Smack in the middle of Europe is a country that’s spent its entire existence being fought over, trampled on, bargained for, or simply overlooked. We’re here to tell you why it’s actually rather wonderful
Okay, before we begin, full disclosure: your author lives in the Czech Republic, but don’t let accusations of bias fly. Having seen both the good and the bad means I feel I can make a fair judgment about a lot of what the Czech Republic has to offer, and that’s what I’m aiming to do here. Hopefully, this will inspire you to come and visit. Just don’t call it Eastern Europe.
So. Prague. Yes, go there. If you’ve never been, go as soon as you can. If you have, go back and see the bits you missed. After the fall of communism, it was the first former Eastern Bloc city to really open itself up to tourism, and the world’s jaw dropped. It’s as gorgeous now as ever it was, with views from the tops of towers or hilltop parks taking in the castle, Charles Bridge, the Old Town Square, the stately meander of the Vltava river, and much, much more.
Sure, it sags slightly under the weight of its reputation as a popular stag party destination, but there’s more than enough to distract from the occasional party of football shirt-clad Brits being noisy in Irish bars. Take a walk across Charles Bridge at dawn or dusk. Head up to Letná for a city-wide panorama. Explore the museums or get lost in the maze of side streets and alleys that seem to make up the whole of the Old Town and Malá Strana. See live music, theater, or comedy in one of the thousands of venues dotted around the city, from vast concert halls to tiny pub cellars. Every time you visit, there’ll be something more to do.
A popular trip for a couple of nights away from Prague takes you to the historic town of Český Krumlov, a medieval fairytale built on a tight bend in the Vltava river 180 km south of the capital. Were you to draw a picture-perfect town, this might well be it, all cobbled streets and timber-framed houses, backed by a clifftop castle with elegant walkways and gardens. Both Český Krumlov and Prague are excellent examples of classic Czech beauty. But there’s a lot more to the country than simply scratching these surfaces…
The Czech Republic’s second city is Brno, and what it lacks in vowels it more than makes up for in quirky charm. The capital of Moravia, the eastern part of the country, it’s a laid-back, student-filled city of around 380,000 people. Not as immediately or traditionally pretty as Prague, it unfurls itself slowly, letting you discover weird secrets and hidden views, curious tales, and odd asides. It’ll grow on you, and you’ll be happy you gave it the chance.
Ostrava, a sprawling mass of industry in the east near the border with Poland, is for people who like their cities with a side of grit and realism. A former communist powerhouse of coal mining and ironworking, it’s slowly reinventing itself as a city of modern art, sport and music, with the former Vítkovice steelworks a monument to how to reuse industrial spaces as creative venues. It’s the home of Colours of Ostrava, one of the country’s biggest music festivals, as well as holding events year-round.
Between the two lies Olomouc, worth a day of anyone’s time, with its two huge squares featuring 15th-century buildings and monuments. There’s České Budějovice in the south-west of the country, home to (the original) Budvar beer and a fine base for exploring Český Krumlov and the surrounding Šumava national park. Head to Telč or Jindřichův Hradec for magnificence in everything from Gothic to Renaissance, chateaus, gardens, lakes and ponds, Zlín for twentieth-century modernism, or Kutná Hora for a chapel made entirely out of bones. There are a thousand and one places to visit. Luckily, that’s easier than it sounds.
Travel your way
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One of the many cool things about the Czech Republic is how easy it is to get around. To be fair, it’s not a big country, but one of the things that you will notice is how relatively good the public transport is. Most cities have a network of some combination of buses, trams and trolleybuses, plus a metro in Prague. Tickets are cheap, readily available, and connections are regular and reliable.
Going wider, there are direct trains between Prague and Brno every half hour or so, and the same between Prague and Ostrava. These three cities link up nicely into a triangle with places such as Olomouc and Pardubice on the same lines. If you want to head out of the country (or fly into an airport you might not have considered) you can get from Brno to Bratislava in Slovakia in 90 minutes, and the same to Vienna. From Prague, Dresden in Germany is just over two hours away. And these are just the trains. There are regular coach services between all major cities (and many, many less major ones), all clean and reliable, and all for what amounts to pennies in the grand scheme of things.
All of this is before you’ve hit the other ways Czechs enjoy crossing the landscape, and it’s a nice landscape to cross. There’s nothing aggressively imposing, but more a heartily rolling landscape, conveniently dotted with small towns and villages; a fun challenge, but not one that’ll leave you wild-eyed and gibbering after a week in the wilderness, or emerging from the forest clutching the stump of a bloodied limb having lost the rest to a bear.
Set out on one of the thousands of miles of cycle trails that criss-cross the map. Hire a raft and spend a week drifting down one of the rivers, towing your beer in the water behind you and stopping to camp in the woods each evening. Or, if you’re feeling particularly adventurous, attempt the country’s 1,000km Cesta Českem, a trail that runs from the German border in the west to Slovakia in the east, across mountains and meadows, through tiny villages and deep, dense forests.
Beer and wine, feeling fine
All of that exercise is bound to make you thirsty. Luckily, you’ve come to the right place. The Czech Republic is famous for its beer, and rightly so. Not only is it the home of the original “pilsner” style lager that set out the blueprint that all others followed, the range and quality of its beers — from huge brands exporting worldwide to tiny, local microbreweries — is unsurpassed.
That original pilsner, Pilsner Urquell, is still made on the original site in the city of Plzeň, around an hour and 20 minutes south-west of Prague. The brewery tour is excellent, featuring an interactive history of the brewery and the trade in the Czech lands, the brewery’s team of coopers handcrafting the storage barrels, a delve into the cellars to taste the “young beer” that’s not yet fully fermented, and the chance to try the finished product as fresh as fresh can be in the inevitable tour-ending bar and restaurant.
Head to the south-east of the country into Moravia and you’re in wine country. Moravian wine, particularly the white, is a source of great pride, with the landscape around the towns of Znojmo, Mikulov and Lednice given over to vineyards. You can book a tasting in a local wine cellar, or join one of the many festivals in the towns and villages of the region that celebrate the local product with music, food, and much grape-based merriment.
A laid-back attitude
It’s these qualities that people tend to enjoy when visiting the Czech Republic: local pride that never spills over into arrogance or pretension; happiness in small things — a beer with a friend, a stroll in the park — and a laid-back attitude to life that, in a very cynical world, can come across as naivety, but which I prefer to think of as contentment.
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It’s true that Czechs tend to be slightly guarded when it comes to making friends — being invited to someone’s house is quite a big deal — but once the initial barriers are down, people are generally warm, generous and, if you’re in a city other than Prague or Brno, genuinely interested as to what on earth brought you there.
There’s no wild Mediterranean passion, certainly, but neither is there brutal anger or bitterness. It’s more a case of a knowing smile, a “what can you do?!” roll of the eyes, and the knowledge that a pint and a chat with good friends in a friendly atmosphere can put your immediate world to rights. The problems of the wider world can wait for another day.
I’m reminded of a guy I knew who was offered a promotion at work. He and his wife had just had their first child, and the promotion would mean a significant pay rise, something that would certainly have come in useful, but also meant traveling, occasionally for a couple of days here and there. He turned it down. When I asked him why, he looked at me as if it was the most obvious choice in the world. “Why do I need it? Spending time with my wife and daughter is more important. We still have enough money and time to go cycling in the country at the weekend, and I can have a couple of evenings watching hockey in the pub with my friends. Why do you need more?”
Couldn’t have said it better myself.
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