The Czech Republic Beyond Prague
Few travelers venture beyond Prague to experience the Czech Republic's many cultural riches and offbeat delights. We'll get started with a whirlwind of Art Nouveau, local pub music, stinky-cheese tasting, and peat bathing in places like Olomouc, Moravský Krumlov, Třeboň, and Konopiště. We'll also tour a remarkable memorial to the Holocaust in Terezín, and the charming castle town of Český Krumlov.
Entrance to the castle is by one-hour guided tour only, and you can choose between three different routes. Route 1 is the least interesting. While Route 2 gives you the most comprehensive look into the castle, its history, and celebrated collections, Route 3 — with Franz Ferdinand's family's quarters, meticulously restored to match 1907 photographs — launches you right into a turn-of-the-20th-century time capsule. Space on Route 3 is limited to eight people per hour: It's worth the small extra charge to reserve a spot in advance by calling one day ahead or on the morning of your visit.
Terezín, an hour by bus from Prague, is an unforgettable experience. Compared to similar sights in eastern and central Europe (such as Auschwitz or Mauthausen), Terezín feels different: It focuses less on the Nazis' ruthless and calculated methods, and instead celebrates the arts and culture that thrived here despite the conditions — imbuing the place with a tragic humanity. The various museums, memorials, and points of interest are spread over a large area in two distinct parts: a drab grid of a town, and the original fortress (across the river, a short walk away). Plan on lots of walking, and give yourself plenty of time: Three hours is barely enough for a minimal visit (and requires skipping some sights); allow at least four hours to quickly see everything, and more like six to really delve in.
This collection of 20 massive canvases depicts momentous events in Slavic history. In 2011, several years after this episode was filmed, and after a decades-long legal battle, the Slav Epic was moved from to a temporary home in Prague's Veletržní Palace. However, from 2017 and likely through the end of 2018 (or possibly longer), it won't be on display in Prague as it tours the world (including a possible US stop).
Patients from all over the world come here for weeklong stays to get buried in the black, smelly sludge that's thought to cure aching joints and spines. While it's smart to book a spa treatment several months ahead (you'll receive a prompt confirmation and a reminder one month before your appointment), you may be able to snare a last-minute spot if there's a cancellation. Call the spa or, better yet, ask your hotelier to inquire, as locals can pull strings for you.
These seven diverse apartments are the plushest and best-equipped rooms I found in town — the bathroom floors are heated, all come with kitchenettes, and everything's done just right. Their website describes each stylish apartment; the "view" ones really do do come with eye-popping vistas.
The Krumlov Castle complex includes bear pits, a rare Baroque theater, groomed gardens — and the immense castle itself, a series of courtyards with shops, contemporary art galleries, and tourist services. While the Round Tower, Castle Museum, and Upper Castle grounds can be visited at your leisure, the interior of the Upper Castle is accessible only by tour. Two different routes give you a glimpse of the places where the Rožmberks, Eggenbergs, and Schwarzenbergs dined, studied, worked, prayed, entertained, and slept. Tours in Czech leave regularly, and include an adequate flier in English that contains about half the information imparted by the guide. English tours are preferable, but cost more, run less frequently, and are often booked solid (book ahead by paying a small reservation fee; stop by the ticket office in person or call +420 380-704-721). On a quick visit, the only sight I'd bother paying admission for is the theater.
The theater, part of the Krumlov Castle complex, can be visited with a 45-minute tour, where you'll sit on benches in the theater and then go under the stage to see the wood-and-rope contraptions that enabled scenes to be scooted in and out within seconds (while fireworks and smoke blinded the audience). Because of the theater's fragility, the number of visitors is strictly regulated. There are only five English tours a day, limited to 20 people per group, and generally sold out in advance. While it's a lovely little theater with an impressive 3-D effect that makes the stage look deeper than it really is, I wouldn't bother with the tour unless you can snare a spot on an English one (worth the small reservation fee; stop by the ticket office in person or call +420 380-704-721).
Cikánská Jizba ("Gypsy Pub")
This Roma tavern fills one den-like, barrel-vaulted room, where the Roma staff serves Slovak-style food (most of the Czech Republic's Roma population came from Slovakia). While this rustic little restaurant — which packs its 10 tables under a mystic-feeling Gothic vault — won't win any culinary awards, you never know what festive and musical activities will erupt, particularly on Friday nights, when the owner's son's band, Cindži Renta ("Wet Rag"), performs here.
See the Travel Details above for recommendations highlighted in bold, excerpted from Rick's guidebooks.
Hi, I'm Rick Steves, back with more of the Best of Europe. This time we're soaking up the off-beat delights of the Czech Republic. Thanks for joining us!
To get a fair look at any country, you need to venture beyond its dominant city. Here in the Czech Republic there's a world of cultural riches outside of Prague — and in this episode, that's our focus.
We'll discover stately squares with no tourists; eat stinky cheese and wash it down with Europe's best beer…
Honza: …the stinkiest cheese in the whole country.
…see the trophies of a bored yet trigger-happy prince, and learn of an evil Nazi hoax. Then we'll follow the epic story of the Czech nation on canvas, paddle through the Bohemian countryside, and delight in a fairytale town that comes complete with jaunty Gypsy music.
Buried in the heart of central Europe is the Czech Republic. Skipping Prague, the capital, we start in Olomouc in Moravia, before visiting Moravský Krumlov, Třeboň, Terezín, Konopiště, and Český Krumlov.
As Europe unites into one vast free-trade zone, it's employing its own kind of internal Marshall Plan, investing hundreds of billions of dollars into its own infrastructure. Here in the Czech Republic, they've got a new express train zipping you in less than two hours from Prague to here: Olomouc.
Its circa-1950s train station is a fascinating blend of old and new: Bright and happy workers put down their hammers and sickles long enough to greet you — a reminder of the country's recent communist past. Just a short tram ride from the station gets us to the old town center.
Olomouc, the historic capital of this region, is the Czech Republic's fifth-largest city, with 100,000 people and home to a leading university. With its wealth of cafés, clubs, and student life, Olomouc gives you vibrant local culture — without the tourist crowds and high prices of Prague.
I'm joined by my Czech friend and co-author of my Czech Republic guidebook, Honza Vihan.
Rick: So, Moravia, is that a political unit or an ethnic region?
Honza: Moravia is a region in the eastern part of the Czech Republic.
Rick: And how would you describe the Moravian people?
Honza: Well, to generalize, the Moravians are more emotional and friendlier then the people in the western part of the country.
The fortune and misfortune of Olomouc comes from its strategic location at the intersection of central Europe's main east–west and north–south trade routes. The city's historic core is simply workaday Moravia. Trams clatter through the streets — as they have for a century. The town's economy is lively even without much tourism.
Standing in front of the Town Hall surrounded by the vast square and its fine noble and bourgeois residences, you can imagine the importance of Olomouc in centuries past. The people here are proud — as if their fine city was still ruling Moravia..which it hasn't done since about 1640.
Locals brag that their city is the home to the country's second most important bishop, and its second most important university. Perennially number two Olomouc actually built its bell tower to be six feet taller than Prague's. But, when it comes to plague monuments, Olomouc is unrivaled. This baby is the tallest and most grandiose anywhere.
Throughout central Europe squares like this are decorated with similar structures, erected by locals to give thanks for surviving the plague. The tip of the column features the Holy Trinity: God the Father making a blessing, Christ sitting on a globe, and the dove representing the Holy Spirit. Tumbling below the Trinity, the archangel Michael — with his ever-ready sword and shield — reminds us that the Church is in a constant struggle with evil.
It all sits upon a tiny chapel where, on the day the column was inaugurated in 1754, the mighty Habsburg Empress Maria Theresa — who traveled all the way from Vienna — knelt to pray… devout, yet envious. Proud little Olomouc, way out here in Moravia, had a plague column grander than Vienna's.
A series of allegorical fountains decorate the old town. Most were inspired by classical mythology. This one, featuring Julius Caesar, is dedicated to the legendary founder of the town.
The modern turtle fountain is a popular meeting place for young mothers, and a fine place to watch toddlers enjoy the art.
This astronomical clock was destroyed by the Nazis in World War II. Today's version was rebuilt in 1953 by the Communists — with their kitschy flair for propaganda. In good Social Realist style, you have earnest chemists and heroic mothers rather than holy saints and Virgin Marys. In this region so rich in agriculture, these symbols of the 12 months each feature a seasonal farm activity. High noon is marked by a proletarian parade, when a mechanical conga line of milkmaids, clerks, blacksmiths, teachers, and first defenders are celebrated as the champions of everyday society.
As with any full-service astronomical clock, there's a wheel with 365 saints, so you'll always know whose special day it is. And this clock comes with a Moscow-inspired bonus — red bands splice in the special days of communist heroes: Lenin died on the 21st day of the year; Stalin's saint was Tomas — day 355.
We can't leave Olomouc without experiencing one of the city's greatest attractions: its notoriously stinky cheese.
Rick: So we know about the great Czech beer. But what's with this famous cheese from Moravia?
Honza: The Olomouc tvarůžky? Well it's the stinkiest cheese in the whole country.
Honza: If there is one thing you associate with Olomouc, it's this cheese. My mom comes from this region. When I was a kid, when she would start eating this at home, me and my dad we would just clear out of the kitchen. So the thing that makes this cheese is the way it ages. It ages under the aged meat so the meat itself has to be aged to age this cheese. Then you have to age in order to learn to like this cheese.
Rick: And what are you putting on it?
Honza: That's young onion — young, strong onion.
Rick: Why is that important?
Honza: It's good for you as a man.
Honza: It stinks but it's good.
Rick: And what is this?
Honza: This? These are really strong mints so you can go and kiss your wife when you go home.
Thirty miles south of Prague is Konopiště, the lavish residence of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Its interior dates from about 1900, when the heir of the Habsburg throne, Franz Ferdinand, moved in. Against the wishes of his uncle, Emperor Franz Josef, Franz Ferdinand married a Czech countess, Žofie. To escape family problems back in Vienna, he purchased Konopiště and moved here to raise their three children and wait his turn to be emperor.
Money was no object as Franz Ferdinand turned his castle into a palace with all the latest comforts. As one of the first castles in Europe to have an elevator, a shower with hot and cold running water, and even a new-fangled flush toilet, Konopiště shows "modern" living around the year 1900.
The archduke had lots of time on his hands as his uncle, Emperor Franz Josef, held onto power from 1848 all the way until 1916. While he waited, Franz Ferdinand amassed one of the best collections of arms and armor in the entire world. The exhibit, mostly Italian from the 16th to the 18th centuries, raises weaponry to an art form.
And for Franz Ferdinand, guns were more than showpieces. Obsessed with hunting, he traveled around the world, shooting at anything with four legs: deer, bear, tigers, elephants, and this Polish buffalo. He actually recorded over 200,000 kills in his log. Keep in mind, royal hunting was a kind of massacre game, with his aids sweeping doomed animals into the archduke's eager sights. Over 4,000 trophies decorate the walls and halls of his castle.
Franz Ferdinand did more than his share of shooting. But in 1914, he himself was shot, along with his beloved wife Žofie, in Sarajevo. His assassination sparked World War I, which ultimately ended the rule of the Habsburg family — whose crown he had waited so long to inherit.
Another site near Prague is Terezín, a town built in the 1780s with state-of-the-art walls designed to keep out German enemies. In 1941, the Nazis evicted its 7,000 inhabitants and packed in 60,000 Jews, creating the Terezín Concentration Camp. The town's historic walls, originally meant to keep Germans out, were now used by Germans to keep the Jews in. But this was a concentration camp with a devious twist.
This was the Nazis' "model Jewish town" — in reality a concentration camp dolled up for propaganda purposes. Here in what they called a "self-governing Jewish resettlement area," Jewish culture seemed to thrive, as "citizens" put on plays and concerts, published a magazine, and raised their families in ways that impressed Red Cross inspectors.
The Germans wanted the Jews to accept this new reality — harsh, but at least life would go on. Children made dolls of their friends "in transport" — as if relocating was just the start of the next stage of their lives. They drew carefree memories of life before incarceration, and they made scrapbooks about life in the camp. The museum comes with a recreated barracks furnished with actual belongings of Terezín inmates.
Sinks were installed, looking good for human-rights-abuse inspectors from the outside world...but never actually plumbed with water. Group showers became a routine part of life here. The fatal last shower many Terezin residents would later take at Auschwitz looked no different...except there were no windows.
Tolerable as this sham Jewish town seemed, virtually all of Terezín's Jews ultimately ended up dying either here or at the extermination camps farther east. As you explore the camp, ponder the message of all such memorials: Forgive, but never forget.
Today, the Czech Republic — independent and enjoying an unprecedented prosperity — is dotted with plain and sleepy towns. These non-descript, work-a-day places go about life oblivious to modern tourism. But one particularly ugly town hides an artistic pearl.
Moravský Krumlov has only one real restaurant and shops shut down by 5:00. The concrete ugliness of the circa-1950s main square (rebuilt after the town was bombed out by Russians in World War II) feels a world apart from the rest of the country.
But there's one good reason to visit Moravský Krumlov: Discovering the Slavic Epic, by the Czech Republic's greatest painter, Alfons Mucha. His masterpiece is tucked away in the town's decaying castle. [The work is no longer in Moravský Krumlov; see "Travel Details" above.]
Around 1900, Mucha made a hugely successful commercial career for himself as the Art Nouveau poster artist and illustrator of ads and magazine covers.
His specialty: pretty women with flowers, portraits of rich wives, and slinky models celebrating the good life. But he grew tired of commercial art.
Mucha dedicated the second half of his career — 18 years — to painting the Slavic Epic, 20 huge canvases designed to tell the story of his nation on a grand scale.
The art fills this humble space only until a suitable home can be found in Prague. In this self-portrait young Mucha is the seer — a conduit, determined to share wisdom of a sage Slav with his fellow Czechs.
Mucha paints a brotherhood of Slavic people — Serbs, Russians, Poles, and Czechs — who share a common heritage, deep roots, a hard-fought past, and ultimate triumph. Through this series of epic events, Czechs can trace their ethnic roots:
Mucha, with his romantic nationalist vision, shows how through the ages Goths and Germanic people have brought terror and destruction to the Slavs....the Slavs whose pagan roots are woven deep into their national character. The establishment of the Orthodox Christian faith provided a common thread for Slavic peoples. To maintain their identity, they stood up to the Roman Church with courageous religious leaders boldly confronting Vatican officials. The printing of the Bible in the Czech language was a cultural milestone.
Then they endured three centuries of darkness during the time Czechs were ruled by the Catholic Austrians. Mucha's final canvas shows the ultimate triumph of the Czech people as, in the 20th century, they join the family of nations with their Czech ethnicity intact. The Slavic Epic.
A short drive takes us to another popular stop: Třeboň. Its venerable square is lined with playful arcades artfully blending both Renaissance and Baroque building styles. The town was built by 17th-century businessmen, whose wealth came from fish farming. From one of the outdoor cafés, you can watch the parade of local life in the shadow of another plague monument.
The bank sports a relief extolling the virtue of working hard and stowing your money right here. And a happy fisherman cradles the historic — and wiggly — source of this town's wealth.
Centuries ago lake-builders of Třeboň employed ingenious techniques. They transformed what was a flooding marshland into a clever and delightful combination of lakes, oak-lined dikes, and fertile meadows. Rather than unprofitable soggy fields, the nobles wanted ponds swarming with fish. Today, five centuries later, Třeboň remains the fish-raising capital of the Czech Republic.
Sixteenth-century landscape architects struck an amazing balance between civilization and nature, which today is a protected ecosystem. Nature enthusiasts visit to bird-watch, bike along dikes held together by roots of centuries-old oaks, and, of course, catch a few fish.
Třeboň's other claim to fame: its peat spa. Patients come — mostly on their doctors orders and therefore covered by the national health-care system — for weeklong stays. And gawky tourists can line up for a soak too. With clinical efficiency...
Spa attendant: Rick Steves?
…I'm suddenly part of the system — like it or not. Soaking in the black, smelly peat sludge is thought to cure aching joints and spines. We'll see about that. The treatment continues with a cursory hose-down. Its capper — a no-nonsense massage — gives a relaxing opportunity to judge the power of peat.
Moving on, we enter the region of Bohemia. This part of the Czech Republic, closest to Germany, is much appreciated for its pastoral countryside. And floating a few hours down the Vltava River, through Bohemian forests and villages, you see why. Families and gangs of friends enjoy multi-day river trips. These guys aren't letting a little rain dampen their spirits. Anyone passing through can rent a canoe and enjoy a paddle — short or long. Float companies pick you up and drop you at convenient and scenic spots of your choice. Going with the flow takes you to my favorite stop in the Czech countryside outside of Prague: Český Krumlov.
The enchanting town of Český Krumlov — buried in the hills of Bohemia, lassoed by its river, and dominated by its castle — feels lost in a time warp. Its delightful Old Town of shops and cobbled lanes, characteristic little restaurants, and easygoing canoeing options, makes it a favorite with tourists.
And there's no shortage of accommodations. Our home is the Castle View Apartments. Plush and thoughtfully equipped — my room is typical of the work locals are doing as even medieval lofts are being renovated to meet the needs of the growing number of visitors. Open beams, a handy kitchenette, and — as its name promises — a castle view, make this a fine temporary home.
With the natural moat provided by the Vltava River, it's no wonder this place has been a choice spot for ages. The 16th century was the town's Golden Age, when Český Krumlov was a cultural power hosting artists, scientists, and alchemists from all over Europe.
The town's many tourists set their sights on the mighty castle of the Rožmberk family. For three centuries — until about 1600 — the Rožmberks — Bohemia's top noble family — ran the city from this perch. Its 16th-century Renaissance paint job is fancifully restored.
Visitors wait their appointed time for a tour in the castle courtyard. The interior gives a glimpse of the ultimate in Bohemian noble living through the ages. Imagine being a guest — back in the 16th century — of this man, Count Rožmberk. You'd enjoy the scenes frescoed here which celebrate a Rožmberk family wedding. Then, riding his assembly line of fine living, you'd dine here. Come back two centuries later, and you'd dine here. And if the countess tired of your company, she'd retire to her adjacent bedroom...but only after a servant lit the candles on her Meissen porcelain chandelier.
And of course the party would go on...perhaps with a Venetian-style masquerade party in the ballroom. For a little fresh air, you'd hike down this corridor, 150 yards, to the count's formal garden. But don't forget: At 8pm, the candles would be lit...for a play in the Baroque theater.
Europe once had several hundred fine Baroque theaters like this. Using candles and oil lamps for light, and pyrotechnics for special effects, eventually most of them burned down. Today only four survive that are in beautiful shape and open to the public like this one here, at Krumlov Castle.
Baroque theater was all about melodrama — lighting, perspective, and sound effects were all melodramatic. Even the weather was thrilling — with machines to make horrifying wind...a driving rain storm...and menacing thunder. Even back then, it was all about special effects.
Tonight, the liveliest place in town is the local Gypsy bar — good food and lively music. The easiest way for a traveler to experience the traditional Gypsy (or "Roma") culture is through its music — always crowd pleasing and fiery.
Rick: How many Roma are there in Europe?
Honza: There are 12 million Romas mainly in central and eastern Europe.
Rick: 12 million!
Honza: That's more than the Czechs or Austrians.
Rick: Where did they come from?
Honza: The Romas came to Europe in the Middle Ages from India — had long been persecuted. Hitler targeted them just like the Jews. The Communists put an end to their nomadic ways and they tried to forcefully assimilate them — it was catastrophic result to the Roma culture.
Rick: So where does that leave them today?
Honza: Well, the Roma culture is falling apart — most of the people don't even speak the Roma language, and it's rare to find young Roma musicians keeping on the traditions. It's a real test for our society to learn to respect each other and live together. We have a long way to go.
And judging by the way music is bridging cultural barriers here tonight, there's reason for hope.
Thanks for joining us. I hope you've enjoyed our look at the highlights — beyond its capital — of the Czech Republic. I'm Rick Steves. Until next time...keep on travelin'.
There's a naked woman in there!
Hi, I'm Rick Steves back with more [laugh] of the best of Europe. This time we're soaking up [laugh]...