By Sophie Turton Assistant Web Editor for the online
“Prague never lets you go…this dear little mother has sharp claws” – Franz Kafka.
Prague is a delicious, debaucherous, delightful city. A city of spires and fairy tales and fancies, so there really is little wonder why few tourists venture far from its beautiful castles and cheap pivovars. What many remain unaware of, however, is that the Czech Republic itself is the treasure trove and Prague just one enchanting jewel among many.
The Czech Republic is split into two regions – Bohemia in the north and Moravia in the south. For a country so small, home to just 10.51 million people, it is surprising just how much variety is waiting to be discovered in each region.
Just a short, and very cheap, train journey from Prague city centre and you will arrive in Kutna Hora – a must-see for gothic architecture passionardos and lovers of the macabre. As with many of the Czech Republic’s towns, Kutna Hora is UNESCO protected. At its centre is the gothic, five-naved St. Barbara’s Church, which was begun in 1388 and is the main attraction in this otherwise sleepy town. It could be argued that Sedlec and its infamous bone church, which is just a few kilometers outside of Kutna Hora, is the real tourist pull to this area.
The Sedlec ossuary has made it into the top five on many creepiest destination lists. It is estimated to contain the skeletons of 40,000 to 70,000 people who died during the plague and whose bones were upcycled to create elaborate decorations. These include a chandelier made from every bone in the human body, as well as an altar made of skulls and candlesticks fashioned from femurs. Entrance costs 30 CZK (around £1).
Rarely will you experience a town as enchanting as Karlštejn. Famous for its Disney-esq fairytale castle, this small town is just 29km southwest of Prague but unlike the capital, has still maintained many of its strong Czech traditions. The castle stands atop a steep, cobbled slope that acts as the town’s high street.
Charles IV built the medieval castle between 1348 to 1357 to safeguard the crown jewels of the Holy Roman Empire and much of it remains intact today. Venture off the cobbled path and explore the many hideaways and beautiful scenery that falls to the back of the impressive structure. The last weekend in September is the best time to visit Karlštejn – every year the town hosts a young wine festival, transporting you back to medieval times to witness jousting, hog roasts, wine tasting and jesters.
The city of sloping red roofs is situated in the south Bohemian region and is home to the famous Český Krumlov castle. The castle – unusually large for the size of the town – preserves its impressive Baroque theatre, which was built in the mid 1600s. Due to its age, the theatre is only used three times a year, when a Baroque opera is performed in simulated candlelight.
This UNESCO world heritage site is steeped in Czech, as well as international, history – Hitler held one of his first Czech-based rallies in one of the courtyards here. The small traditional food halls also serve up a mean pork knuckle and pivo (beer) combo for a fraction of the price you would find in Prague.
Prague, the pride of Bohemia, is rivalled in the south by Moravia’s largest city, Brno. To Moravians, Prague is ostentatious, full of Russian money and ‘tourist trap’ restaurants boasting traditional Czech cuisine that is gimmicky and overpriced. Brno on the other hand is the real deal and although it is slightly grubbier and not as breathtaking as Prague, it is still a very lively contender.
The cityscape is dominated by the medieval Špilberk castle and fortress and the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul on Petrov hill. Brno is also well known for its nightlife and bars where beer and wine is literally cheaper than water. For fans of functionalist architecture, the Villa Tugendhat is situated in the Černá Pole neighbourhood and is considered one of the pioneering prototypes of modern European architecture.
This beautiful student town occupies the site of a Roman fort alongside the Morava River. Its location makes it spectacular – you can trace the ancient wall that encircles the city and look down on the river. But it’s the atmosphere of Olomouc that really gives this town its sparkle. It is considered to be the spiritual metropolis of Moravia and is home to a variety of creative and artistic folk.
Olomouc’s cultural calendar includes traditional music, film and dance festivals that run throughout the year. During the City Festival in June, which is held in honour of St Pauline, the patron of Olomouc, tourists can see reconstructions of famous battles, Moravian music and unique cuisines.
The final stop in this Czech adventure takes you all the way south to the Czech border with lower Austria. Mikulov is nestled at the edge of the three Nové Mlýny reservoirs, surrounded by luscious green countryside and overlooked, as is the Czech way, by the Mikulov castle.
Mikulov is the perfect summer destination, particularly if you like wine, as its many underground wine cellars and surrounding vineyards make for a much cheaper alternative to the more well-known French wine-routes. The town is also the start of a 65 kilometer long Wine Trail that winds throughout the wine region, which is particularly well known for its distinguished whites such as Pinot Blanc.