Dear fellow travellers
Relaxation is compulsory in Frantiskovy Lázne, a small spa town in the far north-west corner of the Czech Republic. Many travellers visit the better known spas of Karlovy Vary and Mariánské Lázne (still often referred to by their erstwhile German names, Karlsbad and Marienbad respectively). You have to be something of a spa specialist to seek out Frantiskovy Lázne. And it's worth taking the trouble, for we rate Frantiskovy Lázne as perhaps the most picturesque of the Bohemian spa communities.
Franzensbad (as it was known in its Habsburg heyday) is relatively new. Mineral springs were discovered in the early 18th century, but it was not until the early 19th century that the organised spa trade commenced. The town never quite had the pulling power of the larger spas, but by the late 19th century it had developed into a sophisticated, urbane retreat where the worries of everyday life were kept at bay. Today there is, more than ever, a sense of time having stalled in Frantiskovy Lázne. That's what makes us return to this small town in the Bohemian hills about once each year.
We go more for the betterment of our souls than for any specific medical needs. And when we visit, normally in early spring, the town is very empty. There are two outstanding churches, one a very fine Catholic church executed in graceful Empire style and the other a rather uplifting Orthodox church dedicated to St Olga.
That second church is a reminder that the Czech spa tradition has always thrived on links with the east. It is more than 300 years since Peter the Great first stopped off at Karlsbad (on his way to his son's wedding at Torgau on the Elbe). The Russian tsar was evidently impressed and two years later he returned to Karlsbad. Peter’s affection for Karlsbad has served as the spa’s trump card over the last 200 years. A steady stream of Romanovs and other Russian nobles followed in Peter’s wake. Grand Duchess Elena Pavlovna had no less than seven sojourns in Karlsbad.
It was Gustav Wiedermann who saw that if his native Franzensbad was to compete with the more established Bohemian spas, it needed better facilities. As a young architect, he oversaw the construction of new spa buildings and a fine colonnade. Wiedermann also recognised that no spa was complete without a Russian Orthodox church. He was co-designer of the Franzensbad church which was completed in 1889.
Wiedermann's enthusiasm for developing Franzensbad was legendary. He promoted public buildings, parks and hotels which were stately rather than ostentatious. For a decade he presided over the affairs of the town as mayor. He died in 1914, but the town he did so much to foster survives as a little fragment of Habsburg style preserved in aspic.
The town's Orthodox church is still very much in business. It has certainly helped to attract Russian guests to the town, but it's also played a part in wider European history. In the early years, St Olga's was served by Orthodox priests from the Russian community in Weimar. But in 1947, Frantiskovy Lázne received an unexpected boost in its population as several hundred migrants from the Volhynia region of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic arrived in the area. The German population of Frantiskovy Lázne had vacated the town after the war. They relocated just over the nearby border with Bavaria, leaving empty housing stock behind.
The newcomers were of Czech origin and constituted a small minority in multi-ethnic Volhynia. Many felt more comfortable with the Byzantine rite of the Eastern Church than with the Latin style of the Roman Catholic Church. So St Olga's flourished, all the more so when one of their own community, Father Jan Krivka, was appointed parish priest. Jan had been born in the Volhyn village of Ceská Hulec, first settled by Czech settlers in the 1860s and 1870s. For 64 years, from 1949 until his death in 2013, Jan regularly led the Divine Liturgy at St Olga's. In 2011, he was joined in Frantiskovy Lázne by Father Vit Methodius who now looks after the community. Curiously, the church is no longer Russian Orthodox, but is affiliated to the Orthodox Church of the Czech Lands and Slovakia, one of those nicely oddball ecclesiastical jurisdictions which lend a little colour to Europe's religious tapestry.
Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe magazine)