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New Europe

Day One Hundred and Thirteen: Prague to Karlovy Vary

The Aristocrats Ball 
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Mr and Miss World at the Aristocrats Ball. Grand Hotel Pupp, Karlovy Vary.
Michael Palin - New EuropeDue west of Prague the road dips and twists as it enters the foothills of the steep mountain range beyond which lies Germany. It's a famously disputed area, rich in coal and other minerals, known to the Germans as the Sudetenland. Hitler grabbed it back from Czechoslovakia in 1938, but at the end of the war the German community was expelled. However, their influence is still pervasive. Nestling at the confluence of two rivers and tucked discreetly into their wooded valleys is Karlovy Vary, known for most of its history by the German name Karlsbad. The therapeutic effects of its twelve world-renowned springs were apparently first noted by the man whose bridge we pedalled under this morning, Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV. Though a predominantly German clientele has been replaced by one predominantly Russian, Karlovy Vary has retained pride of place among the spas of these mountains.

The official guide to the town proudly lists all the famous people who've come here to take the waters, and in case you don't know who they are, their profession or occupation has been helpfully added. So, along with 'R. Strauss, Composer' and 'A. Tolstoy, Russian Writer', we have 'C. Cardinale, Italian Actress' and my favourite, 'A. Hitler, German Politician'.

With big, lushly painted chocolate-box houses and stucco-covered hotels, it's a suitable venue for some of the most unreal experiences on this entire trip.

Most of the accommodation seems to be taken up with an event called the Aristocrats Ball, to which I've been invited. A helpful Czech friend has suggested that I might like to accompany one Tatana Kucharova, not your average date, but the current Miss World. She is, as you would expect, a beautiful girl, and though she speaks excellent English she is only nineteen years old and as neither of us are aristocrats, she, like me, is more than moderately baffled by being sat in the sumptuous ballroom of the Grand Hotel Pupp, in the company of Swedish diplomats wearing the regalia of an ancient Spanish-Sicilian order. However, we do get to be formally announced as 'Miss and Mr World', and meet up with the odd deposed king and even the occasional Burmese prince.

Tatana and I talk about travel, it being one thing we do have in common. She's on a world tour, having been chosen to be Miss World some six months ago. They work her hard. Official duties have already taken her six times to China and three times to America.

A very friendly Scotsman in full Highland dress invites us to come and meet Baron von Frankenstein and a lady called Ulrika Hapsburg.

'I mean you don't find people like that at your table very often.'

The dull and prosaic facts of the matter are that I've ten more days of filming ahead and Miss World has university exams in two days' time, so we withdraw from this glittering throwback to the nineteenth century, and leave the massed aristocrats to trip the light fantastic to a twenty-piece orchestra, complete with harp. We agree to meet up tomorrow and test the curative credentials of this shiny little town, grown rich on hypochondria.
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PALIN'S GUIDES

  • Series: New Europe
  • Chapter: Day One Hundred and Thirteen: Prague to Karlovy Vary
  • Country/sea: Czech Republic
  • Place: Karlovy Vary
  • Book page no: 265

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