exploring prague & the czech republic
Had you thought of making one in the Czech Republic? This might not be the first place you'd think of for a long weekend motoring break but it has much to offer those in search of something a little different. Jonathan Crouch flew to Prague to experience what this vibrant country has to offer.
The Czech Republic. They call it 'the land of stories' and a long weekend is all the time you'll need to write yours. Take an easy, affordable flight from a range of UK airports to the capital Prague, enjoy the city, then get out and explore ancient Bohemia. The adventure awaits.
It's a tempting one. Prague is known as 'the city of a hundred spires', a place of architectural and spiritual richness and these days, also a cosmopolitan international capital. Get beyond its city limits though and the experience will be very different, a land of castles and culture that's still to be fully discovered by visitors after decades under communism. Take a long weekend, fly to Prague, hire a car and you can see both sides of this fascinating country.
We decided to base ourselves in the capital for our visit, a place where you can check the pulse of one of the most compelling national transformations in modern day Europe. It is, after all, only a quarter of a century since what was then Czechoslovakia emerged from the fall of the Iron Curtain with a once-jailed dissident as President, showing the rest of Eastern Europe what could lie in its future.
A place of opportunity: a place like Prague, now a compact city of 1.2million, divided by the picturesque River Vltava and linked by romantic stone bridges. Soviet agents, German militants, Habsburg colonists and Iron Age Slavic hordes have all been drawn here - not always to a warm welcome. We received one though at our chosen residence for the trip, the Palais Art Hotel, a characterful place offering excellent service and two exceptional restaurants, one of which we enjoyed to the full as the sun slipped below the horizon at the end of our first day.
Day two we'd set aside to explore the city centre - and there's much to experience. A climb up the Old Castle Steps takes you to the splendour of Prague Castle and the majestic spires of St. Vitus Cathedral. Then there's the medieval Charles Bridge with its magnificent Baroque statues and the bustling Old Town Square with its unique Astronomical Clock. The Jewish Cemetery and Jewish Museum meanwhile, celebrate the cultural diversity that once set this city apart. Its modern face can be found at Naplavka, the Vltava riverbank in Nove Mestro where world music, trendy bars and a farmers market attract eager crowds.
It's easy to be beguiled by a city like this and forget what lies beyond. Hire a car and a whole world of Czech culture awaits, with many key destinations accessible within a couple of hours drive or less. We'd suggest you stick to the castles; there are, after all, plenty to choose from.
Take Hluboka, a royal castle dating back to the 13th century set atop a buttress deep in the forests overlooking the Vltava River. Even more charismatic is Loket Castle, a 12th century Gothic structure. Once known as 'the impregnable Castle of Bohemia' because of its thick walls, it's one of the oldest and most valuable historical store castles in the Czech lands and is preserved today as a museum and a national monument.
The beauty of places like these is that they're so quickly accessible by road from the centre of Prague and the highways themselves are clear, smooth and lightly trafficked, so you can explore the countryside to the full, yet still arrive back in Prague in time to sample Czech gastronomy to the full. Maybe spicy food goulash or perhaps the local pickled sausages called 'utopenci' - literally 'drowned men'. Also worth trying is the popular Czech dish svickova na smetane - tenderloin in cream sauce with dumplings. The advantage of staying at a hotel like Le Palais Art lies in having culinary delights of this sort on your doorstep. To be honest though, wherever you end up in the city, a gastronomic adventure shouldn't be too far away.
This is, as we said at the beginning, 'a land of stories' and by the end of a long weekend based in and out of Prague, you should certainly have plenty of yours. It's a city deliciously different from other Continental capitals and the entry point to a country with much to offer the adventurous traveller. This place has always been a hub of historical and cultural influences from all over Europe, giving it a unique energy. Plan your visit well, take to the road and explore. Memorable moments await.
Facts At A Glance
Czech facts - finding out more - go to www.czechtourism.com
Questions? - email email@example.com
Info on the sights - try www.unesco-czech.cz
Where to stay? - we tried Le Palais Art Hotel Prague - www.lepalaishotel.eu