Categorized | Features, Take a Trip

Prague and beyond in the Czech Republic

Český Krumlov

Photo: Telč is fairytale setting lined by the decorative facades of arcade-fronted Renaissance townhouses.

 

 

By Victor Block

More than two-thirds of Americans who visit the Czech Republic confine their stay to Prague, its majestic capital — and with good reason. “The city of a hundred spires” not only challenges the likes of Paris in its beauty, it also boasts a history that stretches back over a millennium, along with possessing one of the most vibrant cultural settings in all of Europe.

Yet during a recent visit, my wife and I learned that those who fail to explore the countless treasures that abound throughout the rest of the country miss a lot. For starters, the varied landscape is strewn with shimmering lakes and crisscrossed by sparkling rivers. Rolling farm fields and orchards lead to forested highlands overlooked by mountain ranges which virtually surround the small nation.

Old Town Astronomical Clock

Old Town Astronomical Clock

Even with these magnificent examples of Mother Nature’s handiworks, some of the Czech Republic’s greatest assets are man-made. Hilltop castles, ornate cathedrals and imperial palaces dot the landscape and decorate cities and towns. Adding to the appeal for visitors is the ease of being immersed among these varied riches in a compact country that is about the size of Maine.

We explored the major attractions of Prague (Praha) for three days, and could have spent much longer. That splendid city overwhelms visitors with its architecture, then envelopes them in an aura of living history.

The entire city center is a designated UNESCO World Heritage site and the fact that its buildings survived World War II remarkably intact, unlike many throughout Europe, adds to its appeal.   The 13th century “Old Town” (Staré Město) consists of a labyrinth of winding alleys and picturesque squares, as does the not-quite-so-old “New Town” (Nové Město), which dates back to 1348. Only a few buildings from that time survive today, including magnificent Gothic and Baroque churches.

Centuries of Royalty

Charles Bridge

Charles Bridge

The sprawling Prague Castle, one of the largest in the world, overlooks the city from a steep hill. It was the seat of power for a parade of kings and emperors and today is the official residence of the president of the Czech Republic. Another must-see is the Charles Bridge, which has spanned the Vltava River since the 14th century. A line of statues which were placed along the balustrade in the 17th and early 18th centuries depicts saints who were venerated at that time.

Despite the attractions and appeals of Prague, visitors who fail to explore the charming and diverse towns scattered throughout the Czech Republic miss a lot. Many towns have a charming central square surrounded by narrow winding streets and church steeples pointing toward the sky. Each has its own unique appeal.

With a population of about 15,000 people, Český Krumlov is a pocket-size Prague and right behind the capital city in the number of people who visit. The historic core of the town is nestled in a horseshoe bend of the same Vltava River that flows through Prague.

Český Krumlov

Český Krumlov

Like Prague, it has earned a spot on the UNESCO World Heritage List, in part because of its spectacular castle, second only to the Prague Castle complex in size. Construction of the town and castle began in the late 13th century. The imposing compound was owned by several royal families and architectural features were added over several centuries. The surrounding neighborhoods fan out in a web of narrow lanes populated by restaurants and cafés that cater to sightseers.

The central square of tiny Telč could have been lifted from the pages of a Hans Christian Andersen story. The fairytale setting is lined by the decorative facades of arcade-fronted Renaissance townhouses painted a variety of pastel hues and set off by ornate gables and intricate designs and decorations.

Visitors to the Czech Republic seeking to explore its Jewish heritage outside of Prague’s many synagogues (now mostly museums), often head for Třebíč, about 100 miles from Prague. The small city stands out among the many Jewish vestiges of the country’s history.

A World Heritage Site

Trebic-1

Třebíč

The presence of Jewish people in present-day Třebíč was first documented in 1338, but it wasn’t until the early 18th century that a ghetto was established. Today, it’s one of the best preserved ghettos in Europe and the only Jewish monument outside Israel included on the UNESCO World Heritage List. The neighborhood encompasses 123 historic buildings, including two synagogues, a rabbi’s house, hospital and two schools.  All 300 Jews living in Třebíč in the 1930s, were deported to concentration camps by the Nazis; only 10 of them returned after the war. Many of the buildings in the Jewish quarter therefore no longer serve their original purpose and are now owned by people of non-Jewish faiths.

Jihlava town square

Jihlava town square

“Taking the waters” at mineral spring spas has been an inherent part of life over centuries for people living in the present-day Czech Republic. Today, close to two dozen spa towns attract visitors in search of healing various ailments or simply a relaxing experience. Among the most famous spas are Mariánské Lázně, which is surrounded by nearly 100 natural springs, and Luhačovice Spa, which has been providing healing and pleasure for nearly 350 years.

While it’s hard to beat the excitement and enjoyment of taking in the major attractions of Prague, as well as strolling through its hidden back streets and off-the-beaten-path neighborhoods, visiting other history-rich towns throughout the Czech Republic that share similarities, yet also have their own stories to tell, adds much to a visit to that enticing nation.

For more information about visiting the Czech Republic, log onto czechtourism.com.

 

 

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