The Czech Republic is a nation renowned for its beer. The home of Pilsner, with first class breweries everywhere you turn, you're as likely to find a great place to stop off for a pint on its street corners as you are to see a Starbucks or McDonalds in the U.S.. However, for my recent trip to the Czech Republic I wanted to go one better than just getting sloshed drinking beer – I wanted to bathe in the stuff.
Before you jump to any conclusions, this wasn't just a matter of me going to a local off licence, buying every bottle of Kozel that they had, pouring them all into a kettle and then decanting the frothy brew into my hotel bath tub: if the Czech Republic is known for one thing it's its beer – if it's known for two, it's for its spa treatments, too. As well as facials, massages and manicures, my girlfriend and I were able to hunt down a place where we could literally soak in booze.
This "treatment" is available in the "beer wellness land" of Chodovar, a hundred mile drive out of the Czech capital of Prague. Chodovar is about as sleepy as small towns get – were it not for the Chodovar spa and brewery it'd be practically comatose. And yes, you read that right – "spa and brewery" – only in the Czech Republic could those two establishments live under the same roof. Chodovar Spa even has a little tipsy labrador as its mascot – now I know where all those Andrex puppies go when they outgrow the canine equivalent of their "child actor" roles. Corey Feldman would be proud.
Our day at the spa starts, as you'd expect, with a few jars at the brewery bar. Just a few miles from the border with Germany, the Chodovar brewery's décor is reminiscent of a classic bierkeller – rows and rows of lengthy wooden tables, perfect for sliding two pint steins down at speed. Visiting in the off season (if Chodovar ever really has an "on" season) it is fairly quiet in the bar. Rather than being filled with raucous, beer-swilling bearded boozers, there are a few senior citizens and a couple of builders from a nearby construction site. Oh, and wasps the size of a grown man's thumb. If the Czech Republic is known for three things, the third is its swarms of persistently aggressive wasps.
What is striking about Chodovar brewery's interior however is the complex network of pipes and pumps that run across its ceiling from giant barrels that must hold hundreds of litres of the brewery's own tipples. If you are a fan of steampunk design and alcohol poisoning, you'll be in heaven. There is even a mannequin propped up down one end of the room, beer being pumped into a 19th century diving helmet it has been outfitted with. Sadly, this is not a treatment on offer to guests.
No, my girlfriend and I have a double bath awaiting us. Two pints later and we are led downstairs through the red-bricked beer cellars of the brewery to where our two spa specialists are waiting for us. Fellow beer-bathing pioneers loiter nearby, draped in thin white sheets – clearly, these neat but cramped corridors have not been designed to accommodate near-nude tourists.
Czech, for the uninitiated (as we are) is not an easy language to wing, and outside of Prague very few citizens speak English very well. What follows (attempts at broken Czech aside) is the initial exchange between the stout female attendant and I upon our arrival.
"We're here for the beer bath?"
"Off. All off."
* Some arm flailing * "Off, take all off. Please now."
"Clothes, yes. Off."
"Off, take all off. Please now."
We're not exactly spa experts, my girlfriend or I. In fact, we've never been to one, anywhere. There seemed to be a loose, "Age of Aquarius" like attitude to nudity in most of them as far as our limited experience is aware of, so, with a shrug of the shoulders and a glance at each other's simultaneously-raised eyebrows, we down our bags and start pulling our arms out of our jumper sleeves. Our swimming costumes are obviously unnecessary baggage.
"No, NO! Changing room!" says the nearby male attendant, to our obvious sighs of relief, before guiding us down to a tucked-away locker area. Almost as if recognising our nerves need steeling, two more sizeable pints are thrust into our hands.
Towel toga-d and ready to go, we make our way to the bath room. Dozens upon dozens of huge steel tubs are lined up in rows, each with great brass taps sprouting out of them, mainlining the local brews into each family-sized bath. (Not that there is a family option available – popping your four year old into a giant vat of ale is a sure-fire way of getting the child protection services knocking at your door).
Aside from the obvious down-the-pub bragging rights, there are said to be some genuine benefits to taking a beer bath. To quote MUDr. Roman Vokatý, "specialist guarantor of the real Beer Baths balneology, rehabilitation and physiatry specialist":
The aim of the baths involves harmonising functions of the organism, mental rest, recondition and relaxation. The procedures have curative effects on the complexion and hair, relieve muscle tension, warm up joints and support immune system of the organism.
The exact make up of the beer in the treatment is something of a trade secret, but (were you not already told not to do so), you probably won't fancy drinking the stuff. Dishwater-pale, comfortably warm and grainy with a hoppy residue, it's thick, foamy surface makes it clear that this stuff is supposed to go on your body and not in it.
De-robed by the lady attendant and down to our birthday suits (the spa supervisor has no time for our attempts at defending our modesty), we climb in.
Or should that be dive in? The tubs are deep – it is a struggle to keep my chin out of the foam without pushing hard against the back of the bath, rising to the surface with the sort of frothy beard that'd make a wino proud. Here, we are to sponge up the concoction's nutrients for just under 30 minutes. Naturally, another pint each is sent our way.
Maybe it is the beer we've imbibed, maybe it is the potent steam rising from the depths, but the Chodovar beer bath is truly relaxing, a unique and heady way to spend an afternoon.
On the verge of falling into an unshakeable slumber, the attendant returns – not with towels however, but with the same white sheets we've seen earlier punters wrapped in. Still starkers (and with the attendant still unphased – "Up, out, shake wet please now!"), we are cloaked in the sheets and led to a side room where the second part of the treatment begins. Another quick pint and we are handed over to the male attendant (a man seemingly made more of hair than flesh).
Lit only by red bulbs, the second room is a bizarre sight. Rows of beds are lined up, each with a beer-soaked punter laid on top. Like lines of alcoholic caterpillars, each has been bound tightly by the white sheets, cocooned in order to keep the beer-y goodness close to the skin. Many are asleep (some of the older visitors look like they could have been asleep for some time). We share the same fate, muzak versions of Toni Braxton's "smash hits" drifting through in the background. Once you are wrapped, there is no escape.
Now, if you've been keeping count, by this point I'm onto my fifth pint in just under two hours. My bladder has a two-pint capacity, three at a literal stretch, maximum. This quiet moment of relaxation, wrapped in white like a newly baptised babe (were the good Lord a fan of hops instead of Holy Water), soon turns to panic. I seriously need a whizz, and I'm wrapped tighter than Tutankhamen was for his trip into the afterlife. I can't get out, and even if I could, would I be undoing any good that the spa is supposed to do for me, exposing my skin to the open air ahead of time?
Silence. My fellow chrysalis have all either fallen asleep, lulled into slumber by instrumental versions of Toni Braxton's greatest hits, or have finally succumbed to the copious amounts of alcohol flowing through their veins.
How long are we to lay like this. Minutes? Hours? Days?
"Pssst. PSSSST. Kate? Kaaaate? I need a wee."
Long-suffering Kate, hardened by lengthy drives spent in the company of my hyperactive plumbing, spares no sympathy. Or is just too pissed to care.
An age seems to pass. Just how many "hits" does Toni Braxton have? A single bead of terror sweat – more beer than salty water – rolls down my face. Under the red glow of the relaxation room lights I must look like a thinner Marlon "Kurtz" Brando. I am fit to burst.
The horror. The horror.
Just when I can stand no more; Chewbacca to the rescue! The male attendant returns, relieving me of my bonds, as I race to relieve myself.
"No shower for five hours!" he orders as we go to dry off and get dressed. "Better for skin."
We depart, feeling thoroughly refreshed, but smelling like a the floor of, well, a brewery. Fitting, then, that we choose to spend the rest of the day back in the bar.