to 130 kilometres.

The society gathering in Carlsbad in the 18th and early 19th century was becoming more and more international. In addition to the nobility, the European cultural elite also enjoyed coming to the Hot Spring. Prominent guests have always been a traditional feature of Carlsbad and they have significantly contributed to the rich cultural history of the town. Among the notable guests coming to Carlsbad at the turn of the 18th and 19th century, we may find such names as Johann Wolfgang Goethe, Friedrich Schiller, Theodor Körner, Ludwig van Beethoven, Frederik Chopin, or Nicolo Paganini.

From the second third of the 19th century, rich clientele from towns and cities started determining the character of the spa society in Carlsbad. Nobility was slowly vanishing from spa life due to the French Revolution and Carlsbad became a popular venue of numerous political and diplomatic negotiations. In 1819, a significant ministerial conference chaired by Austrian Chancellor K. V. L. Metternich was held next to the Hot Spring.

A crucial moment in Carlsbad history was the year 1844 marked by the commencement of mass mineral water export. The success of the plan to export water from Carlsbad is credited to chemist Adolf Martin Pleischl and spa physician Eduard Hlawaczek. Distribution of mineral water and thermal products meant a great of source of income for the town.

After 1860, a small community of Czechs who settled in the town after finding a job was gradually forming in the, up to then purely German Carlsbad. The Czech minority was represented by Slovanská beseda (Slavonic Cultural Society) founded in 1881. The society was led by outstanding Czech physicians Emanuel Engel, František Zatloukal, Vincenc Janatka and Milan Mixa over the course of forty years.

The last third of the 19th century was a period of extensive construction work and the building of modern spa facilities. The construction boom gave the town its present architectural character bearing distinct features of Historicism and Art Nouveau. In fact, this was the fourth Carlsbad, the beauty of which we admire to this day. The first, Gothic and Renaissance Carlsbad was destroyed by a fire in 1604. Baroque Carlsbad was devastated by a fire in 1759. Old-fashioned and provincial Rococo, Classicist, Empire and Biedermeier houses were gradually demolished in the course of the impressive reconstruction of the town, which lasted from 1870 to 1900. They gave way to new modern and comfortably furnished buildings of a metropolitan character, flaunting the repute of the town, which had become the most renowned spa resort in Europe. The spa received its current landmarks: Vojenský lázeňský ústav (Military Spa Institution built in 1855), Vřídelní kolonáda (Hot Spring Colonnade built in 1879), Mlýnská kolonáda (Mill Colonnade built in 1871 - 1881), Tržní kolonáda (Market Colonnade built in 1883), Lázně III (Spa III built in 1866) and the spectacular Císařské lázně (Emperor's Baths) (1895), as well as a new municipal theatre (built in 1886), an Anglican church (built in 1877), a synagogue (built in 1877), and a Russian Orthodox church (built in 1897). The architectural character of the spa town was largely influenced by Viennese architecture represented by two architects, Ferdinand Fellner and Hermann Helmer, who designed more than 20 major structures in Carlsbad. Before the outbreak of World War I, the construction boom was crowned by the construction of the Imperial, an international high-capacity hotel (1912).

Essential for the further development of the town was its connection to the European railway network in 1870 when the railway track connecting Carlsbad with Cheb was opened. A year later, regular trains began running between Prague and Carlsbad. Around the year 1900, the regional railway network was enlarged by local railway lines from Carlsbad to Mariánské Lázně (1898), to Johanngeorgenstadt (1899); and on to Merklín (1902). The railway connection meant a considerable boost of economic life, as well as an extraordinary increase of the number of guests. The number of visitors was multiplying rapidly from the 1860’s also due to the successful treatment of diabetes in Carlsbad. The prosperity of the spa was so pronounced towards the end of the 19th century that this period is called the "Golden Age of Carlsbad". The only dark date of this thriving era was November 24, 1890 when the centre of Carlsbad was severely damaged by massive flooding.

The theoretical and practical aspects associated with Carlsbad balneology were further perfectioned along with the modernisation of spa facilities. Substantial studies in this respect were written by local physicians Leopold Fleckles, Paul Cartellieri, Edgar Gans, Emerich Hertzka, and V. N. Kronser. Immense attention was dedicated to the application of Carlsbad mineral waters in the treatment of diabetes, occupational diseases, and obesity.

Until the 1900’s, the genius loci of Carlsbad had been considerably influenced by the presence of leading representatives of European culture, science, and politics. In the 19th century, the Hot Spring was visited by such personages as N. V. Gogol, F. Lizst, S. Freud, J. Barrande, H. Schliemann, T. Fontane, A. Dvořák, K. Marx, J. Brahms, R. Wagner, E. Grieg, and many others.

Shortly before the outbreak of World War I, Carlsbad reached the highest numbers of spa guests in its history. In 1911, for example, 70,935 were taking spa treatment from the waters of Carlsbad.

World War I brought the ascending curve of development of the thermal spa to a full stop and at the same time, it put an end to the good old times that were associated with the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy. It interrupted the regular inflow of spa guests, severely paralysing overall life in Carlsbad thereby. European battlefields took the lives of 515 Carlsbad men. Impaired supplies brought misery and hunger even to the once-privileged spa. For war purposes, bells were taken down from churches, dogs suitable for towing loads were confiscated, and ration cards for food, soap and tobacco products were introduced. Social unrest was also common then, on July 17 and 18, 1918, for example, a demonstration of women against hunger took place by the Hot Spring. Even though spa life was revived rather rapidly after World War I, the town was far from achieving its pre-war visitor rates. The war was a tragic milestone that changed life in Europe. The fall of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy had an adverse effect on the prosperity of all spas on its former territory, and Carlsbad was no exception. After the foundation of the Czechoslovak Republic in 1918, its border areas were facing a difficult situation. With the aim to defend their traditional national, economic, and political positions, the German inhabitants who had inhabited the border regions for centuries attempted to create an autonomous province of Deutsch-Böhmen within Czechoslovakia based on the right of self-determination of the German minority. This attempt was liquidated in Carlsbad by interference of the Czechoslovak Army and Police in Carlsbad. On March 4 and 5, 1919, Carlsbad witnessed massive demonstrations of its German inhabitants demanding their right of self-determination, during which Czech soldiers clashed with the demonstration participants. The tragic outcome of the demonstration was 6 dead Germans. The fatal March of 1919 in Carlsbad foreshadowed the following two decades that were characterised by ethnic friction between Czechs and Germans in the border regions. It is beyond dispute that, for the sake of political ambitions, such friction was sometimes augmented by nationalistic circles on both sides. The German nationalistic movement culminated in 1935 with the foundation of the Sudeten German Party whose Carlsbad leaders were Konrad Henlein and Karl Hermann.

The prolonged economic crisis troubling all Europe did not spare Carlsbad in the 1930’s. At that time, the indebtedness of local hotel and pension owners grew enormously. The consequences of the crisis were drastic for small entrepreneurs and businesspersons, mostly resulting in their bankruptcy. In 1936 alone, more than one thousand court-ordered distrainments were carried out in Carlsbad. In order to survive, the town was forced to become highly indebted to the state. Despite the burdensome economic depression, several expensive construction projects were completed in the district of Carlsbad between the two world wars. The most significant was the construction of a valley dam on the Teplá River in Březová (1936), which averted the threat of massive flooding of the town in the future. The capacity of spa facilities was enlarged by the construction of the modern Lázně VI (Spa VI) in 1927. The health insurance company building (1931) and the monastery church of the Redemptorists (1933) enriched the commercial quarter of the town. A new bridge was built on the Ohře River in the direction of Horní nádraží (Upper Railway Station), representing a technically ingenious armoured concrete structure. Carlsbad balneologists Buxbaum, Ritter, Simon, Hendrych, Stransky and others resolved some of the partial issues associated with spa therapy.

After the initial euphoria of its German inhabitants, the World War II threw the spa town into a difficult economic situation. The war also brought many restrictions upon its spa operations. First serious problems with food supplies appeared as early as in 1940. The number of spa guests was diminishing and many spa houses were transformed into military hospitals. In October 1938, following the visit of Fuehrer Adolf Hitler, Carlsbad was occupied by the German Army and attached to the Third Reich as a part of the Sudeten Province. The last Czech inhabitants, mostly civil servants, had left the town shortly before. On September 12, 1944 and on April 17 and 19, 1945, Carlsbad became the target of several air raids of Allied bombers that heavily damaged the Upper and Lower Railway Stations. Severe damages were also inflicted upon the Rybáře suburb and the northern outskirts of the town. Several hundred people died during the air attacks.

On May 6, 1945, the Czech Revolutionary National Committee was established in Carlsbad. Aided by the US Army, the Committee smoothly took over the administration of the town two days later. The Red Army entered Carlsbad on May 11, 1945.

Based on the Potsdam Agreement the German inhabitants of Karlovy Vary were forced to leave their homes in the years 1945 and 1946, i.e. they were displaced. The deportation of the German inhabitants went hand in hand with the complex process of settlement of Czech inhabitants in the border regions, who were slowly finding and building their new homes there. The displacement of the German inhabitants and the Communist coup in 1948 resulted in the devastation and disappearance of numerous villages and monuments in the surroundings of Karlovy Vary in the 1950’s and 1960’s, particularly in the highland areas of the Ore Mountains, Doupov Mountains and the Slavkov Forest. Many buildings fell victim to imprudent demolitions in the town of Karlovy Vary.

After 1948, spa treatment in Karlovy Vary was subject to centralisation and transferred to state ownership. The curative mineral resources and spa facilities were nationalised. All-year-round comprehensive spa treatment was introduced in Karlovy Vary. The current spa treatment applied in Karlovy Vary, which is based on centuries-old practical experience and state-of-the-art scientific findings in the field of balneology, is achieving excellent results. The Research Balneological Institute, which was conducting active research in Karlovy Vary for almost 40 years, has considerably contributed to modern spa treatment theory and practice. Significant findings were also rendered through the studies and research conducted after 1945 by balneologists J. Joachim, K. Bureš, J. Benda, A. Fried, J. Hanycz, J. Kolominský, A.Weiss, J. Miessler, V. Křížek, P. Šolc, and others.

Construction development in Karlovy Vary in the period of "building socialism" (1948 – 1989) manifested itself in massive housing development. New housing estates, initially built of bricks and later of prefab panels, originated in Dvory, Tuhnice, Drahovice, Stará Role, in Rybáře on Růžový vrch (Rose Hill), and on the Čaňkovská Street. Unfortunately, the historical core of Karlovy Vary was neglected for many decades and this situation gradually resulted in the often-critical condition of some of the historical buildings. Partial improvement came only after 1989 with a new economic environment and property relationships.

Modern architecture is represented by the Thermal sanatorium (1977) and Vřídelní kolonáda (Hot Spring Colonnade built in 1975). Among other buildings built in Karlovy Vary over the past thirty years include, to name a few; the complex of spa houses in Kostelní (Church) Street (1978 - 1982), Švýcarský dvůr sanatorium (Swiss Court Sanatorium built in 1971), Sanssouci Sanatorium (1970), ice-hockey stadium (1983), youth dormitories in Drahovice (1982), the Perla shopping centre (1986), Bristol sanatorium, as well as the new buildings of the Česká spořitelna bank (1994) and Česká pojišťovna insurance company (1994). Most industrial businesses in Karlovy Vary underwent thorough modernisation: e.g. Moser glass factory, porcelain factories, Becherovka, or Sedlecký kaolin. Moreover, a number of new companies were founded: for instance, Vřídlo production co-operative, pre-cast concrete works in Otovice, heating plant in Bohatice, Elektrosvit, Stavba production co-operative, etc. In the 1990’s, many significant historical and spa objects underwent expensive renovation, reconstruction or they were even replaced by replicas (e.g. Tržní kolonáda [Market Colonnade], Sadová kolonáda [Orchard Colonnade], Poštovní dvůr [Post Yard], Malé Versailles [Little Versailles], Grandhotel Pupp, Bristol Hotel, Main Post Office, spa hotels Imperial, Švýcarský dvůr [Swiss Court], Richmond, spa houses Felix Zawojski, Mozart, Petr, Mozart's Park, Lookout of Charles IV, Aberg, Venus, Jean de Carro, Dvořák, Vyšehrad, Eliška, Villa Ritter, Sirius, Kolonáda [Colonnade], Kriváň-Slovan sanatorium, Zámecké lázně [Castle Baths], the castle in Doubí, etc.).

The year 1989 marks the beginning of a new promising era of the free development of balneology, culture, tourism, and business activities in the valley of the Hot Spring at the confluence of the Teplá and Ohře Rivers.

As in the past, the most renowned Czech spa is a popular gathering place of ailing and healthy people from all over the world and as such, it successfully continues in the tradition that has begun centuries ago during the reign of the wise King Charles IV. The international character of the spa and the renown of its curative springs give hope that Karlovy Vary along with Prague will remain the most famous and most visited places in the Czech Republic in the 21st century.

PhDr. Stanislav Burachovič

Interesting tidbits: 

Legend of the Foundation of Karlovy Vary
Tale of Baron Lützow's Cat
Tale of Hermit Linhart