Rick Steves takes a sticky Czech mud bath in Trebon
Immersed in a muddy peat brine, it occurs to me that this must be the strangest bath I have ever taken.
I am in the well-preserved Czech spa town of Trebon. I decided to complete my intense stay in the tourist city of Prague by venturing south, deeper into the Czech countryside.
The biosphere of the artificial lakes of Trebon dates back to the 14th century. Over the years, people have transformed what was once a flood marsh into a clever mix of lakes, oak-fringed dikes, wild meadows, baroque villages, bogs and pine forests. Rather than unprofitable wet fields, they wanted ponds populated with fish – and today Trebon remains the fish farming capital of the Czech Republic.
People come from near and far to soak themselves in Trebon’s smelly black peat mud, which is believed to heal aching joints and thorns. Considering the elegance of the baths I have experienced in German spa towns, I decided to give it a try.
My masseuse points to my room and mimes undressing me. She is impatient, impatient to get started because the peat does not flow until the top of the hour. I step into the stainless steel tub, it pulls a stopper, and quickly disappear under a rising sea of gurgling sawdust soup. My toes look cute sticking out of the hot brown mud.
When we’re done, I get up in the tub and she shower off the mud, then usher me into the massage room, where she makes me lie on my stomach. It feels like a nurse’s office with a pile of dirty sheets piled up in a corner. She tells me that I am getting a “hand massage”. It seems redundant at best… perverted worst at worst. Later, I learn that this is literally what massages are called in Czech (rucni masaz).
Finished my hand massage, I get dressed. Alone and still covered in fatty oil, I walk over to my local friend, Honza, at dinner. When you come to Trebon he says, “You have to try the fish.” We order all the appetizers on the menu, a great tip for tasting the cuisine of another culture. There’s “soused” herring (which must mean “marinated”), fried loach, “fashionable stuffed carp”, cod liver, pike caviar and something Honza translates to “ fried carp sperm ”. As we eat, I notice the writing on my beer glass says, “Bohemia Regent anno 1379.” It occurs to me that I have been consuming exactly what people have been eating here for 600 years: carp semen. fried from the neighboring tank, washed down with local beer.
Dinner is accompanied by a lively group. They play everything from Bach and Smetana to favorites of Czech folk and anti-fascist blues of the 1930s. The string bassist grooves like a white Satchmo, his long and powerful bow sliding between the guests. The conductor plays a century-old black wood flute. During a break, I run my finger along its smooth mouthpiece, worn like an ancient marble relic by countless nights spent making music. The flautist sports a big, bushy mustache in the image of Emperor Franz Joseph, who is looking at us from a yellowed poster.
Above the quartet is a high window. Teenage heads jump in the air – they reach out on tiptoes and bend down to look inside. Whenever a song ends, glass mugs of golden beer click on rough wooden tables as the roaring crowd cheers and cheers for more. As the night wears on, there are fewer tourists taking photos and more locals singing as the quartet sway like seaweed in a nostalgic musical tide.
I compliment Honza on the beer. He says: “These days many Poles and Hungarians go west to France and Germany to find work. But not the Czechs. You can’t find good enough beer anywhere other than here. Our love of Czech beer keeps us from going abroad for better jobs.
Back at my hotel, I go up to my attic room – be careful not to lean on thick medieval wood. I lean through my little skylight, the sound of the noisy bar in the distance. The new sturdy tiles around me are slippery and shiny with a light rain. The street, wet and shiny, is as clean as a miniature railway town. The cars, while inexpensive, are new and parked as well as possible. Floor lamps appear intentionally cheerful, decorating the line of pastel facades bracing themselves in the distance. They seem to be proclaiming that Czech society is on the right track for a bright future.
Edmonds resident Rick Steves (www.ricksteves.com) writes European guides, hosts travel shows on public television and radio, and hosts European tours. This article was adapted from his new book, “For the love of Europe”. You can email Rick at [email protected] and follow his blog on Facebook.