The man behind the hotel reception desk peers at me. Then, looking over the rim of his glasses, he speaks slowly in German. “Of course, you have been to Marienbad before,” he says with gravitas. As I ponder whether this observation is merely rhetorical or perhaps requires a response, the receptionist adds: “Of course you have. Everyone’s been to Marienbad.”
One way or another, most of us have indeed been to Marienbad. We know it through film: think of Alain Resnais’ enigmatic Last Year in Marienbad. We have encountered Marienbad through characters in novels, as for example with Sebald’s melancholic anti-hero Austerlitz. It is showcased in poetry, most famously by lovesick Goethe, who was spurned in Marienbad by Ulrike von Levetsow — not unreasonably, perhaps, as she was 56 years younger than the illustrious German writer. The Bohemian spa town has also inspired fictional reportage such as Sholem Aleichem’s witty tangle of letters, simply called Marienbad, written in Yiddish but now happily available in English translation. Few place names can rival Marienbad in global resonance and iconic meaning, to the extent that Marienbad is akin to Venice as a place which we cannot approach without preconception.
Marienbad is a small town tucked away in the hills of Bohemia. But the town, shown on most modern maps by its Czech name of Mariánské Lázně, has enjoyed remarkable prominence in the arts, in film and literature, politics and international affairs. And although it cannot rival Karlsbad (Karlovy Vary)— which was already in the spa trade in the 14th century — in terms of its depth of history, Marienbad this year looks back on the bicentennial of its foundation, marking 200 years of faith in the healing powers of the spa’s medicinal waters.
The mysteries as to which springs are better suited to this or that illness are matters of high theology, understood by only the most experienced physicians. Or so it is said. Yet around the six main springs there is a hefty dose of folk wisdom. “You’d be much better off down at the Ambrose spring if you’re anaemic,” says an elderly woman as I taste the salty waters at the Cross spring which, though barely palatable, are said to work wonders with constipation. It was the presumed therapeutic effects of the Cross spring that underpinned Marienbad’s debut on the spa circuit in 1818 — although it’s said that the monks at Tepla monastery, upon whose estate the springs at Marienbad were located, had for decades been aware of the health benefits of the various waters. And not unaware of potential financial benefits which might accrue to the monastery if Marienbad could be developed.