Wedged between Germany and Austria, the Czech Republic is one of the most comfortable and easy-to-explore countries of the former Warsaw Pact. And if you venture into towns and villages away from Prague, you'll find undiscovered historic districts, authentic cuisine, and a simple joy of life.
Třeboň, a well-preserved town south of Prague, is centered around an inviting Renaissance square. Its claim to fame is its nearby biosphere of artificial lakes that date back to the 14th century. Over the years, people have transformed what was a flooding marshland into a clever combination of lakes, oak-lined dikes, wild meadows, Baroque villages, peat bogs, and pine woods. Rather than unprofitable wet fields, the nobles wanted ponds that swarmed with fish — and today Třeboň remains the fish-raising capital of the Czech Republic.
The city is all about fish — on the main square, the bank has a statue of a man holding a big fish over its door. Another statue honors the town's 15th-century megalomaniac lake-builder Jakub Krčín (now considered a hero since his medieval lakes absorbed enough water to save Třeboň from a 2002 flood that ravaged Prague).
When you come here, you have to eat fish. So I ordered all the appetizers on the menu of a local eatery tapas-style (a good trick when trying to eat your way through another culture): "soused" (must mean "pickled") herring, fried loach, "stuffed carp sailor fashion," cod liver, pike caviar, and something my Czech friend and guide Honza translated as "fried carp sperm."
As we ate, I noticed that the writing on my beer glass said, "Bohemia Regent anno 1379." It occurred to me that I was consuming exactly what people have been eating and drinking here for over 600 years: fish from the reservoir just outside the gate and the local brew.
Třeboň is also renowned for its spa, where people come from near and far to soak in peaty water. Soaking in the black, smelly peat sludge is thought to cure aching joints and spines. Envisioning the elegance of Germany's Baden-Baden, I had to give it a whirl. Besides, I thought it would make good TV.
My attendant didn't really understand why I had an entourage (local guide/translator, producer, and cameraman). She just treated me like some deaf-mute she was assigned to bathe and massage. She pointed to my room and mimed to take off everything. But I kept my military-green swimsuit on (afraid of a prankish combination of high-definition footage, my producer's sense of humor, and YouTube).
Camera work is slow. She was anxious. The peat muck only flows at the top of the hour. I climbed into my stainless-steel tub, she pulled a plug, and I quickly disappeared under a rising sea of dark-brown peat broth (like a gurgling sawdust soup).
Then, my tub was full and all was silent. My 10 toes looked cute poking out of the hot brown muck. She kept acting like I would overdose if I stayed in too long. But we filmed our bit (one of the stupidest-looking sequences we've ever done — I looked like a naked Al Jolson).
After that humiliation, I was happy to escape to the big, busy town of Třebíč. It's another Czech gem with a wonderful main square. Just over the river is its historic Jewish district. While Prague's Jewish Quarter is packed with tourists, in Třebíč you'll have an entire Jewish town to yourself.
Třebíč's Jewish settlement was always relatively small, and only 10 Třebíč Jews survived the Holocaust. What's left, though lonely and neglected, is amazingly authentic. The houses have been essentially frozen in time more than 60 years ago. Among the 100 or so preserved buildings are two synagogues, a town hall, a rabbi's house, a poorhouse, a school, and a hospital.
In the 1970s, the ghetto was slated for destruction; the Communists wanted to replace it with an ugly high-rise housing complex. But because the land proved unable to support a huge building project, the neighborhood survived. Today, it's protected by the government as the largest preserved Jewish quarter in Europe.
One of the most moving sights is its cemetery. This evocative memorial park is covered with spreading ivy, bushes of wild strawberries, and a commotion of 4,000 gravestones (the oldest dating to 1631). If you visit, note how the tombstones follow the assimilation of the Jews, from simple markers to fancy 19th-century headstones that look exactly like those of the rich burghers in Christian cemeteries.
Parts of Europe are getting crowded, tense, seedy, polluted, industrialized, hamburgerized, and far from the everything-in-its-place, fairy-tale land so many travelers are seeking. But traveling along Czech byways, you'll enjoy traditional towns and villages, great prices, a friendly and gentle countryside dotted by nettles and wild poppies — and almost no Western tourists.