Prague and beyond in the Czech Republic

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Victor Block

Prague’s 14th century Charles Bridge spans the Vltava River and is accessible only to pedestrians. Prague is famed for its nearly 1,000 towers and steeples, and ranks sixth on TripAdvisor’s best destinations in the world.
© TTstudio/Shutterstock

Many people who travel to the Czech Republic confine their stay to its capital, Prague, and with good reason. Known as “the city of a hundred spires” — although it’s actually decorated by nearly a thousand towers and steeples — it ranks among the most magnificent capitals of Europe and tells a story that stretches back over a millennium.

The setting overwhelms visitors with its architecture, which provides a feast for the eyes, then envelopes them in an aura of living history. Just when you think you’ve seen the most majestic building possible, you turn a corner and come upon another gem that surpasses it in grandeur.

Even so, those who fail to explore the countless treasures that abound throughout the rest of the country miss a lot. A perfect itinerary combines the attractions of both the capital Praha and the countryside.

Medieval masterpieces

Prague’s entire center is a designated UNESCO heritage site. Its buildings, unlike those in many other European cities, survived World War II remarkably intact. The 13th century “Old Town” (Stare Mesto) consists of a labyrinth of winding alleys and picturesque squares, as does the not-quite-so-old “New Town” (Nove Mesto), which dates back to 1348.

Little wonder that the city was ranked sixth in the TripAdvisor 2016 list of best destinations throughout the world. Among reasons for that claim to fame are its extensive collection of museums and theaters, along with hundreds of concert halls, galleries and other arts and entertainment venues.

It’s rare to find an architectural treasure-trove as rich and varied in such a compact area. The profusion of ancient palaces, castles and cathedrals creates a rich mosaic of outstanding masterpieces. Romanesque chapels stand in the shadow of soaring Gothic cathedrals. Baroque palaces are neighbors to late 19th-century Art Nouveau buildings and examples of the early 20th-century Cubist style.

A famous landmark in the Old Town’s central square is an imposing tower that has looked out over the setting for nearly seven centuries. A crowd gathers each hour from dawn to dark to watch the 15th century astronomical clock put on its eclectic show. A small door opens and a miniature statue of Christ marches out followed by his disciples, as the skeleton of death tolls the hour on the clock’s bell.

The Lesser Town (Mala Strana), also known as the Little Quarter, is clustered around the foothills on which the Prague Castle is perched. That neighborhood was born in the 8th century as a market settlement. Its cobbled streets are lined by small shops, traditional restaurants and pubs, and restored ancient buildings.

Castles and bridges

The sprawling Prague Castle, the largest medieval castle complex in the world, dates back to 880 C.E. and overlooks the city from a steep hill. It served as the seat of power for a parade of kings and emperors, and today is the official residence of the country’s president.

The buildings and courtyards sprawl over an area of 18 acres. They include four palaces and other residences, cathedrals and churches, defensive towers and several museums.

A ditch that encircles the castle, dug centuries ago to provide added protection, is still called the Deer Moat, named for the animals that early rulers kept confined there. Adding color to the setting are six terraced gardens, including the impressive Renaissance Garden, which was laid out in 1534.

Another must-see in Prague is the graceful Charles Bridge, which well deserves its reputation as one of the most beautiful stone bridges anywhere. It has spanned the Vltava River since the 14th century, and today is one of more than 30 within the city. A line of statues that were placed along its balustrades in the 17th and early 18th centuries depicts saints who were venerated at that time.

It has been a pedestrian-only bridge since 1978. Throughout the day, the bridge is packed with throngs of people who traipse across it, pausing to check out souvenirs, jewelry and other goods for sale in stalls, to listen to the sounds of musicians playing to earn tips, and simply to enjoy the beautiful view of Prague Castle in the distance.

Charming Czech towns

After taking in the architectural riches and vibrant setting of the Czech Republic’s capital, the treasures that abound throughout the rest of the country provide a sharp, and welcome, contrast.

For starters, the varied landscape is strewn with shimmering lakes and crisscrossed by sparkling rivers. Rolling farm fields and orchards lead to forested highlands that are overlooked by mountain ranges that virtually surround the country, which is about three times the size of Maryland.

Even with its magnificent examples of Mother Nature’s handiworks, the greatest assets outside of Prague are man-made. Many of the charming towns that are scattered throughout the Czech Republic are built around an inviting central square surrounded by narrow winding streets. At the same time, each community has its unique charms.

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

Visitors to the Czech Republic seeking to explore its Jewish heritage often head for Trebic. Among many vestiges of the Jewish aspects of the country’s history, that small city stands out.

The presence of Jewish people in present-day Trebic 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 of Israel which is included on the UNESCO World Heritage List. The neighborhood encompasses 123 historic buildings, including two synagogues, a rabbi’s house, hospital and two schools.

“Taking the waters” at mineral spring spas has been a part of life for people living in this region for centuries. Close to two dozen spa towns attract visitors in search of healing for various ailments or simply a relaxing experience. Among the most famous spas are Marianske Lazne, which is surrounded by nearly 100 natural springs, and Luhacovice Spa, which has been providing healing and hedonism for nearly 350 years.

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 have their own stories to tell, adds much to a visit to that enticing nation.

If you go


The Czech Republic brews some of the best beers in the world, and in the town of Ostrava, visitors can even take a beer bath or have a beer massage. The country has the world’s highest per capita consumption of beer, about 40 gallons per person a year.
Photo Courtesy of Victor Block

Dining — and drinking — play an important role in the lifestyle and culture of people in the Czech Republic, and provide enjoyable opportunities for visitors to share in those experiences.

There are reasons why beer is known as “liquid bread.” The beverage has been brewed here for centuries, and Czech beer is recognized as among the best in the world. It’s not surprising that the country has the world’s highest per capita consumption — about 40 gallons a year per person.

In addition to famous national brands, including Pilsner, which was created in the town of Plzen in 1842, most towns have at least one brewery, and there are hundreds of local and regional brands.

When it comes to dining, I agreed with a Czech friend with whom I was sharing a restaurant meal who admitted to me, in an understatement, “Our food is not very healthy.” Local specialties include thick soups, roast pork and duck, cabbage and dumplings. He pointed to the children’s menu, which featured pork filet and fried cheese.

Residents of Prague seeking traditional favorites often head for Milynare (“At the millers”). Favorites on the lengthy menu include beef goulash ($10) and the bountiful “Miller’s plate,” which is piled high with duck, pork sausage, cabbage, dumplings and potatoes ($35). For more information log onto www.restauraceumlynare.cz.

A good place to enjoy typical fare in Ostrava is Moravska Chalupa (“Moravian cottage”). It is located on Stodolni Street — a thoroughfare lined by restaurants, bars and night clubs — which locals rightly call “the street that never sleeps.” Roast duck with cabbage ($15) and pork filet and bacon encased in an oversize potato pancake ($21) are among the very filling choices. For more information, log onto moravskachalupa.cz.

The Hotel Pyramida in Prague offers value-priced accommodations. Amenities including a pool and sauna, not to mention a convenient location within walking distance of the castle and city center. Rates begin at $57. For more information, log onto http://www.hotelpyramida.cz/en/.

For more information about visiting the Czech Republic, log onto www.czech tourism.com.