Your best hotels for an unforgettable stay in Karlovy Vary

Visiting Karlovy Vary was an old travel dream of mine that I was finally able to accomplish at the end of the last year. For 48 hours I had the opportunity to explore almost every corner of the city, enjoying the beautiful autumn colours and intensively hiking on the hills around. Although the high season was already over for a couple of days, the streets were full with tourists and the hotels kept working at high capacity. As a first time visitor, you may be surprised of the many hotels and trying to make your life easy, when I was not too busy hiking or visiting glamorous shops, I also made a short tours of some of the most recomended hotels in the area. My choices for now are as follows:

??????????During my stay, I was the guest of Dvorak Hotel, with its Art Nouveau design and a generous breakfast. Familiy and children friendly, it offers a variety of special spa treatments, including the unique FX.Mayr Treatment, aimed at eliminating naturally the toxines out of the body, oxygen therapy, special treatments for the locomotive system or relaxation therapy, designed to help people cope easier with the work load accumulated during the year. Here you can have a full review of the hotel rooms and its facilities.

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In addition to the healing waters, Karlovy Vary is also famous for its International Film Festival, considered one of the most appreciated in Central and Eastern Europe. Most of the screenings are hosted at the Thermal Hotel. Although from outside it may look a bit too serious and even unfriendly – since the name of its architectural style ‘brutalist architecture’ -, it offers a lot of special facilities to guests, including a vey elegant swimming pool. From the window of your room on the top you can also have a beautiful view over the city. During the festival, don’t be surprise of meeting around big movie stars such as Leonado di Caprio, Robert de Niro or Sharon Stone…

??????????Elizabeth Baths first caught my attention by its big park with large alleys, but those doing an intensive documentation before coming here they know that here you can find the largest balneologic facilities in the city, with over 60 types of treatments. A special place should be given to the aesthetic treatment the visitor receives when admiring the beautiful architecture and classical interior decorations.

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Grand Hotel Pupp is the favourite choice of luxury travelers, as well as of the many VIPs visiting Karlovy Vary (especially the big movie stars invited for the Film Festivval). Opened initially in 1700 as Saxony Hall, it went through dramatic changes under the direction of the Austrian architects Fellner and Helmer, by the requests of the Pupp family. An articulated collection of new-baroque buildings, it offers to their high end customers a royal spa and clinic, special treatments, including laser and other wellness packages. The gastronomic offer is also impressive, with a bar, gourmet restaurant and a coffee open to outside visitors as well.

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Luckily, the tourists looking for some affordable packages do have from where to chose as well. Situated close to the hills around the city, Villa Smetana offers not only a fresh air and a quiet stay, far away from the busy central areas, but also attractive massage treatments, lymphatic drainage, shockwave therapy, sauna and acupuncture.

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Those interested for a more central location, can check the 3-star Ontario Hotel, situated a couple of minutes away from the famous Mill Colonades and their healing waters. Their 12 appartments do offer a family ambiance plus special treatments such as: bath and spa (pearl, mineral, carbon dioxide), wraps (paraffin, mud, peat packs), therapy (electrotherapy, pneumo puncture, laser, gum irrigation, ultrasound) or massage (traditional, arctic fire, reflexology, underwater).

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Also close to the center is the four-star family friendly Hotel Embassy. It offers to the guests various special deals, including some golf classes, as well as a traditional Czech restaurant. Don’t forget as well about the exclusive La Prairie packages.

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Hosted in a 18th century building, Renesance Krasna Kralova Hotel is also situated just in the heart of the city. After the a first luxurious view of velvet and Oriental carpets, silk and hardwooden floors, the guests are tempted with various massages, including Thai-style, and other packages, some of them also including medical examination.

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Another sample of the local 18th century architecture is Hotel Salvator, with its restaurant and Cigar Club, and Romantic Biedermeyer furniture. The treatments are focused on balneotherapeutic and rehabilitation procedures, the bath using the thermal water channeled to the hotel directly from the neighbouring Vridlo Geyser.

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After extensive hiking, spending time in the chic lobby of Interhotel Central was a pleasure that I wanted to enjoy as much as possible. Besides the spa treatments, indoor swimming pool, sauna, solarium, fitness and balneotherapy, it also hosts regularly corporate events and is a favourite choice of business travelers. Professional snooker opportunities are also part of their offer.

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Although at some distance from the busy city, Park Hotel Richmond has a lot of privacy, fresh air as it is situated close to some interesting hiking trails and a quiet stay. Besides the usual treatments offered, it has special antistress programmes, beauty parlours, and a 200-person lounge capacity. During the sunny days, having a coffee on the terrace may be also part of your antistress therapy.

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A summer without airplanes

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With only a couple of weeks – hope months – before the winter, the memories of the busy travel summer are still around. For over a month, I did an intensive country hopping, that lead me from the South of Germany to Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Hungary, Romania and Republic of Moldova. Usually, I’m the kind of traveler that can’t wait to arrive at the destination and thus, the airplane is always the choice no. 1. This time, I wanted to challenge myself with more slow travel and thus, alternated between (many) regional trains, buses and even mini-buses. From Konstanz, for instance, I used a regional Swiss connection, booked only 2 days advance from the train station in Konstanz. Surprisingly – and given the usual high prices I’m usually treated by the Deutsche Bahn – I got a very good price. The trains look good, with friendly personnel that helped me politely to get in time the shortest connections for the next destination.

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From the Eastern side of Switzerland to Liechtenstein, there are short-term buses, comfy, with a bit of air condition that goes in the middle of a beautiful scenery surrounded by spectacular mountains and quiet small houses. With the help of the Adventure Pass kindly offered by Liechtenstein Tourism Office I was able to explore extensively Vaduz, but also to use the public network for free for commuting in different parts of the city.

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On the way back to Konstanz, I tried something slightly different regional transportation, using some colourful little trains. When you switch so often countries, expect to significantly improve your linguistic proficiency. During my travels, I did my best – and sometimes succeeded – to leave the English for emergency situations, while using as often as possible the local languages of the country I was visiting. Don’t ask how your brains could feel after changing from German, then to French, then to Hungarian and then to Romanian.

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Due to the close neighbourhood, and the varied professional opportunities, it’s pretty easy to commute from a country to another in Europe: for instance living and shopping for food in Germany, working in Liechtenstein and eventually spending some summers in Switzerland. The trains around 15 o’clock and later are always busy with commuters, many of them ready to use the travel time to solve some important issues using the wifi opportunities on the board.

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Meanwhile, the little colourful trains ready to go in the scenic Switzerland destinations are calling to relaxing and enjoying the summer days, when possible. During the summer vacations, there is possible to take various rides in different popular locations, with windowless trains allowing real life landscape experience without leaving your cabin.

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Compared to the glamorous West, the Eastern part of Europe might be a bit shocking at the first sight. Many train stations look like there were never enough funds in the last decade to invest in the rebuilding, and some people hanging up around can be a bit intrusive. In Timisoara, for instance, I was surprised by the kind help of the lady from the ticket counter who helped me to find a simple and cheap connection to Brasov.

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I haven’t travel by train in Romania for more than 10 years, maybe, but was a bit surprised to discover that not too much changed, in terms of high-class comfort and facilities.

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Even the landscape stayed the same, with lots of weeds around the train lines, and tired personnel, not always able to help you too much. What I sometimes appreciate in the Eastern European part of the world, is the intensive dialogue and life sharing that can be done with full passion for one or two or more hours of travel between perfect strangers ready to share all the details of their life, although did not care about the name of the depositary of their secrets.

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The main reason I wanted to travel extensively slow, was for checking more carefully the reality on the ground, with a diverse overview over the landscape and even more human interactions. History is always present, but you need to be ready to catch it. In Arad train station, I spotted an old tent-roof stone building, hidden on the back of the train lines, most probably some kind of bunker left from the Cold War time.

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For the rest of the trip, I used intensively and on my own risk the local minibuses not only from a part to another of Romania, but also going as far away as Kishinev. The advantages are the very cheap prices and the availability round the day, with regular connections ready to go almost every hour. On the other hand, forget about safety belts, comfort or even cleanliness.

Now, that other travel adventures are calling my name, I’m glad that I made it through the summer and was lucky enough to be back home safe and healthy. A bit of slow travel once in a while can be a very rich experience, strongly recommended.

 

Luxembourg, my European wonderland

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The last two months of 2013 weren’t the most pleasant of my life and didn’t have too much time for keeping the track of all my travel plans. For the same reasons, long-term planning was almost impossible, but when I knew for sure that I can easily return to my ‘normality’, I announced the next destination: Luxembourg. A little corner of Europe that I always wanted to visit, only 50 minutes by car from Trier, the oldest town in Germany. The journey from Berlin was relatively easy, enjoying the unusual sunny weather and not too much commotion on the road, although it was the last day of the year. As our hotel was situated close to the center, shortly upon arrival we didn’t waste too much time and started the exploration of the city.

The risk to visit a new place in the last and/or the first day of a year is that many good restaurants either are fully booked or closed, the museums are on vacation and the shops are closed. The streets were full of fancy youngsters ready for the party, walking around the Place d’Armes.

After eating something very fast at the Banana’s, where we had some not so impressive fish and chips, but welcomed with smiles, we made a little tour of the central area by night. We stop around the big lions in the front of the discrete building of the town hall, walk the main streets near the shopping area – where we will return many times during our walks the next day – smile near the creative playground of Theatre des Capucins and end up for a dessert at Belucci. The delicious creamy Panacotta saved the failure of the previous meal and made me really happy that I finally made it to Luxembourg.

There are only a couple of minutes left from 2013 and we need to find a good location for watching the fireworks. As everywhere in Europe, for at least one hour, the city turned soon into a fighting arena: a lot of fog and spontaneous little ‘bombs’ threw on the street that you better avoid for the sake of the physical integrity. We found a relatively quiet and safe corner near the sculptural high monument for the victims of wars and watch the show of lights. Around us, people are speaking in French, English, German or the local Luxembourgish and we enjoy after all the international ambiance.

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But we have big plans for the next day and we succeed to return to the hotel around 1.30. Six hour later, we are ready for the breakfast, some cups of coffee (me) and an expedition to see as much as possible from the city. We enjoyed our night walks, but the morning light made us feel that we landed in a wonderland. Old city walls and spontaneous glass-and-metal apparitions in the European quarter, enormous bridges over quiet streets separated by water are covered in the wraps of deep silence of the first quiet hours of the morning of the first day of 2014.

We go in the direction of boulevard de la Petrousse, for having a look at the building of Caisse d’Epargne, followed by another walk along Boulevard Royal and Rue Notre Dame for the Casino, a building where also the composer Franz Liszt stopped for a while. Rue Philippe II is full of fashion temptations, especially Sonia Rykiel’s shops that I cannot see easily in my part of Europe, but also Marina Rinaldi, Cartier, or Hermès. Everything is closed now, as most part of the restaurants or tempting bakeries and thus, we save a lot of time for arrival fast in the European quarter.Image

As expected, the work is put on hold here, and except the colourful graffiti at the entrance, everything looks very sober. The trees arising from the concrete bring more life into the official bureaucratic architecture that reminds me a bit of the only part I really know from Brussels.

On Place d’Europe no. 1, on plateau Kirchberg, the building of the Philharmonic is hiding a world of harmonies that counters the uniform language of the European bureaucrats.

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We want to return to the center, but instead of taking one of the colourful buses that regularly connect the different parts of the city, we chose to follow the way of Vauban fortifications that not only leads us through different stages of history, but also connects different parts of Europe. The countrymen from Luxembourg brought their skills to Transylvania and contributed to the construction of the fortifications that can be seen nowadays near the Alba Iulia area, in Romania.

The historical benchmarks are explained in French or German. The walk is pleasant and solitary, with interesting angles over the old part of the city. I am happy for the little hiking breathing deep the fresh air of the little forest we are going through. Sentier de l’Esperance/Path of Hope brings us in the upper town and the remains of Luxembourg Fortresse. Image

After the Vauban fortifications, we follow a different route, built by Wenzel, both bearing the name of architects that at years distance erected the fortifications systems of the city. This time, we have less walks in the middle of the nature, but we go through the main standpoints of the citadel and admire the beautiful geometry of the upper city.

Together with us, other tourists are enjoying the beautiful views. We are back in the city and the city is back to the busy life. Image

After hours of walking, I need some refreshments but I prefer to wait till we arrive in a great and noble location. Chocolate House, hosted in one of the fewest remaining patrician houses built in 1615, is situated opposite the Grand Palais Ducal. With a musical background from the 1960s, and a coffee and some delicious pistachio chocolate, we watch the simple yet noble look of the Palace. The local custom is to check if the flag is on the top of the building, case in which the ducal family is at home. Usually, the members of the grand ducal family can easily be seen, but there is not such a sign today.

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On Rue Marché aux Herbes we discover interesting art déco corners. In the daylight, we saw how we missed a photo exhibition about Africa in the townhall square. Archaeological findings are under work in the main square and we hope that next time we will be there to have the chance to visit the art and history museum for more insights about the rich Roman past of Luxembourg. Image

The weather is still pleasant and we decide to want to discovery parts of the city not necessarily included on the main guides. This time, we chose Monterey Avenue, where besides the interesting arts-and-craft/art déco architecture, we also enjoy having some time in the park, with huge playgrounds near fountains arising in the middle of a lake. Later in the day, we will discover another beautiful natural corner, the parc on Jean Pierre Pescattore. The locals are also enjoying the pleasant windy weather and are jogging. Luxembourg seems too a paradise for bikers and hikers, due to the wise balance of natural beauty with man-made paths that invites to a healthy life.

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So much walking requires a proper eating. Luxembourg is a great foodie place, with dedicated little gastronomic islands offering many fish-based but also Asian meals. There is also a special production of cheese and Mosel white wines, that complete the landscape of an exquisite table.

The French cuisine is the queen and we dare to go to the French Brasserie for a real sample. Due to the shortages of restaurants around, the place is very busy and the service is extremely slow. Most of the meals we want to have are no more available and after various unsuccessful trials we are having a grilles trout with almonds. A bit too oily, but after all it is a meal.

I didn’t want a dessert, but somehow, the inviting name of crème brûlée with Tahiti vanilla from La Lorraine sent me a message that there is a meal I shouldn’t miss. When I ask if they still have it, we are answered: ‘If not, probably we will need to close the restaurant’. It is basically a fish restaurant, and the smell tells us so, but the crème is one of the best I had in ages: a delicious cream with a crispy cover of sugar with pistachio spread on the top. A sweet dream that makes me forget about the relatively high price.

But everything is pricey in Luxembourg, because it is one of the countries with the highest income in the world, and a tax paradise that attracts many expats from all over the world.

Many of these expats are hanging around in the bars and restaurants still open, waiting for the end of the winter vacations or for the next ski adventure in the Alps or in Switzerland. We were lucky to have the chance to spot some of the local noble families, having a first day of the year gathering in the posh places from Place d’Armes: a wise combination between French style and German seriousness.

We hope to have our end of the day meal in such a place too, and we made a reservation at the Brasserie Pless. A brasserie means usually a relaxed middle-priced place, but this one is part of the luxury design Hotel Place d’Armes and should follow the high standards. Unfortunately, we only enjoy the elegant design and exquisite service, but the majority of the meals we are interested in are, again, not available. A veggie salad is all I can have and due to the excellent day I already had, I can live with that.

When the next day, early in the morning, we leave the beautiful Luxembourg, but long time after, I still feel like being out of a wonderland that will call me back soon.

For more visual insights of Luxembourg, visit my Pinterest board: http://www.pinterest.com/ilanaontheroad/luxembourg/

Lessons learned of my last travels

I am happy to be back home, after a couple of days of intensive travel in Europe, discovering by foot and through rain two ‘A’ cities: Amsterdam and Antwerp. I have a lot of travel stories ready to post in the next days, or at least till my next trip, and promise to be a very active blogger the next days.

Till then, there are a couple of cold lessons learned from my last trips, that I want to share:

– Always get in touch with the hotel before arrival, especially if you expect to be there after 3-4 pm. Especially for the small residencies with more locations spread through the city, being sure that you can find someone at the reception will save a significant amount of energy and time.

– When you want to get the special press discounts at museums, you better check carefully the website and drop an e-mail to the people in charge with the press to ask if they will let you in at a discounted price.

– When you arrive late in town and you want to go to a special restaurant, don’t assume it will be open for you just because they were sure that one day you will finally decide to honour them with a ‘hello’.

– When you need to travel with local and inter-country connections, it is better to: 1. know exactly when and where do you want to go at least 4 days in advance; 2. buy the ticket online, for a better price and time management.

– When your train is more than one hour late – and you are left in the middle of the Netherlands due to some uninspired person that decided to jump in the front of the train before you passed by -, you are assigned to request compensations.

– Checking some basic information about places generally considered ‘pricey’ is a smart step to have a good financial planning. Some learn it in primary school, but it is never too late to start learning something new and useful.

– When your wifi connection fails more than once and you are supposed to work at least one hour the day online, you should visit your PC doctor before your next trip. Maybe your firewall policies are too strict, or who knows what you’ve done (again) to your poor computer.

Compared to other occasions, I did not encounter any weather-related problems, especially because by accident, I forgot an old umbrella in my bag.

Keep an eye on my blog for more and more and more travel stories in the next hours and days!