Prague is circled by the region of Bohemia, which covers the western two-thirds of the Czech Republic. To the west of Prague is Karlovy Vary, a picturesque spa town in the woody Sudeten hills, while southeast of that is Plzeň, brimming with industrial vigour and Pilsner Urquell beer. Travelling east towards Slovakia you’ll reach Kutná Hora, with its sinister bone church. South of Prague, close to the Austrian border, is another beer-brewing giant, České Budějovice, home of Budweiser, and Český Krumlov, with its rose-coloured churches and frescoed palaces.
Top image: Ceske Budejovice © Henryk Sadura/Shutterstock
České Budějovice is a sweet kernel of medieval town inside a tough shell of industrial sprawl. It was built in 1265, and its history has been connected with beer since the beginning, when citizens brewed lager for the Holy Roman Emperor. In the seventeenth century war and fire devastated the town, but it was lavishly rebuilt by the Habsburgs. Today its elegant arcades and winding backstreets are the perfect place to enjoy a Budvar beer – which is, after all, the reason most people come here.
The compact medieval town centre forms a grid around magnificent Přemysla Otakara II Square, one of Europe’s largest marketplaces. Just off the square is Black Tower (Černá věž), which you can climb for good views.
The Budvar Brewery is 2.5km up the road to Prague, on Karolíny Světlé. You’ll need to book ahead for a one-hour English tour (wwww.budweiser.cz).
Tiny, red-roofed Český Krumlov nestles between two bends in the Vltava River like a patch of wild strawberries. In summer, tour buses unload crowds of visitors at the city gates at noon and pick them up in the afternoon, creating a five-hour stampede through the narrow streets. The only solution is to stay overnight; there’s too much to see in a day anyway. The town’s been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1992.
Just off the main square, on Široká, is the wonderful Egon Schiele Art Centrum, devoted to the eponymous Austrian painter, who moved here in 1911 and caused outrage by painting nude teenagers and putting his feet on café tables. There are also temporary exhibitions of contemporary art and design.
Krumlov Chateau rises above the Latrán quarter. You can stroll through the castle’s grounds and main courtyards day or night, but to go inside you’ll have to pay for one of the three guided tours. Climb the tower for beautiful views and explore the chateau’s geometrical gardens and two theatres, the exquisite Rococo Chateau Theatre, and the cunning Communist Revolving Theatre, which spins on a mechanical axis.
Karlovy Vary residents have a favourite joke. Russian President Medvedev says to Czech President Klaus, “If you get any closer to the USA I’ll bomb Prague”. President Klaus says, “If you bomb Prague I’ll bomb Karlovy Vary”. 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.
Walking into town with Communist eyesore Thermal Hotel on your right, you’ll pass a series of slender white colonnades built over the springs, which can be sampled for free. The grandest spa is Mill Colonnade (Mlýnská kolonáda), containing five springs. Further up Lázeňská street are Market Colonnade (Tržní kolonáda), a delicate wooden construct, and the Communist-era Hot Spring Colonnade (Vřídelní kolonáda), a spring so hot and powerful that spa guests breathe the vapours instead of drinking the water.
The Karlovy Vary Film Festival (wwww.kviff.com) comes to town every July, bringing a smattering of A-listers and a carnival atmosphere. Anyone can buy tickets or day passes to the films, which range from Hollywood blockbusters to low-budget European indies. The town gets crowded so book accommodation and travel in advance.
A short bus ride from Prague, Kutná Hora has a handful of tourist attractions and a sleepy, provincial atmosphere. Beneath the town are miles of exhausted silver and gold mines. From 1308, Bohemia’s royal mint at Kutná Hora converted its silver into coins that were used all over Central Europe, but when the mines ran dry the town dwindled. Kutná Hora’s old town is so small it can be explored in a couple of hours. Most of the main attractions sit between main square Palackého náměstí and the Cathedral of Sr Barbora, ten minutes to the southeast.
Kutná Hora's most popular attraction is the ghoulish ossuary (kostnice), which houses 40,000 human skeletons arranged in intricate patterns by local oddball František Rint, a carpenter, in 1870.
Tough, industrial Plzeň (Pilsen) was built on beer and bombs. Founded in 1292, the city swelled in the nineteenth century when the Industrial Revolution brought an ironworks and an armaments factory, and diversified to cars and trams under Communism. Most tourists come to pay their respects to Plzeň’s beloved son, Pilsner Urquell. The town’s diverse architecture and unpretentious vigour are strong secondary attractions.
The main square, náměstí Republiky is dominated by the Gothic cathedral of sv Bartoloměj, with the tallest spire in the country (103m). Opposite is the Italianate town hall, built in the Renaissance but sgraffitoed last century. Nearby Velká synagogue, the third largest in the world, was once the heart of the town’s large Jewish community, decimated by the Holocaust, and now houses exhibitions.
The star attraction in Plzeň is 12° Plzeňský Prazdroj, better known as Pilsner Urquell (Original Pilsner). Pivovarské Brewery Museum, in the original brewery, provides some history and a film on brewing.
While you are at the Brewery Museum don’t miss Plzeň’s Historical Underground, 500m of tunnels under the town. The tunnels were once part of an underground network of passages that rivalled the streets above.