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DESTINATION CZECH REPUBLIC

Visitors have been pouring in and revelling in the accessibility of this top tourist destination since things changed with a thump in 1989. Veteran travellers, meanwhile, are often heard lamenting about not having Prague to themselves anymore. But the Czech Republic is still all things to all people. While Prague shakes with excitement, almost everything outside this crazy city is still off the beaten tourist track and unspoiled. Who could complain?

Map of Czech Republic (10K)

Slide Show


Facts at a Glance
Environment
History
Economy
Culture
Events
Facts for the Traveller
Money & Costs
When to Go
Attractions
Off the Beaten Track
Activities
Getting There & Away
Getting Around
Recommended Reading
Lonely Planet Guides
Travellers' Reports on the Czech Rep
On-line Info


Facts at a Glance

Full country name: Czech Republic
Area: 78,864 sq km
Population: 10.3 million (growth rate 0.5%)
Capital city: Prague
(pop 1.2 million )
People: Czech with minorities of Moravians, Slovaks, Poles, Germans and Romanies (also known as Gypsies)
Language: Czech
Religion: 40% Roman Catholic, 10% Protestant
Government: Parliamentary democracy
President: Vaclav Havel

Environment

Adjoining Austria, Germany, Poland and the Slovak Republic, the Czech Republic consists of Bohemia in the west and Moravia in the east. Within Moravia is a small southern part of the historical region called Silesia, the rest of which is in present-day Poland. Prague, the capital of both the Czech Republic and Bohemia, sits astride the Vltava River about 30km above its junction with the Labe River. The Czech Republic has a beautiful and diverse landscape with plenty of mountains, gentle highlands, lowlands, caves, canyons, broad fields, bogs, lakes, ponds and dams. Unfortunately, the further north you go, the worse the appalling air pollution and high-altitude acid-rain damage gets, the belated pay-back for unregulated industrialisation since the 19th century.

Despite centuries of clear-cutting for cultivation, forests still cover about one-third of the Czech Republic. Most remaining virgin forest is in uncultivatable mountain areas. Above the tree line (about 1400m) there is little but grasses, shrubs and lichens. The richest wildlife are bears, wolves, lynxes and other wildcats, marmots, otters, marten and mink. Pheasants, partridges, ducks, wild geese and other game birds are common in woods and marshes, and commonly hunted. Eagles, vultures, osprey, storks, bustards and grouse are rarer.

The damp continental climate over most of the Czech Republic is responsible for warm, showery summers; cold, snowy winters; and generally changeable conditions. July is the hottest month everywhere, January the coldest. From December through February, temperatures push below freezing even in the lowlands, and are bitter in the mountains. There is no real 'dry season', and the long, sunny hot spells of summer tend to be broken by sudden, heavy thunderstorms. Winter brings 40 to 100 days of snow on the ground (about 130 in the mountains), plus fog in the lowlands.

History

The arrival of the Slavs in the 5th and 6th centuries saw the beginning of the Czechs' chequered history. Its tribes adopted Christianity and united in the short-lived Great Moravian Empire (830-906), which came to include western Slovakia, Bohemia, Silesia, and parts of eastern Germany, south-eastern Poland and northern Hungary. Towards the end of the 9th century, the Czechs seceded to form the independent state of Bohemia.

Prague Castle was founded in the 870s by Prince Borivoj as the main seat of the Premysl dynasty, though the Premysls failed to unite the squabbling Czech tribes until 993. In 950, the German King Otto I conquered Bohemia and incorporated it into his Holy Roman Empire. In 1212, the pope granted the Premsyl prince Otakar I the right to rule as king. His son and successor Otakar II tried to claim the title of Holy Roman Emperor as well as king of the Czechs, but the imperial crown went to Rudolph Hapsburg. Strong rule under the Hapsburgs brought with it Bohemia's Golden Age. Prague grew into one of Europe's largest and most important cities, and was ornamented with fine Gothic landmarks.

The late 14th and early 15th centuries witnessed an influential Church-reform movement, the Hussite Revolution, led by the Czech Jan Zizka who was inspired by the teachings of Jan Hus. The spread of Hussitism had threatened the Catholic status quo all over Europe. In 1420 combined Hussite forces successfully defended Prague against the first of a series of anti-Hussite crusades, which had been launched by authority of the pope. Though they were up against larger and better equipped forces, the Hussites repeatedly went on the offensive and raided deep into Germany, Poland and Austria.

In 1526 the Czech kingdom again came under control of the Catholic Hapsburgs. On 23 May 1618, the Bohemian Estates, protesting against both the Hapsburgs' failure to deliver on promises of religious tolerance and the loss of their own privileges, ejected two Hapsburg councillors from an upper window of Prague Castle (they survived with minor injuries). This famous 'defenestration' sparked off the Thirty Years' War. The Czechs lost their rights and property, and almost their national identity, through forced Catholicisation and Germanisation, and their fate was sealed for the next three centuries.

In the 19th century, Bohemia and Moravia were swept by nationalistic sentiments. The Czech lands joined in the 1848 revolutions sweeping Europe, and Prague was the first city in the Austrian Empire to rise in favour of reform. The dream of an independent state began to be realised during WW I. Eventually Czechs and Slovaks agreed to form a single federal state of two equal republics. The First Republic initially experienced an industrial boom; however, slow development, the Great Depression, an influx of Czech bureaucrats and the breaking of a promise of a Slovak federal state, generated calls for Slovak autonomy.

Czechoslovakia was not left to solve its problems in peace. Most of Bohemia's three-million German speakers fell for the dream of a greater Germany, Hitler demanded (and got) the Sudetenland in the infamous Munich agreement of 1938 and the Czechs prepared for war. Although Bohemia and Moravia suffered little material damage in the war, many of the Czech intelligentsia were killed and the Germans managed to wipe out most of the Czech underground. Tens of thousands of Czech and Slovak Jews perished in concentration camps. On 5 May 1945, the population of Prague rose against the German forces as the Red Army approached from the east. The Germans, granted free passage out of the city by the victorious Czech resistance, began pulling out on 8 May. Most of Prague was thus liberated before Soviet forces arrived the following day.

Czechoslovakia was re-established as an independent state. Attempts to consolidate its cultural identity - and punish its oppressors - included large scale deportations of German and Hungarian inhabitants. In the 1946 elections, the Communists became the largest party, with 36% of the popular vote. The 1950s was an era of harsh repression and decline as the Communist economic policies nearly bankrupted the country. Many people were imprisoned, and hundreds were executed or died in labour camps, often for little more than a belief in democracy. In the 1960s, Czechoslovakia enjoyed a gradual liberalisation. A new president, the former Slovak party leader Alexander Dubcek, represented a popular desire for full democracy and an end to censorship - 'socialism with a human face'. Soviet leaders, unable to face the thought of a democratic society within the Soviet bloc, crushed the short-lived 'Prague Spring' of 1968 with an invasion of Warsaw Pact troops on the night of 20-21 August. By the end of the next day, 58 people had died. In 1969, Dubcek was replaced and exiled to the Slovak forestry department. Around 14,000 party functionaries and 500,000 members who refused to renounce their belief in 'socialism with a human face' were expelled from the Party and lost their jobs. Totalitarian rule was re-established and dissidents were routinely imprisoned.

John Lennon Wall, Prague (22K)

The Communist regime remained in control after the fall of the Berlin Wall in late 1989. But on 17 November things changed. Prague's Communist youth movement organised a demonstration in memory of nine students executed by Nazis in 1939. A peaceful crowd of 50,000 were cornered, some 500 were beaten by the police and about 100 arrested. The following days saw constant demonstrations, and leading dissidents, with Vaclav Havel at the forefront, formed an anti-Communist coalition which negotiated the government's resignation on 3 December. A 'Government of National Understanding' was formed, with the Communists as minority members. Havel was elected president of the republic on 29 December and Dubcek was elected speaker of the national assembly. The days after the 17 November demonstration have become known as the 'Velvet Revolution' because there were no casualties. (In September 1992 Dubcek was seriously injured in a car accident near Prague, dying of injuries on 7 November. Conspiracy theorists have been busy ever since.)

Voices for autonomy in Slovakia were getting stronger, and a vocal minority was demanding independence. Finally, it was decided by prime ministers of both republics and other leading politicians that splitting the country was the best solution. Many people, including President Havel, called for a referendum, but even a petition signed by a million Czechoslovaks was not enough for the federal parliament to agree on how to arrange it. In the end Havel resigned from his post, as after repeated attempts by the new parliament he was not re-elected as president. Thus, on 1 January 1993, Czechoslovakia ceased to exist for the second time this century. Prague became the capital of the new Czech Republic, and Havel was promptly elected its first president.

Thanks to stringent economic policies, booming tourism and a solid industrial base, the Czech Republic is seeing a strong recovery. Unemployment is negligible, shops are full and many cities are getting facelifts. The picture is not all rosy, however: there is an acute shortage of affordable housing, steeply rising crime, severe pollution and a deteriorating health system. But the newly founded democracy and its radical economic transformation seem to be working.

Economic Profile

GDP: US$25.3 billion
GDP per head: US$2440
Annual growth: 5%
Inflation: 9%
Major industries: Machinery, transport
Major trading partners: Germany, Austria, Slovakia

Culture

The Czechs are a plain-spoken, even-tempered people, revealing a spectrum of cultural, religious and political influences that is surprisingly broad for such a small country - German and Austrian to Polish and Hungarian, liberal to deeply traditional, global-thinking to fiercely nationalistic. The largest church is the Roman Catholic Church, though in 1991 fewer than 40% of Czechs called themselves Catholics, and even fewer attend church regularly. The next largest church is the Hussite Church and there are numerous other Protestant denominations, the largest being the Evangelical Church of Czech Brethren. Prague has the largest Jewish community in the republic, with about 6000 members; smaller enclaves are in Ostrava and Brno.

Prague, the city of 100 spires from Stare Mesto tower (19K)

Most travellers are impressed by the Czech Republic's architectural splendours, which include some of the finest Baroque, Art Nouveau and Cubist buildings in Europe, but Czechs have also excelled at less noticeable art forms, such as illuminated manuscripts, religious sculpture, and marionette & puppet theatre.

Czech music runs the gamut from classical to jazz & punk. Apprentice butcher Antonín Dvorák is generally regarded as the most popular Czech composer. He is noted for his symphony From the New World, composed in the USA while lecturing there. Czech jazz musicians were at the forefront of European jazz after WW II but this came to an end with the communist putsch. Keyboardist Jan Hamr, who escaped to the USA, became prominent in 1970s American jazz-rock under the name Jan Hammer. Since the Velvet Revolution, the jazz scene in Prague has been especially lively. The grim industrial north, particularly Teplice, is the hub of the Czech Republic's punk movement.

The most famous Czech writer is undoubtedly Franz Kafka, who, with a circle of other German-speaking Jewish writers in Prague, played a major role in the literary scene at the beginning of this century. Internationally renowned `modern' Czech novelists include Milan Kundera, Ivan Klima and Josef Skvorecky. Much less well-known is the Czech poet Jaroslav Siefert, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1984. The playwright Vaclav Havel now operates on a somewhat larger stage.

Czech cuisine is basically central European, with German, Hungarian and Polish influences. Meat is a huge feature, along with big portions of dumplings, potatoes or rice topped with a thick sauce, and a heavily cooked vegetable or sauerkraut; the standard quick meal is knedlo-zelo-vepro (dumplings, sauerkraut and roast pork). Caraway seed, bacon and lots of salt are the common flavourings. Vegetarians and cholesterol sufferers beware!

Off the record

Events

Practically every day is a saint's day in the Czech Republic, and 'special days', festivals and public holidays are widely acknowledged. On 30 April in Prague, the Czech version of Walpurgisnacht, Paleni Carodejnic (Burning of the Witches) is a pre-Christian festival for warding off evil. Politically incorrect witch burning is now replaced by all-night bonfire parties on Kampa Island and in suburban backyards. High culture follows for the remainder of the year with the Prazske jaro (Prague Spring) International Music Festival in April and May, the Prague International Book Fair also in May and the Mozart Festival in September. The Christmas-New Year season closes the year quietly for most of the Czech Republic but Prague is overcome with tourist revelry during a fast and furious holiday season.

Facts for the Traveller

Visas: Nationals of all Western European countries can visit the Czech Republic for up to 90 days, and UK and Irish Republic citizens for up to 180 days, without a visa. US and Canadian passport holders can stay for 30 days without a visa. Nationals of Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and many other countries must obtain a visa, which is good for a stay of between 90 and 30 days depending on your nationality.
Health risks: encephalitis, Lyme disease
Time: GMT/UTC plus one hour
Electricity: 220V, 50 Hz AC
Weights & measures: Metric (see conversion table)
Tourism: 17 million visitors

Money & Costs

Currency: Czech crown (Kc)
Exchange rate: US$1 = 33.1 Kc
Relative costs:

  • Budget meal: US$2-5
  • Restaurant meal: US$4-10
  • Budget bed: US$10-15
  • Mid-range hotel: US$20-40 (double)

Costs in the biggest tourist centres - Prague especially, but also the Bohemian spas, are higher than elsewhere, though things are still fairly cheap for Western visitors. The big exception is accommodation in Prague, for which tourist prices are in line with those across Western Europe. By staying at cheap hostels and campsites, sticking to self-caterring, pub grub and stand-up cafeterias, you might get away with US$15 per person per day in summer. In a private home or better hostel, with meals at cheap restaurants and using public transport, you can get by on US$20-25. To share a clean double room with bath in a mid-range hotel or pension, and enjoy good local or Western meals, plan on at least US$30-40. In Prague, figure a third to half again as much, and even more if you want to be close to the centre. On the other hand, except for Easter and Christmas-New Year, many bottom and mid-range hotels drop their prices by a third or more outside the summer season.

Travellers' cheques are easily encashed throughout the Czech Republic. Eurocheques are cashed free of charge at Komercní banks, and there are American Express and Thomas Cook offices in Prague which will change their cheques at bank rates free of charge. Upper end hotels and restaurants in major tourist centres accept some credit cards, usually American Express, Visa or MasterCard (Access) and sometimes Eurocard, Diners Club or JCB. Most travel agencies and some tourist shops in Prague accept credit cards, but most shops prefer crowns. American dollars and German marks are also commonly accepted. Don't bother exchanging money on the black market: the usual rate is barely above the bank rate and there are plenty of scammers ripping off tourists with discontinued old crown notes or worthless Polish zlotys.

A tip of 5-10% is appreciated in any tourist restaurant with table service. The usual protocol is for them to tell you the total food bill and for you, as you hand over the money, to say how much you are paying with the tip included.

When to Go

May, June and September are the prime visiting months, with April and October as chillier and sometimes cheaper alternatives. Most Czechs take their holidays in July and August when hotels and tourist sights are more than usually crowded, and hostels are chock-a-block with students, expecially in Prague and the Krkonose and Tatras mountain resort areas. Luckily, the supply of bottom end accommodation increases in large towns during this time, as student hostels are thrown open to visitors. Centres like Prague, Brno and the mountain resorts cater to visitors all year round. Elsewhere, from October or November until March or April, most castles, museums and other tourist attractions, and some associated accommodation and transport, close down.

Attractions

Prague

There is no excuse for boredom in Prague. You can pack a lot of exploring into a short visit, charging through its compact network of lanes, passages and cul-de-sacs, or spend weeks meandering along and slowly savouring its sights.

Bugling cherub, Prague Castle (9K)

Spooky sidestreet, Stare Mesto, Prague (13K)

Prague's prime attraction is its physical face. The city centre is a haphazard museum of 900 years' of architecture - Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, 19th-century revivals of all of them, and Art Nouveau - amazingly undisturbed by the 20th century. This historical core of the city - Hradcany (the Castle District) and Mala Strana (the Small Quarter) west of the river, Stare Mesto (the Old Town) and Vaclavske namesti (Wenceslas Square) to the east, and Charles Bridge in between - covers about 3 sq km and is pedestrian-friendly, so you needn't go at break-neck speed to discover its most famous attractions.

Crumbling headstones in Prague's Old Jewish Cemetery (20K)

You'll have to travel further afield to visit Nove Mesto (New Town), with its shops, cafés, museums and theatres; Vysehrad, where mythical Prague was born; and Holesovice, Smichov, Troja and Vinohrady. At least a dozen medieval chateaux and castles are only a day-trip away.

Also high on Prague's attraction list is its entertainment: music from classical through to modern jazz and rock; opera and ballet; avant-garde theatre; excellent museums; and dozens of art galleries. Prague's greatest distraction, however, is that it is now one of Europe's most popular tourist destinations, and choked with summer crowds.

Charles Bridge has been linking Prague for 700 years (22K)

You will find the most affordable accommodation in Nove Mesto and Smichov. The central district is full of places to eat, but you'll get much more for your crown in Nove Mesto than Stare Mesto.

Kutna Hora

It's hard to imagine today, but in its time this town about 65km east-south-east of Prague was Bohemia's most important after Prague. This was due to the rich veins of silver below the town itself, and the silver groschen minted here was the hard currency of central Europe at the time. Today the town is a fraction of its old self, but is still dressed up in enough magnificent architectural monuments for it to have been added to UNESCO's World Heritage List in 1996. With a pastel-hued square dotted with cafés, medieval alleys with facades from Gothic to Cubist, and a cathedral to rival St Vitus, comparisons with Prague are hard to resist. Kutna Hora is certainly as densely picturesque as Prague, and blessed with warmer people and lower prices.

The historical centre is compact enough to see on foot. Those who need their dose of 'culture' will have no trouble finding their cravings fulfilled by the fascinating sights on offer. For a truly macabre sight, there is a cemetery at Sedlec with a Gothic ossuary decorated with the bones of some 40,000 people. For some beautiful religious architecture minus bones, visit the Gothic Church of Our Lady, the St James Church, the 17th-century former Jesuit College, which has Baroque sculpture in front of it, the Cathedral of St Barbara and the Ursuline Convent, which houses an exhibition of antiques. If you are interested in the town's mining history, visit the Hradek Mining Museum and the medieval mine shafts.

Karlovy Vary

World famous for its regenerative waters, Karlovy Vary is the oldest of the Bohemian spas, and probably the second most popular tourist city in the Czech Republic, after Prague. It's also the most beautiful of the 'big three' spas in the republic and, despite the crowds, the most accessible. Though you can't just pop in for a sulphurous bath or gas-inhalation therapy, you can sample the waters till your teeth float. There are 12 hot springs containing 40 chemical elements that are used to medically treat diseases of the digestive tract and metabolic disorders, so whether you have diarrhoea or constipation, this is the place to come.

Loket Nad Ohrí near Karlovy Vary - where Goethe fell in love (21K)

In spite of its purging qualities, Karlovy Vary still manages a definite Victorian air. The elegant colonnades and boulevards complement the many peaceful walks in the surrounding parks, and the picturesque river valley winds between wooded hills. The spa offers all the facilities of a medium-sized town without the bother; after hustling around Prague, this is a nice place to relax amidst charming scenery.

Krivoklat

Krivoklat is a drowsy village beside the Rakovnicky potok, a tributary of the Berounka River. Half the pleasure of going to Krivoklat is getting there - by train up the wooded Berounka valley, dotted with bungalows and hemmed in by limestone bluffs. Krivoklat Castle was built in the late 13th century as a royal hunting lodge, and contains an exemplary late-Gothic chapel, impressive halls and the requisite prison and torture chambers. There's no hunting in Krivoklat anymore, as much of the upper Berounka basin, one of Bohemia's most pristine forests, is now the Krivoklat Protected Landscape Region and a UNESCO 'biosphere preservation' area.

If you've got the gear and an extra day or two, consider a hearty walk along the 18km trail up the Berounka valley to Skryje. Along the way you'll pass the Nezabudice Cliffs (part of a nature reserve), the village of Nezabudice and Tyrov, a 13th-century French-style castle used for a time as a prison and abandoned in the 16th century. The summer resort of Skryje has some old thatched houses. You can also walk down the other side of the valley for a closer look at Tyrov.

Moravian Karst

If it's picture-postcard views you're after, the Moravian Karst is a beautiful heavily wooded hilly area north of Brno, carved with canyons and honeycombed with some 400 caves, created by the underground Punkva River.

At Punkevni, groups of 75 people are admitted to the caves every 20 minutes. You walk 1km through the deepest caves, admiring the stalactites and stalagmites, ending up at the foot of the Macocha Abyss. There you board a small boat for a 400-metre ride down the Punkva River out of the cave. Other caves to be visited in this area include Katerinska, Balcarka and Sloupsko-Sosuvske. Traces of prehistoric humans have been found in the caves.

Moravske Slovacko Region

For more folk art than you can imagine, visit Moravske Slovacko, one of central Europe's richest surviving repositories of traditional folk culture, and one of the most delightful places to stay in the republic. The region's special flavour arises not only from a mild climate (incidentally, perfect for the production of the republic's best wine!) but also from the character and temperament of the people - friendly, easy-going and full of life.

The result is an extraordinary reservoir of colourful traditions in speech, dress, building and decorating styles, plus annual festivals all over the place, at which singing, dancing and music are the norm, and traditional food is washed down with ample supplies of local wine. The variety of colourful folk costumes is especially mindboggling, sometimes varying totally from one village to the next, and the houses in many villages are still painted in traditional white with a blue band around the bottom, many embellished with painted flowers and birds. The best time to see the costumes, and to hear the local music - some of it very impromptu - is at a local festival. Visit Blatnice, Straznice and Vlcnov for their festivals.

Wine-makers' houses in the open-air museum in Straznice (15K)

One of the features of wine-growing areas is that sampling the product becomes a bit of a ritual; here it's made more interesting by the distinctive small household wine cellars, or vinne sklipky. In places such as Petrov (3km south-west of Straznice) they are partially underground; in Vlcnov they are more like huts. At Prusanky, 8km west of Hodonin, the wine cellars constitute virtually a separate village.

Off the Beaten Track

Sumava

For large, tranquil forests, largely unpolluted and undamaged by acid rain, you can't go past the Sumava Mountains, stretching for about 125km along the border with Austria and Germany. Although only one small patch, the Boubin Virgin Forest, is regarded as completely untouched, the Sumava's pristine state still makes it a unique asset. The only wildlife left behind by past hunting are birds, though deer have been re-introduced. Wildflowers abound throughout the range.

The oldest mountains in the Czech Republic, the Sumava - actually two rounded ranges with high plains and moors between them - are ideal for walking or trekking, and although the mountainous terrain rules out cycling on most hiking trails, the many dirt roads are good for an adventurous and challenging ride. The mighty Vltava rises in the Sumava, as do five other major rivers. Two canals scar the region and there are five major lakes, so boating is not out of the question. Conditions are perfect for skiing and ski-touring.

Telc

This charming 13th-century town in South Moravia was originally founded as a settlement around a Romanesque church. During its rule by the lords of Hradec, from 1339 until the end of their line in 1604, a castle and ponds were built, and after a huge fire in 1530 most of the town's houses were rebuilt in Renaissance style. This architectural unity probably contributed to UNESCO's decision to add the little town (population 6000) to its world heritage list.

Dominating the centre of town are the Renaissance castle, the towers of St James Church and the Baroque Holy Name of Jesus Church. Among the square's charming Renaissance houses, don't miss the town's smallest house in the south-east corner, an object lesson in the use of space. Heading north out of the square is a narrow lane to the old town's Small Gate. Southwards down towards the Great Gate is the imposing Romanesque Church of the Holy Spirit from the early 13th century.

Fountain on the Zachariase z Hradce Square, Telc (18K)

Ceský Krumlov

Ceský Krumlov is one of Bohemia's most beautiful towns, with a well-preserved historical centre that was added, in 1992, to UNESCO's World Heritage List. The city's castle is the second largest in the Czech Republic, after Prague Castle, and it dominates the town from a hill overlooking a horseshoe-shaped bend of the Vltava river. The town's traffic-free historic centre is a magic area of narrow cobbled streets lined with Renaissance and Baroque facades. Half the townspeople dress in Renaissance costume to welcome the summer solstice with a procession, street theatre, mock duels and chess matches played with human pieces.

Mikulov

Picturesque but totally underrated, Mikulov and its castle sit precariously on a hill in the centre of the flat wine-growing region of Palava, a UNESCO-designated biospheric reservation. One of South Moravia's highlights, Mikulov has some very impressive monuments, but it should come as no surprise that Mikulov is most popular for its excellent white wines. It's very close to the border with Austria and is a perfect stop-off to or from Vienna.

The castle, perched over the west side of the town, has been painstakingly restored after being burned by the Germans in WW II. The museum includes local archaeology and natural history, paintings and weapons, but the best displays are on regional folk traditions and wine making. In the cellar is the largest wine barrel in central Europe. Mikulov used to have a strong Jewish community and still has a synagogue, though it was damaged during WW II and neglected during Communist rule. There's also a 15th-century Jewish Cemetery. The town's main square has many Renaissance and Baroque houses and churches to linger over, including the town hall, the graffitoed Canon's Houses and the Dietrichstein Family Vault. Hiking enthusiasts will enjoy the good walks in the surrounding hills, with ruined castles and superb views of the Mikulov area.

Have pipe, will party! (20K)

Zlata Koruna

At little Zlata Koruna (Gold Crown) above the Vltava you'll find one of the country's best preserved Gothic structures - a Cistercian Monastery, founded in 1263 by Premysl Otakar II to demonstrate his power in the region. The village's main square is actually built inside the monastery. Originally called the Saintly Crown of Thorns, in later wealthier days the monastery was renamed the Gold Crown (hence the town's name). In 1420 it was damaged by the Hussites, and later restored. The Monastery Cathedral, completed at the end of the 13th century, is clearly Gothic despite its facelift.

For literary types, the mostly Gothic frescoed walled complex also houses a Museum of South Bohemian Literature, but equally interesting is the oldest part of the monastery, the vaulted chapterhouse and the Gothic church.

Activities

The Czech Republic's rolling hills and low mountains are perfect for hearty hiking, especially in the Sumava of western and southern Bohemia and the Krkonose mountains in northern Bohemia. Climbers should head to the Sandstone Rocks of the Labe in northern Bohemia and cavers should check out the Moravian Karst area north of Brno. The prime boating river is the scenic but unfortunately polluted Sazava.

Downhill skiing is plentiful, popular and relatively cheap in the Czech Republic, though facilities are not up to Western European standards and queues are long. Hired gear is generally of poor quality, so it's best to bring your own equipment. The country's best downhill skiing can be found at Spindleruv mlyn in the Krkonose between January and early April; Sumava has the best cross-country skiing trails.

Getting There & Away

Scheduled international flights arrive only at the capital, Prague, which is connected worldwide by at least two dozen international carriers, including CSA (Ceske aerolinie), the old state-run airline. Buying tickets in the republic won't save you much money, so if you're only going to the one destination, take advantage of the lower cost of a return (round-trip) ticket bought at home. Alternatively, consider arriving by train, as it's the easiest (if not the cheapest) way to get from Western Europe to the Czech Republic. There are some 18 rail crossings into the republic. By road, visitors can enter the republic at over 30 points, and the list is growing all the time.

Getting Around

Internal flights are available within the Czech Republic, with regular connections between Prague-Ostrava and Prague-Brno. Czech Railways provides clean, efficient train service to almost every part of the country, though express buses are often faster and more convenient than the train. Buses are more expensive, but, by European standards, both are cheap. Car, motorbike and bicycle are ideal ways to see the republic, and, in Prague, feet, trams and the metro are the best ways to get around.

Recommended Reading

  • The Europe-based journalist Timothy Garton Ash's We the People: the Revolutions of 1989 features gripping I-was-there accounts of the revolutions that swept away the region's old guard in 1989.
  • William Shawcross' Dubcek & Czechoslovakia is a biography of the late leader of Prague's original Spring, with a hasty post-1989 update. Another biography is Michael Simmons' The Reluctant President: A Political Life of Vaclav Havel.
  • Several books by the dissident-turned-president, Vaclav Havel, offer an 'inside' view. Disturbing the Peace is a collection of recent historical musings. Letters to Olga is a collection of letters to his wife from prison in the 1980s. Living in Truth is a series of absorbing political essays.
  • Milan Kundera is one of the Czech Republic's best-known authors-in-exile, who wrote about life under the Communist regime. His best novel is probably Joke; two other notable works are The Unbearable Lightness of Being and The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. Other good reads are Cowards by Josef Skvorecký, The Ship Named Hope by Ivo Klima and anything by Bohumil Hrabal.
  • Jaroslav Hasek's The Good Soldier Svejk is good low-brow WW I humour about the trials of the republic's literary mascot, written in instalments from Prague's pubs.
  • Bruce Chatwin's Utz is a quiet, absorbing novella about a porcelain collector in Prague's old Jewish quarter.

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