Before serving as James Bond's Casino Royale, this Victorian-era spa catered to the world's elite.
The chipped paint, cracked walls, and creaking floors give the Imperial Spa at Karlovy Vary a haunted aura, making it seem less like a spa and more like a sanitarium where guests were forced to relax until they teetered on the edge of insanity. But in its heyday, it attracted noble visitors from all over the world, and after its final closure it was the film setting for a legendary secret agent’s rebirth.
Viennese architects Ferdinand Fellner and Herman Hellmer designed and built the Imperial Spa, also known as Kaiserbad, on the site of a former brewery in Carlsbad (Karlovy Vary), Bohemia, during the rule of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The spa was built to accommodate the increasing number of elite visitors who came to Carlsbad for the spa industry that had grown up around the city’s numerous thermal springs. The cutting-edge spa and wellness facilities in the private spa cabins included hot, cold, steam, peat, and mineral baths, as well as massages and electrotherapy.
The Zander Hall, on the first floor, housed 64 electric-powered exercise machines designed by the pioneering Swedish physician Dr. Jonas Gustav Wilhelm Zander. Zander’s revolutionary machines mimicked the exertions required by physical labor. His machines, and the philosophy behind them, were an influential part of a cultural shift that came to prize exercise over bloodletting and purging as a means of staying healthy.
Today, the machines are gone but the hall is still adorned by Viennese artist Eduard Lebiedzky’s oil paintings depicting ancient Olympiads. It’s fitting that the paintings provide an atmosphere of athletic competition, as the building has its own competitive history. In 1907, 1911, 1923, or 1929, the Imperial Spa hosted international chess tournaments. And for a short period in the 1980s, the spa was turned into a casino, before an even shorter failed attempt to revive the building as a luxury hotel.
Kaiserbad’s grandiose atmosphere and eye-catching interior decorations have attracted two film crews so far. Jackie Chan used the building’s revolving door as a prop for a truly inspired slapstick fight in 2003’s Shanghai Knights. The building’s brief stint as a casino and history of high-dollar international tournaments foreshadowed a bigger film role, in 2006’s Casino Royale, where it provided the exterior shots of the titular casino.
Know Before You Go
The building was closed in 1994 and has suffered extensive internal damage and decay. It was given to the city of Karlovy Vary in 2008 and has since been declared a National Cultural Monument. Since 2010, it has been open to visitors daily from 10:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. Complete renovations are currently in progress.
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