A January 2006 trip
to Czech Republic by captain oddsocks
Quote: You could easily spend months, or years, exploring this fascinating and beautiful country, but if you only have a couple of weeks you shouldn’t miss...
East of Prague, by one hour, is Kutná Hora, famous for it’s unusual ‘bone-church’, but also home to the country’s most spectacular gothic cathedral and several national cultural monuments connected with the town’s rich history of silver mining.
Even further east is Moravia; one of the two historic lands that, along with Bohemia, form the Czech Republic. Though closely connected politically since the time of the Great Moravian Empire; the two are separate historic lands with distinct characteristics and customs. While Bohemia is a high plateau surrounded by mountains and historically influenced by neighboring Saxony and Bavaria, Moravia is essentially the lowland basin of the Morava River opening towards the south-east and the influences of Austria, Hungary and the Balkans.
The medieval capital of Moravia, Olomouc, is now a vibrant university city of 100,000 people on the banks of the Morava River. It has the second-largest historical preservation zone in the country and Lonely Planet calls it "the country’s most underrated city" (p270, Czech and Slovak Republics). It warrants at least a full day’s exploration of the various religious monuments, and another for the secular monuments, museums, parks and just generally soaking up the atmosphere. Olomouc is also a good base for several excellent daytrips including UNESCO-listed Kroměříž, and the Caves of the Moravian Karst.
South-west Moravia is home to beautiful historic towns and several world-heritage-listed monuments. The country’s second-largest city Brno is unremarkable apart from some excellent museums and the Villa Tugendhat. Mikulov is a picturesque town in a wine-growing region close to the Austrian border and the UNESCO-listed Lednice-Valtice area. Třebíč is also world heritage listed because of its Jewish history and St Procopius basilica. Telč is a pretty town with an extraordinarily preserved renaissance main square.
Heading west into south bohemia brings us to Česky Krumlov, the country’s most visited destination after Prague. The renaissance and late-gothic houses lining its cobbled lanes are almost encircled by a loop of the Vltava River and are watched over by the distinctively-painted round tower of the majestic chateau, the second-largest in the country. Half-way from Krumlov to Prague is the fascinating labyrinthine fortress-town of the medieval Hussite religious movement, Tabor.
That’s a basic loop around the country, to which you can add extra destinations if time permits. North-Eastern Bohemia has some excellent possibilities for hiking, particularly in the Český Raj and around the Adršpach-Teplice rocks. Eastern Moravia has the Beskydy mountains and the culturally unique region of Wallachia, famous for its wooden architecture and unique cakes and pastries. In South Moravia, Mikulov and Znojmo are beautiful towns with long histories of wine-making. Šumava national park is in South Bohemia, as are many beautiful towns including Slavonice, Jindřichův Hradec and Třeboň. Western Bohemia’s most famous attractions are liquids, specifically the spa-waters of Karlovy Vary/Karlsbad, and the world-renowned beer from Plzeň/Pilsen
This itinerary visits six of the country’s twelve UNESCO-listed sites and passes very close to several others. Slavonice and Třeboň are both under consideration for UNESCO world heritage listing, as is Velké Losiny, in Northern Moravia.
Even though the Czech Republic is now a member of the European Union, the unit of currency will remain the Czech crown until 2009 at least. The banknotes are beautifully designed and range from 50Kc to 5000. You may have trouble passing notes 1000Kc or larger on small purchases, so keep a stock of small notes if you can. In early 2006, 50Kc is about or .50Australian, and 1 Euro is worth about 30Kc. Current exchange rates are available online.
The words Český, České and Česká are common in town and place names and all mean pretty much the same thing. They are adjectives simply meaning "Czech" and the different endings just signify the gender of the word being described. You need to use the full name when buying bus or train tickets because asking for a ticket just to "Český" is like asking for a ticket to "New" in an English-speaking country (you could end up in New York, New Zealand, or even Newcastle)
Buses tend to be cheaper than trains, but there are several discounts available that mean you’re often better off financially as well as comfort-wise on the trains. The 200Kc Karta Z customer card gains it’s holder a 40% discount on all train travel and is worthwhile if you are travelling more than about 450km by train within the country. You can purchase the Karta Z at most train stations; you’ll just need to supply a passport-size photo and show some identification. Two or more people travelling together are eligible for the group discount (sleva pro skupiny) on trains, which is also 40%. Just ask for one ticket for two (or more) people and you should receive the discount automatically. Students, pensioners and people doing return trips are eligible for further discounts on domestic trains.
Train tickets can be purchased through to your end destination, no matter how many times you have to change. Bus tickets on the other hand are purchased from the driver as you board, for only as far as that bus is going. For a trip involving three buses, you will buy three separate tickets, one from each driver. A trip involving three trains, however, requires only one ticket through to your end destination.
Some trips are more suited to travelling by bus and others by train. Between Prague and Olomouc, high-speed trains cover the distance in less than 2 ½ hours, whereas the bus goes all the way down to Brno and then all the way up again, taking about four hours. If you utilise one of the train-discounts, the prices are almost identical. It’s better to arrive in Český Krumlov by bus, as the train station is a confusing 20 min+ walk from the historic centre. In Telč the bus and train stations are nearby, but bus is better as there are several direct connections to Brno and České Budějovice, but the train takes a roundabout route involving a change at Jihlava. In Kutná Hora the main train station is quite close to the ‘bone-church’ and the bus station is closer to the centre of town.
The closest destinations are in the hills to the north. The Olomouc zoo and the pilgrimage church on Svatý Kopeèek (Holy Hill) are a mere 8km from the city, and buses run every 15 minutes during the day. The historic towns of Unièov and Šternberk are just a little further, and in the thick forests of the Sovinecko state park are the Rešov waterfalls and Sovinec castle.
Helfštyn castle is about an hour east of Olomouc, and to get there, you’ll need to pass through the historic walled town of Lipník Nad Beèvou. Further to the east in the Beskydy hills are ski fields at Puštìvny and the outdoor museum of traditional architecture at Rožnov pod radhoštìm. If you’d prefer to see the traditional wooden architecture of the region in its natural setting, Štramberk is a beautiful town with many fine examples. Another interesting place is the birthplace of Sigmund Freud at Pøíbor, which is within walking distance from Štramberk.
And when was the last time you took a boat ride along an underground river? If you’re in Olomouc, you only need to travel 60km to the Punkevní caves. The fascinating town of Boskovice is nearby. A major centre of Jewish culture in pre WWII Moravia; it has one of the largest Jewish cemeteries in the country and a well preserved Jewish quarter. There are also the majestic and poignant ruins of a medieval clifftop castle and quite possibly the best little coffee shop in the entire country!
Some of the best artworks in the Czech Republic (Titian, Breughel) hang in the museum at the archbishops’ chateau in Kromìøíž, 35km south of Olomouc. The chateau and its extensive manicured gardens are UNESCO world heritage listed as outstanding examples of Baroque architecture.
Another site of world importance within a day-trip's reach of Olomouc is Slavkov U Brna, better known by its German name Austerlitz, and as the site of Napoleon’s greatest military triumph. A monument to peace marks the battlefield and the Slavkov chateau has a permanent exhibition explaining in detail the events surrounding the great battle, which is reenacted every year in early December.
Another good day trip from Olomouc is to visit the Javoøicko caves and then walk the 5km to spectacular Bouzov castle, a former stronghold of the Teutonic knights and now a popular location for the filming of fairy-tales.
Member Rating 5 out of 5 on March 16, 2006
It’s an almost unimaginably popular destination for tourists, so much so that if people are rushing through the country, the only places they will visit are Prague and Èeský Krumlov. And the centre of town exhibits many of the obvious characteristics of a tourist-town; souvenir shop after souvenir shop, only punctuated by restaurants, hotels, and guesthouses, with not a butcher, baker, or supermarket in sight. So, if you’re expecting to find an undiscovered bohemian hill town, you’re probably going to be disappointed.
That said though, Krumlov is popular for a very good reason. During the communist era, there were severe restrictions on living so close to the Austrian border/the iron curtain, with the result that the so-called architectural progress that occurred in other towns left the historic layout of Èeský Krumlov (and other near-border towns, such as Mikulov and Telc) largely intact. Its majestic chateau is the second largest in the country, is extremely well-restored and harbours, amongst other things, one of only four surviving baroque theatres in the world. The brightly painted round tower offers spectacular views across the Vltava River, town centre, and surrounding hills. The other main attraction is the town centre itself, which is a marvelous example of a late-gothic/early renaissance market settlement, and is almost completely encircled by a tight bend of the Vltava that comes within 100m of returning to touch itself and creating an island of the town.
The river also affords excellent opportunities for swimming, canoeing and fishing, but these activities are far more popular with Czech, rather than foreign, tourists.
The infrastructure for visitors to the Èeský Krumlov is excellent with possibly the country’s best tourist information office, dozens and dozens of restaurants, and accommodation ranging from the legendary Krumlov House backpackers’ hostel to the finest of hotels for the most demanding of guests, (including Czech and foreign heads-of-state). There is an abundance of museums dedicated to everything from puppets and torture to the artworks of Egon Schiele (a one-time resident of Èeský Krumlov) and his contemporaries, and different agencies organise everything from walking tours and bicycle trips, to rafting adventures and horseback riding.
Looking beyond the tourist industry, Èeský Krumlov has somewhat the atmosphere of an artists’ colony, with students from the schools of art and sculpture mingling with the freelance artists attracted by the town’s famous beauty. There’s also a rich program of music and cultural festivals that much larger cities would be proud of and worthwhile daytrips from Èeský Krumlov include Holašovice, a UNESCO-listed village preserve and Zlatá Koruna, with its riverside setting and impressive monastery.
A large percentage of visitors to Kutná Hora stay only a day, and return to Prague in the evening. It’s difficult to see everything in such a short time, and staying overnight is rewarding. There’s a good range of accommodation at prices considerably below what you would pay in the capital.
The Chapel of All Saints in Sedlec is unique and probably the most well-known of Kutná Hora’s curiosities. Originally the chapel of a monastery, it became a sought after burial site when a handful of earth from the holy-land was sprinkled over the cemetery. As the number of burials outgrew the space available, the older bones began to be removed and stored in the chapel. Popular legend has it that a monk went mad and made sculptures from the bones, but the present appearance is the work of a woodcarver named František Rint who was commissioned in 1870 to decorate the chapel with the bones and create a reminder of the impermanence of human life and the inescapable fact of death.
The most spectacular gothic cathedral in the entire Czech Republic is UNESCO world heritage listed St Barbora’s, built on the highest point in Kutná Hora in 1380, and dedicated to the patron saint of miners. The intricate flying buttresses, unique sailing spires and majestic cliff-top setting combine to make a visit to the cathedral an awe-inspiring experience.
Hradek (the small castle) is the place for a tour into the former silver mines. The 30m descent into the cold, dark underbelly of Kutná Hora is not suitable for anyone with a fear of enclosed spaces, or a cardiac, nervous, or respiratory complaint, but for everyone else is a highlight of a visit to the town. Also accessible is the former mint; the Italian court/Vlašský Dvùr. Minting techniques are demonstrated and minters’ tools and equipment and various coins, including the Prague Groschen, are displayed. Across the courtyard in the royal palace are monumental wall frescoes, depicting two of the most important events in the nation’s history; the election of Vladislav Jagellonský as king and the agreement between King Vaclav/Wenceslas IV and Jan Hus allowing ethnic Czechs equal access to the predominantly German Prague University. Still in the same building, the 1386 chapel of St. Wenceslas is one of the finest surviving examples of Czech gothic architecture.
There’re several further attractions including an excellent museum of alchemy, and plenty of good places to eat and drink, including the teahouse and The Contented Snail.
Kutná Hora is worth at least a full 24 hours of anyone’s visit to the country.
The oldest monastery in Moravia was established beside the Morava River in 1078. Today the building is a national cultural monument and has functioned as a military hospital since the monastic order was forced to disband in the 1780’s. The tallest cathedral in Moravia dominates the skyline of the city and can be seen across the plains for miles. The largest pipe organ in Central Europe is the focus for several annual music festivals, as well as doing duty for regular mass during the week. Two of the city’s three archbishop’s palaces survive to the present day. The older palace is remarkable for its preserved 12th century stonework, and the newer still functions as the seat of the Moravian archbishopric. There are a further dozen churches and chapels within the historic centre, the most notable of which are St Michael’s, with it’s notorious depiction of a pregnant Virgin Mary and subterranean fresh-water spring, and the Jan Sarkander chapel, built on the site of the medieval prison and torture chamber.
The secular architecture of Olomouc is also remarkable. The imposing 14th century town hall, unique astronomical clock, and UNESCO world-heritage-listed Holy Trinity Column are complemented by the human scale of the many fountains scattered across the historic centre.
A colossal system of walls and moats was built to protect the city in the face of 18th-century military conflict between Austria and Prussia. Almost 2km of the wall survives, the remainder having been demolished when modern weapons made it obsolete. A ring of grand parks and gardens follows the path of the fortifications, and neatly separates the historic preservation zone from the newer suburbs. The suburban barracks occupied by Russian soldiers during the communist era are now empty and decrepit, but the Czech army still has a sizeable administrative presence in the city.
Moravia’s oldest university (second in the Czech lands only to Prague) was established in Olomouc in 1573. It continues its fine tradition of educating doctors, philosophers, linguists, musicians and artists, and ranks among the most prestigious universities in the Czech Republic. Like many university towns, there’s vibrant nightlife, and plenty of inexpensive bars and cafes. The 15000 university students are also enthusiastic participants in the city’s cultural life. The Moravian philharmonic orchestra performs regularly and there’s a performance at the theatre almost every night. There are so many festivals that you’re almost guaranteed of one being in progress, no matter what time of year your visit oc
Nerudova street is the main artery through Malá Strána (Lesser Quarter), for people walking from the bridge up to the castle, but the narrow cobblestone side streets are lined with 17th-century Baroque palaces, hidden courtyards and tiny parks, and are well worth taking the time to explore. This is the Prague you’ve seen in international films such as Mission Impossible and local films such as the academy-award-winning Kolya (the tower apartment on Maltìjské Námìstí).
Whether you take the main or side streets, you’re bound to end up at the Malá Strána square at some point. The graceful Sv Mikuláš/St. Nicolas Church occupies its centre and is a regular venue for concerts of classical music. Another notable building is the Smiøicky Palace at No.18, from where Czech noble leaders marched to the castle and threw two Hapsburg councillors and an official from a third story window, touching off the Thirty Year’s War (1618-48) that engulfed most of the continent.
Prague Castle is one of the largest in Europe and has been the seat of the Czech rulers for more than a thousand years. The castle complex is made up of several large palaces, the Basilica of St. George (burial place of the Pøemyslid royal family), the postcard-pretty artisans’ houses on Zlatá ulièka/Golden Lane and the spectacular Neo-Gothic St Vitus Cathedral. The cathedral famously took almost six centuries to complete. Begun in 1344 on the orders of King Jan Lucembursky, the cathedral was eventually finished in 1929.
Ceremonial guardsmen are stationed at the upper entrances to the castle. You can see the full glory of their 1920s style uniforms at Noon each day during the changing of the guard. The castle is closed on Mondays, so if you’re in Prague early in the week, it’s better to spend Monday sightseeing across the river in staré mìsto district, where the main monuments are all open.
The Strahov monastery is also on this side of the river. It is home to the country’s most venerated library and a centre of the Czech National revival of the 19th century, when Czech language and literature began to reemerge and flourish after centuries of enforced Germanization within the Austro-Hungarian empire.
There are a couple of excellent place to escape the crowds of other tourists in Malá Strána. Petøín gardens are a remnant of the royal orchards and at the top of their hillside is a lookout bearing an uncanny resemblance to the Eiffel tower. Making your way downhill will take you past the monument to the victims of Communism towards the river and towards Kampa Park, sometimes called Kampa Island for the canal that runs behind it and separates it from the "mainland".
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on March 16, 2006
Attraction | "Prague, the old town"
The old town square was originally a marketplace. Its dominant buildings include the old town hall, Týn church and the church of sv Mikuláš/St Nicholas. On the town hall is an astronomical clock that must be among the most recognisable monuments in Europe. Every day thousands upon thousands of photographs are taken by the hordes of tourists that gather to watch the hourly mechanical show. The double-towered facade of the Gothic Týn church peers over the square towards the baroque church of sv Mikuláš, and the art nouveau monument to reformist religious leader Jan Hus in the middle of the square.
Prague’s Jewish quarter lies between the old town square and the Vltava River. Several synagogues and a cemetery survived Nazi occupation because they were intended for Hitler’s’ "Exotic museum of an extinct race". Little else remains of the ghetto after the late19th/early20th century "sanitization" (demolition of the original buildings and the construction of five storey Art Nouveau palaces and leafy boulevards). The old-new synagogue from 1270 is one of Prague’s oldest surviving buildings and the 12000-headstone Jewish cemetery is the oldest in Europe. The Jewish quarter’s most famous son, Franz Kafka, is commemorated with monuments and plaques but lays in rest across town in the Žižkov cemetery. The monuments of the Jewish quarter are closed on Saturdays.
An enormous shopping precinct, lined with brand-name stores, hotels and casinos. Václavské námìstí/Wenceslas square is also central to most of the important events in modern Czech history. There were great gatherings on the square in the revolutionary year of 1848 and again to celebrate independence from Austria-Hungary at the end of WWI. In early 1969, shortly after the military suppression of the Prague spring, a student named Jan Palach set himself alight in protest and died of his injuries a few days later. His funeral became the focus for a nationwide demonstration and a monument to his memory lays at the museum end of the square, near the horseback statue of St Wenceslas that keeps watch along the length of the square. Václav Havel and Alexander Dubèek announced the end of the communist era to an enormous crowd here in 1989.
Karlùv most/Charles bridge was built across the Vltava river before 1400 to replace the Judith bridge, which was destroyed by floods. According to legend, Charles Bridge owes its longevity to eggs mixed into the mortar at the instruction of Europe’s greatest Gothic builder, Peter Parler. The stone bridge has a steep-roofed Gothic tower at each end and is lined on both sides by a series of 30 statues depicting the saints most important to the Czech nation. The pedestrian-only bridge is often extremely crowded and you’ll have to get up very early if you’d like to photograph it without the throngs.
Old Town Historic Center of Prague
Prague, Czech Republic 110 00
The area around the old-town end of Wenceslas square can be fairly seedy at night; you might notice lots of small groups of tough-looking men just standing around not doing anything special. Every so often someone will stroll across and chat to another group of tough-looking men. Ten years ago they would have been money-changers, with a half-dozen scams to relieve tourists of their foreign currency. The best known trick was counting out the money for an exchange transaction and then taking it back, ostensibly to double check and secretly switching it for worthless bills wrapped up in one valid one. I can only speculate what these guys might be up to now that change-money scams are a thing of the past, but they don’t seem to be lurking around just enjoying the atmosphere. If one were to be interested in finding illegal drugs, perhaps these guys would be able to assist?
The nearby narrow streets on the way to the old town square are often also frequented by groups of youngish ladies who are not warmly clothed. Stories about guys who mistook them for prostitutes offering a free sample of the trade, and then finding that their wallets had disappeared from their trouser pockets are quite common. There are lots of police on foot in the area, but if your wallet has gone, there’s not much they can do.
Prague’s taxi drivers have been notorious for overcharging for years, but in 2004-5 made the headlines, with newspaper reporters posing as foreign tourists and being routinely and repeatedly charged €40 for an €8 trip. Eventually the mayor of Prague decided to see for himself and was just as outrageously overcharged. A follow up story in the same newspaper showed photographs of the same taxi drivers still plying their trade. If you feel you have been overcharged, you should obtain a receipt to use when complaining to the authorities, but always check that the details on it match the actual details of the taxi. Most of the trouble seems to be with taxis hailed on the street or at one of the tourist-area cab ranks. AAA Taxis is a reputable firm with multilingual telephone operators.
And at the risk of stating the obvious:
Absinthe is an alcoholic drink that some visitors feel inclined to try. Its alcohol percentage is incredibly high, so if you don’t want to wake up in hospital, go slowly.
Since the rise of the "locust" airlines, Prague has become very popular with British stag parties, who can be aggressive when drunk (and obnoxious when/if sober) and are best avoided unless you are armed with a rapid-fire tranquiliser gun.
Member Rating 1 out of 5 on March 16, 2006
Attraction | "Telc"
The harmonious appearance of the main square is a result of a catastrophic fire in 1530 that destroyed much of the centre. When Lord Zachariáš of Hradec chose Telè as his seat shortly afterwards, he set about turning the stone castle into a stately chateau, and rebuilt much of the town to a uniform plan. The main square has essentially kept the same appearance to the present time and is one of the best examples of renaissance architecture north of the Alps.
The chateau at the northern end of the square hides behind a tall stone wall but is accessible as part of a guided tour, with the 80Kè/€3 tickets available in the gate tower. The tour begins in one of the graceful internal courtyards and continues through cellars, chapels, libraries, and grand ballrooms with richly sculpted wooden ceilings. The most astounding room visited by the tour is the African hall. Early 20-century owners of the chateau, the Leichtenstein-Podstatzký family were apparently avid hunters, as the hall contains dozens of wall-mounted trophy-busts. Crocodile, rhinoceros, hippopotamus, lion, leopard and buffalo hides all found their way to the hall between the years 1903 and 1914.
The townhouses that line the edges of the main square are fascinating to examine. While all of similar size and proportion, the surface decoration is unique to each building. With the thick stone pillars of the arcade completely encircling the square, active imaginations might think it suggests a gigantic stone caterpillar wearing a striped sweater and chasing its tail. Or maybe that’s just me?
Apart from the chateau, three other towers punctuate the uniformity of the main square facades. The double towers belong to the Jesuit college, and the larger single tower nearby at the same end of the square belongs to St Jacob’s church. The lookout deck of the St Jacob’s tower affords lovely views over the centre of Telè and the surrounding ponds.
The helpful tourist information office is on the main square. As well as the answers to all your questions they stock a wide range of souvenirs and maps and offer internet access. The office that rents bicycles (300Kc per day-Roštejn castle is 8km away)) and rowing boats (for use on the Štìpnický pond) is near the town gate beside the chateau.
Historic Center of Telc
Telc, Czech Republic
Until the Second World War, Tøebíè was one of Moravia’s major centres of Jewish culture. The Jewish cemetery and residential Jewish Quarter are among the best preserved in central Europe, and were added to the UNESCO world heritage list in 2003. The Jewish quarter is a warren of narrow streets, crooked lanes, and hidden passageways, and the extensive cemetery lies above it on the hillside. There are two synagogues, the larger of which is accessible to the public and houses a permanent exhibition of artifacts relating to Jewish history in Trebíc.
Also added to the world heritage list in 2003 was the Basilica of St Procopius, a beautiful blend of the late Romanesque and early Gothic styles. The carved stone portal around the north door is particularly highly regarded, but the exposed stone vaulting, crypt, and rosette windows are other highlights of the 30-minute guided tour.
Across the river from the basilica and Jewish quarter is the historic centre of Trebíc. Its main square still faithfully serves its original purpose, which was to be a market place. The fresh fruits and vegetables on sale are a good value, and teamed with some fresh bread from the bakery on the north side of the square they become perfect fare for a picnic lunch. The black and white "painted house" on one corner of the square is the tourist information office, but the panorama is dominated by the tower beside St Martin’s church. The tower is accessible to the public, and the viewing platform offers superb views across the town to the hills beyond, but the tower’s main claim to fame is that its clock faces are the largest in Europe, with a diameter of 5.5m and 60cm numerals.
Other interesting sights in Trebíc include a windmill from the year 1836, an orthodox church with a gilded "onion" dome, and the city baths on the left bank of the Jihlava below the palace.
Trebíc has a vibrant, youthful energy; with a good variety of bars, cafes, and restaurants, it makes an excellent place to spend a night or two while passing through southwestern Moravia.