Once Bohemia's star spa town, Mariánské Lázně now plays second fiddle to Karlovy Vary. Whereas the latter, with its glitzy international film festival and wealthy "New Russian" residents, has succeeded in luring investors, Mariánské Lázně seems to survive largely on the decidedly less glamorous (and much older) crowd coming over from Germany. Busloads of German retirees arrive daily. They walk the promenades and repair over ice cream and cake before boarding the coach to head back home. This trade keeps the properties in business, but hardly brings the capital influx needed to overhaul the spa facilities.
If the name "Marienbad" rings a bell, you may be remembering the groundbreaking 1961 French film Last Year at Marienbad. A collection of surreal vignettes, the movie explores the possible affair one French couple had in Marienbad through new-wave tricks like jarring jump cuts. But don't expect the manicured lawns and estates of this movie to reflect the landscape of the real Marienbad; it was shot in southern Germany.
The grounds have remained lush and lovely, especially the upper part of the town's spa area near the Grandhotel Pacifik. Here you'll find the colonnades and fountains and river walks you expect from a once-world-famous spa. And the woods surrounding the town are magnificent.
A hundred years ago Mariánské Lázně, or Marienbad as it was known, was one of Europe's finest resorts. It was a favorite of Britain's King Edward VII. Goethe and Chopin also came. Mark Twain, on a visit in 1892, couldn't get over how new everything looked. Twain—who had a natural aversion to anything too salubrious—labeled the town a "health factory."
The best way to experience the spa—short of signing up for a weeklong treatment—is simply to buy a spouted drinking cup (available at the colonnades) and join the rest of the sippers taking the drinking cure. Be forewarned, though: the waters from the Rudolph, Ambrose, and Caroline springs, though harmless, all have a noticeable diuretic effect. For this reason they're used extensively in treating disorders of the kidney and bladder. Unlike Karlovy Vary, the springs here are all cold water, and may be easier to stomach.
Walking trails of varied difficulty surround the resort in all directions, and one of the country's best golf courses lies about 3 km (2 miles) to the east of town. Hotel staff can also help arrange activities such as tennis and horseback riding. For the less intrepid, a simple stroll around the gardens, with a few deep inhalations of the town's clean air, is enough to restore a healthy sense of perspective.