Bohemia, Kafka and Architectural Magic
Sitting in the centre of Europe, the Czech Republic has one foot in Western Europe, and one in the Slavic East. “Prague never lets you go”, said Franz Kafka, “this dear little mother has claws”. Prague gets her golden claws into tourists too, and few ever make it outside the capital. But those who tear themselves away would not be sorry; the honey-colored spa towns in the Sudeten Mountains, Bohemia’s Renaissance breweries and hilltop ruins, and the tumbling vineyards and underground bars of Moravia are well worth exploring.
City of Prague: Historical, whimsical, hedonistic and cynical
Prague bewilders its visitors and charms them. Since the Iron Curtain fell in 1989, tourism and investment has poured in, turning the previously ramshackle Communist capital into a buzzing Western metropolis.
The Vltava River divides Prague in the centre. Primly sitting on the left bank of Vltava, HradÄany houses the castle and St Vitus’ Cathedral which tumbles into Malá Strana (Little Quarter), a maze of cobbles, carved door-handles and stickleback roofs.
The Noisy Quarters: HradÄany faced by the noisier commercial quarter Staré MÄ›sto over the river is a delicate web of alleys and passages running towards the old market square StaromÄ›stské námÄ›stí. On the west side is the medieval astronomical clock (PraÅ¾ský orloj), which gives a mechanical show featuring saints, deadly sins and Jesus every hour 9am–9pm. Opposite are the dour Gothic steeples of Týn Church; if you look closely one steeple is slightly bigger – they represent Adam and Eve.
Ghetto: Linking Malá Strana to Staré MÄ›sto is Prague’s most celebrated landmark, the Charles Bridge (KarlÅ¯v Most), built in 1357. Within Staré MÄ›sto is the old Jewish quarter, Josefov, which now encloses a luxury shopping district. The remains of the old Jewish ghetto, and wide Art Nouveau boulevards, the Old Jewish Cemetery are poignant reminders of the ghetto.
Nové MÄ›sto (New Town), the most central part of the modern city, spans the largest area of old Prague, with blocks stretching south and east of the old town in long strides.
Golden Lane (Zlatá uliÄka), round the corner from the basilica, is a street of toy-sized tradesmens’ cottages, as bright and compact as a watercolor box. Franz Kafka briefly lived at No. 22, his sister’s house, during World War I.
Petrín: Head south down Karmelitská and you will see PetÅ™ín hill rising above, a bucolic spot ideal for a picnic. Above the funicular railway is Eiffel Tower lookalike PetÅ™ín Tower, which you can climb or ascend by lift.
Bohemia: Unravel the history to discover the modern
Prague is circled by the region of Bohemia, which covers the western two-thirds of the Czech Republic. The modern term ‘bohemian’ via the French, who thought that Roma came from Bohemia, was later applied to people living an unconventional lifestyle. The term gained currency in the wake of Puccini’s opera La Bohème about a community of poverty-stricken artists in Paris.
Decidedly un-Czech: The freshly painted spa town, awash with fur caps and poodles in Dior handbags, feels decidedly un-Czech, largely owing to its popularity with Russia’s nouveau riche, partly because tourists outnumber locals. Peter the Great, Goethe and Beethoven all visited the town, and the old-style pleasures of spa life – hiking in the forest, bathing in hot spring water, and eating sweet nut wafers (oplatky) to chase away the taste of the water – are still the best.
Glamor: If you have been hiding a designer dog or an ostentatious pair of sunglasses in your luggage, then Karlovy Vary (Karlsbad in German) is your chance to give them both an airing in this fashionable town. Well-heeled hypochondriacs from Germany, Austria, Russia and, increasingly, Arab nations make the pilgrimage to try to enjoy courses of ‘lymphatic drainage’ and ‘hydrocolonotherapy.
Gritty suburbs: After the quaintly contrived elegance of the West Bohemian spa towns, the rugged blue-collar energy of PlzeÅˆ comes as a welcome relief. PlzeÅˆ’s gritty suburbs sprawl across the surrounding hills, but at its heart lies a spectacular old town square wrapped in a halo of tree-lined gardens. A lively student population throngs the town’s pubs while music and arts feed your soul. After a day of imbibing the city’s raffish charm, its excellent museums that cover everything from Pilsner to Patton quench your thirst.
‘Giant’s Armchair’ and ‘Sugar Cone’: The ‘rock towns’ of ÄŒeský ráj may be more well-known, but the country’s most rugged and dramatic formations are the Adršpach-Teplice Rocks. Hike into concealed natural cloisters, ringed by spectacular sandstone rocks with imaginative monikers like ‘Giant’s Armchair’ and ‘Sugar Cone’, amid a soft carpet of sand and pine needles. Come in winter, when snow can linger as late as mid-April, and you will have this crazily entertaining landscape largely to yourself.
Moravia: Provincial, Warm and Relaxed
Eastern Moravia (Morava): Poorer and more provincial than Bohemia, but warmer and more relaxed. Southeast of Moravia is bustling and industrial with wide boulevards, and travelling south you will witness ancient city bursting with youthful energy. Active travelers can explore the stunning landscapes of Moravian Karst region.
Brno: The town evolved into the handsome, red-brick city of today in the nineteenth century, when it was a major textile producer and known as “rakouský Manchestr” (Austrian Manchester). Bustling Brno delivers Czech urban ambience, but without the tourists. Triangular Svobody Square sits funnel-like on the high street, Masarykova. The square hosts the Zelný trh, the old medieval Cabbage Market, still bustling with vegetable traders hawking onions and daffodils.
Oloumouc: The capital of the Great Moravian Empire in the Middle-Ages, Oloumouc (Olla-moats) crystallized into magnificent palaces and churches before trickling away to Brno carrying a wave of industrial sprawl. An old town square rivaling that in Prague for scale and beauty, combines with the youthful vivacity of a modern student town which ensures a rich supply of lively bars, cafés and clubs amid the graceful campus of the country’s second oldest university.