In the Czech Republic, visitors tend to confine themselves to Prague, only making day trips perhaps to the World Heritage city of Český Krumlov or the medieval Bohemian town of Kutná Hora. But there is much more to see in this South Carolina-size country, so I decided to stay at hotels in two of the Czech Republic’s other major cities: Brno, the second largest, and Karlovy Vary, a picturesque spa town also known (in German) as Karlsbad.
Rather than drive about two hours to Brno, we opted to take a three-hour train ride southeast from Prague, passing through relatively flat Bohemia to the rolling hills and rocky bluffs of Moravia. The industrial suburbs of Brno make for a poor initial impression, but the old center and its immediate surrounds are beautiful and unspoiled. Much of old Brno has been pedestrianized, making it a great pleasure to explore the city of 400,000 on foot. Like Prague, Brno has retained much of its prewar architecture, and sharp gothic spires spear the sky. The city was also an important center of the functionalist movement, exemplified by Villa Tugendhat, a Mies van der Rohe masterpiece of residential design on the outskirts of the center (reserve tickets six months in advance). Nowadays, university students give Brno a youthful energy. And the city has a surprising wealth of excellent restaurants, in addition to notable cocktail bars and brewpubs. Best of all, Brno has yet to make it onto the tourism circuit, allowing visitors to enjoy its attractions without battling the crowds.
We checked into the Grandezza Hotel Luxury Palace, housed in a former bank building facing the Cabbage Market, one of Brno’s oldest and grandest squares. This 73-room property has a striking Secessionist-style décor, influenced by early 20th-century Vienna and more specifically the Austrian painter Gustav Klimt. A Klimt-inspired mosaic decorates the wall above the front desk, which forms the centerpiece of an atrium lobby with wood wainscoting, a broad stained-glass skylight and some original Secessionist antiques. The Grandezza Restaurant continues the theme, with its glass pendant lights, warm paneling and chairs upholstered in a Klimt-style design.
We had reserved a Junior Suite, and the woman at the front desk sent us up to it unaccompanied. I got over that disappointment once I had taken in our view. From our corner on the fourth floor, we could see the whole of the mostly pedestrian Cabbage Market (where a farmers market takes place to this day), the hilltop gothic cathedral behind it, Brno’s fortresslike castle in the distance and the spire-topped tower of the Old Town Hall. Any accommodation at the front of the hotel has a similar panorama, but Junior Suite 412 has perhaps the best outlook in the hotel — and indeed, one of the best views in all of Brno.
Decorated with Secessionist accents, our Junior Suite also had room for a black leather sofa, a side table with a coffee maker and a firm but comfortable bed made from two twins pushed together. The limestone-tiled bath had dual vanities atop a marble counter, where there was enough space to spread out our toiletries. The shower-tub combination was a bit disappointing, however, as were the scratchy towels and lack of turndown service.
Ordinarily, the Grandezza’s rather hands-off service would prevent me from recommending it. But the building has appealing historic character, magnificent views and a welcoming staff. I also liked its small spa in the basement, which includes a private Jacuzzi room with gold mosaic tiles and massage treatment rooms in the bank’s former vault. The hotel’s closest competitor, the larger Barceló Brno Palace, also occupies a centrally located historic building. But its décor has less of a sense of place, and even its best views can’t compare to those of the Grandezza. The Grandezza is not a true luxury hotel, but it is a comfortable and atmospheric base from which to explore Brno, a charming small city that can easily fill two or three days with its impressive art collections, creepy catacombs and flâneur-friendly lanes. With expectations set properly, the more self-sufficient traveler will surely enjoy a stay at this property.
The prominent location with magnificent views; the atmospheric Secessionist décor; the spa treatment rooms in a former bank vault; the large size of our Junior Suite; the Viennese-style café opposite the main restaurant; the reasonable price.
Service does not rise to luxury levels, considering the lack of assistance we received with luggage; the absence of turndown service; and the lack of a personal introduction to our room.
Junior Suites, especially those with balconies on the corners of the fourth floor, are best; don’t be tempted to book the more expensive Onyx Suite, which has dramatic décor but small windows and a third level accessible only by a narrow spiral staircase.
To the west of Prague, 30 minutes from the German border, Karlovy Vary enjoyed its heyday in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Continental aristocrats came to “Karlsbad,” the population of which was then mostly German, to “take the waters” of the mineral-rich hot springs. Imposing hotels and villas sprang up in the forested valley, creating a pastel candy box of a town standing in sharp contrast to the moody dark-green hillsides surrounding it. Viewpoints affording panoramas over the town dot the valley’s slopes. From Jelení Skok (Stag’s Leap), a bronze sculpture of a deer perched on a pinnacle of rock, it’s easy to see how Wes Anderson drew inspiration from Karlovy Vary for his film “The Grand Budapest Hotel.” My favorite views were from the path in front of the Wellness Hotel Jean de Carro and from a cross dedicated to Czar Peter I set above Jelení Skok.
Russians have long had an outsize influence on Karlovy Vary. Peter the Great’s 18th-century visit popularized the town with the Russian aristocracy. Soviet-backed communists later drove the aristocracy out after World War II and let Karlovy Vary’s palatial hotels fall into disrepair. Now the town is once again fashionable with Russians, who have been buying up numerous apartments and villas.
Strolling the grand spa colonnades continues to be popular with visitors, and numerous tourist shops sell the spouted mugs designed specifically for drinking the therapeutic waters. I hope these are as healthful as the local tourism board claims; depending on the spring, their flavors ranged from merely unpleasant to sulfurously vile. Fortunately there are other diversions, including touring the Becherovka distillery and the Moser crystal factory and museum.
Karlovy Vary’s most famous hotel is the Grandhotel Pupp, a palatial 228-room property overlooking a bend in the canal-like Teplá River. But its large size and reports of deteriorating service standards put me off. I chose instead to stay just across the Teplá at the Quisisana Palace. This 19-room property occupies an ornate mansion that once served as the home of the owner of the Grandhotel Pupp. A huge crystal chandelier presides over its small entrance hall, which is decorated with trompe l’oeil frescoes flanked by Corinthian pilasters.
When we arrived, the woman at the front desk summoned a colleague to assist with our bags and ushered us into a small lounge, where she provided flutes of Prosecco while she completed check-in formalities. She then accompanied us up to our Suite, a category below the hotel’s top accommodations. It came with a larger living room as opposed to a balcony, which had seemed a wise decision for our early-spring stay. But the weather proved clement, and I wished we’d splurged on a Deluxe Suite, with a terrace at the front facing the Grandhotel Pupp. (Lower categories of rooms with balconies at the rear of the hotel aren’t especially appealing.)
Our living room’s moldings, parquet floor, antique book-lined shelves and Louis XVI-style furnishings nodded toward luxury, but upholstering the sofa, chaise and armchair in white suede had been a brave but unwise choice, as evidenced by the stains on the armchair’s ottoman. In the bedroom, two twin beds pushed together shared a padded headboard, and there was also room for an armchair and lengthy sideboard. Both the bedroom and the living room had closets, giving us ample storage space. Next to the shower-tub combination, dual vanities set in a counter of black granite accented a bath otherwise clad in travertine tile.
Considering the numerous problems we experienced at what is theoretically Karlovy Vary’s top luxury hotel, it seems best to visit the town as a day trip.
The bountiful à la carte breakfasts in the airy sunroom of the hotel’s restaurant were a pleasure, but in many other respects, our stay at the Quisisana Palace was not. When I ordered a Negroni in the restaurant’s bar, for example, the bartender-waiter told me he hadn’t heard of it, but he would find the recipe on the internet. The spa, too, proved amateurish. I liked my “sparkling salt bath,” in which the jets of the tub massaged various parts of the body in a circuit. But the massage had a bit too much clapping and chopping for my taste, and worse, a woman entered the treatment room — on two separate occasions — to say something to my therapist as I was receiving my massage. It was wholly unprofessional. In addition, the chambermaid forgot turndown service our first evening (the manager offered a free tea or coffee in the restaurant as compensation), and our room smelled stale no matter how long we left the windows open.
Considering the numerous problems we experienced at what is theoretically Karlovy Vary’s top luxury hotel, it seems best to visit the town as a day trip from Prague. It’s possible to reach Karlovy Vary by train, but the two-hour drive is faster. I reserved a well-priced car with Prague Airport Transfer, which provided a plush Mercedes E-Class manned by a cheerful English-speaking driver. Have lunch at one of our recommended restaurants — my favorite is Promenáda — and return to more comfortable lodgings in Prague in the late afternoon.
The warm welcome we received when we arrived; the bountiful breakfasts included with the room rate; the spacious layout of our Suite.
Our Suite’s stale smell; the stains on some of its white suede upholstery; the unprofessional service in the spa; the missed turndown service.
The hotel is a short walk from the Karlovy Vary Art Gallery, an attraction that appears in few guidebooks but is worth visiting for its fine rotating exhibitions of modern and contemporary Czech art.