Having concluded the first part of this trip, and safely ensconced in the Executive Lounge at the Hilton Prague Old Town, I thought I'd share some reflections on the Karlovy Vary and the 53rd Karlovy Vary International Film Festival.
Getting to Karlovy Vary
This was the easy part. We booked bus tickets with Student Agency ahead of time, and they took us directly from the airport to the main Karlovy Vary train station in about 2 hours. If you are leaving from Prague, you can also take the train, which takes 3 hours 15 minutes, and according to wikitravel has excellent views.
The original plan was to take that train back from Karlovy Vary to Prague, but the Czech railway website was showing a strange error message about requiring a bus connection so out of an overabundance of caution we decided to take the bus back to Prague as well, which ends at the main bus station Florenc.
Staying in Karlovy Vary
An important thing to know about Karlovy Vary is that it is built into a fairly narrow valley or canyon, and the city climbs out of the valley up the adjacent hillsides. I bring this up because if you don't inspect a topographical map, you might find yourself staying at the very top of one of those hills, like we did.
This didn't matter once we had settled into our hotel (except that we got a lot of exercise walking up and down the hill multiple times every day), but if I had known in advance that we'd have to walk our suitcases up multiple flights of stairs and steeply inclined streets, I might have ordered a taxi or booked a hotel on the floor of the valley instead. If you have mobility issues, you'll want to stick to the area immediately surrounding the Teplá river, ideally between the Hotel Thermal and Grandhotel Pupp. Even a block away could represent several hundred feet in elevation change or dozens of stairs.
There are no chain hotels in Karlovy Vary, but there are a lot of hotels, lining virtually every street in the city, mostly stately 4-6 story buildings that appear (to my untrained eye) to date back to the height of the Austo-Hungarian empire. Virtually all of them are available through one or more online travel agencies, but be sure to shop around since availability and price can vary enormously from one site to another. I used Booking.com for our reservation instead of Hotels.com because the price difference was much greater than the better rewards the Hotels.com reservation would have offered.
Our hotel was called "Villa Charlotte," which does not even seem to have its own website. The price was right and the breakfast was pretty good, so I don't have any particular complaints, but if you've ever stayed at a boutique European hotel you've stayed there: thin, useless towels, confusing plumbing, two double beds shoved together to make a "queen" bed, etc.
Eating in Karlovy Vary
There are a ton of replacement-level Czech restaurants in town, but I'll point out a few places that stood out:
- Yeleny Skok is about a third of the way up the Southwestern canyon wall, and has great views of the valley floor and a solid venison goulash. You can hike up there by foot (the trail conveniently started across the street from our hotel), or take a funicular from immediately behind the Grandhotel Pupp.
- Ristorante Italiano da Franco is a tiny hole in the wall where we had our "nice" meal of the trip (i.e. $15 entrees instead of $4 entrees — the Czech Republic is very cheap). It's a little off the beaten path but had some of the best Italian food I've had in Eastern Europe. It's unclear to me if the owner, who along with his wife seemed to be the only person working, speaks any language other than Italian, but the menu was descriptive enough in several languages.
- When you want to really get away from the crowds, Kebab House on náměstí Dr. M. Horákové seemed like a popular choice with locals and offered straightforward kebabs with lots of fresh veggies, which are not exactly a staple of Czech cuisine so made for a nice change of pace when you'd like something besides bread, meat, and cheese.
Karlovy Vary International Film Festival
KVIFF is a really big deal in Karlovy Vary, but it seems like it's a pretty big deal in the movie industry as well, serving to both exhibit the world premier of movies that (I assume) weren't accepted into the more famous festivals and as another stop on the festival circuit, with producers continuing to shop their films around for distribution.
The operation of the festival is a bit curious, at least to me (maybe all festivals work this way). Each morning at 8 am, the box offices (located at Hotel Thermal and Grandhotel Pupp) open and you can purchase tickets for showings taking place the next day. If you have a properly configured mobile phone, you can also text your ticket order for the next day's screenings starting at 7 am, which seems to give Czechs and other Europeans an hour's advantage in booking the most in-demand tickets since most (all?) American phones won't have this functionality.
The most popular option seemed to be festival passes, which is what we bought. Passes include 3 tickets per day, and also allow you to stand by for seats 5-10 minutes before screenings begin.
We arrived Monday, and by the time we worked our way to the Hotel Thermal in the evening to buy our passes, there was only a single screening with tickets still available for Tuesday, a French heist movie directed by Romain Gavras called "Le Monde est à toi." We tried to wait in line for another movie Tuesday morning ("Putin's Witnesses"), but they ran out of seats just as we got to the front of the line. Having wasted 90 minutes on that, we didn't try last-minute seating again.
We got a full set of screenings in Wednesday:
- "Deep Rivers," a Karbadian-language family drama out of Russia;
- "When the War Comes," about the Slovak Recruits, a nationalist paramilitary organization in Slovakia;
- and Hitchcock's classic "Strangers on a Train."
Thursday morning before leaving town we also saw the 1967 Russian film "235,000,000."
So, we paid 600 Czech crowns each, about $27, for 5 movie tickets, which seems like a pretty good deal even if we didn't get the maximal film festival experience.
There is one final wrinkle: between 10 am and midnight on June 25 (four days before the start of the festival), KVIFF also released 10% of the tickets to each screening for online reservation. So if you have particular screenings you're particularly interested in and don't want to take your chances competing against everyone else at the festival, you could log in at 10 am (4 am Eastern time?) and frantically book tickets until the extremely limited supply is exhausted. This also might be worth doing for screenings the day of your arrival, since most screenings will have already sold out the day before.
If you're interested in the film festival experience but can't afford to spend a week in Cannes or Venice, then KVIFF is a very affordable chance to see movies that haven't been released theatrically (and may never be released theatrically at all!). Karlovy Vary itself is tucked into a beautiful landscape and offers lots of options to hike and, of course, take the waters that are the original reason for the town's existence.