Travel: Františkovy Lázně
Spa town offers hiking trails and a primordial marsh
Posted: February 29, 2012
The SOOS National Nature Reserve, just outside of town, is home to many endangered plant species.
You can't go much farther west in the Czech Republic than Františkovy Lázně.
Close to the border in the Cheb region, which juts into Germany, this spa town may not be as well-known as its cousins Karlovy Vary or Mariánské Lázně, but it has its own appeal. The four-hour train ride from the capital melts away into thermal baths, as fresh air beckons from the surrounding forests and fields, and unique local sights like the SOOS nature reserve - a primordial swamp - make the city a worthwhile destination for a relaxing weekend.
With sprawling promenades and English-style gardens, Františkovy Lázně is an ideal place to sample the local restorative mineral waters, which are prescribed for improving cardiovascular health and reducing inflammation, among other ailments, and are available for tasting. Color-coordinated architecture in pastel yellow and white trim dots the elegant parks, and the domed houses that encase the springs are free to enter, with a token donation respected.
The waters have drawn visitors to the town since the 15th century, and the city's heyday was during the 1920s and '30s, when high society flocked there. The town retains a grand feel, and while it's mostly quiet - the majority of people there are patients - it has a lot of character.
There are many hotels offering spa treatments in Františkovy Lázně, but the Hotel Pawlik is the grandest and feels more like a set from Bohumil Hrabal's I Served the King of England than a clinic. Rooms are plush, and there are several cafés onsite. On weekdays, heavily discounted individual treatments are signposted - for example, massages for half-price - from the experienced medical staff. Other treatments include mud wraps, facials and cryotherapy. The website Franzensbad.cz offers regular specials for weekend deals that include accommodation, meals and several treatments at various hotels.
Pawlik is also home to the Aquaforum, a swimming and relaxation complex that has facilities indoors and outdoors. There are thermal pools of varying temperatures with massage jets, whirlpools and a relaxation cave, as well as a looping water slide. It makes for a rewarding soak after venturing out into the surrounding countryside for an invigorating hike, for which there are plenty of options.
One recommended route that traverses about 12 kilometers of forest, fields and pretty ponds goes past Štekrův mlýn, which makes for an excellent lunch spot. The restored mill now functions as a small hotel and rustic pub, and has several horses that can be taken out for a ride. Hearty, cheap goulash and the excellent Chodovar Skalní ležák beer are fortifying fuel for the rest of the walk, which, if following the green and then red trails, brings you to one of Františkovy Lázně's most fascinating sites: the SOOS National Nature Reserve, which can also be reached directly from town by a few-kilometers' walk, by car or a short train ride that changes in nearby Cheb.
The park comprises 221 hectares of peat bogs and forests, where mineral fens bubble and spray and stain rocks copper red. SOOS is home to many rare and endangered plant species, and has been a recognized wildlife refuge since 1964. Entrance is free, and a raised wooden walkway winds visitors through the reeds and trees for a variety of landscapes. It's peaceful and feels untouched for millennia. A small museum explains the nature to be found in the Cheb region.
Back in Františkovy Lázně, nightlife is confined to a few pubs, several of which have live music on weekends. Selská jizba has a kitschy, wooden interior with sprawling tables. It pours the local brew, Chebské Hradní, and serves a meal bowl of česnečka, or garlic soup, among other hearty dishes. Over at Pawlik, a crooning couple plays covers to the hard-of-hearing crowd, an entertaining place to let loose and dance as if you were on a cruise ship.
Most trains to Františkovy Lázně change in Cheb, which has a remarkably attractive main square with Bavarian-style architecture that is worth a stop-off on the way back to Prague.
Fiona Gaze can be reached at