Czech Tourism held a travel trade conference and workshop last week in Ceské Budejovice, South Bohemia, bringing together travel professionals from around the world for business networking and to tour the country for an introduction to what it offers travelers.
It was a chance to get a quick overview of some of the many things that make The Czech Republic a rich experience for travelers. Here’s a quick list of some of the highlights.
The gothic architecture of the Church of Our Lady before Týn. Photo: David Cogswell.
In the Czech Republic, this is a very big word. It’s not only that a country the size of South Carolina with a population of 10 million has 12 UNESCO World Heritage sites. That’s just the frosting on the cake. The Czech Republic is a goldmine of well-preserved European history, with many layers of cultural artifacts and monuments from different eras and cultures.
This preservation is a happy accident of history. The infamous Munich Agreement in 1938 between the leaders of the Western democracies and Adolf Hitler is remembered today in shame as the failed appeasement of a tyrant. Czechoslovakia was turned over to the Reich as a gift, abandoning millions of people to a murderous dictatorship for a promise of “Peace in Our Time.”
But in the strange dialectical course of history, even the worst events bring about some positive ramifications. Because Czechoslovakia was “a protectorate” of the Reich, it was out of the line of fire when the nations of Europe were pulverizing each other. So, Czechoslovakia received little of the bombing that left so much of Europe in ruins after World War II.
As impressive as efforts to rebuild Europe were, we can never know how many of the finer points of culture and history were lost. When you go to Prague, which was left essentially intact, you can get an idea of what kinds of things might have been lost elsewhere in Europe.
For example, the Astronomical Clock on the Old Town Square of Prague embodies the ingenuity and craftsmanship of medieval watchmakers, but exercised on a monumental scale. Surviving from 1410, the clock is mounted high on the wall of the clock tower at Town Hall. Crowds of people look up from the ground at its ornate dials that track astronomical movements of the sun and planets.
Above the dials is a window where large wooden figures representing the 12 Apostles come out one at a time to look out over the crowd below. This ritual has been taking place virtually every hour on the hour for six centuries.
This is one of countless details of history that have been preserved in Prague that could been lost in bombing and which no one would have had the knowledge to rebuild. This kind of richness stares back at you from virtually every inch of Prague.
There are buildings that preserve all the great architectural styles that swept through the city over the centuries: Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, Rococo, Neoclassic, Art Nouveau, Art Deco, Cubism, Brutalism and on and on. And on a human scale, the little storefronts, homes, doors, moldings and myriad other details sweep by you on all sides as you stroll the winding cobblestone streets of the old city.
The Municipal House, featuring the design of Czech artist Alphonse Mucha, possibly the most famous purveyor of Art Nouveau. Photo: David Cogswell.
Because of the richness of its visual tapestry, Prague is an irresistible attraction for filmmakers. It has been used as a location for many movies, including: “Whiskey Cavalier,” “Amadeus,” “Kafka,” “Immortal Beloved,” “The Bourne Identity,” “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” “The Death and Life of John F. Donovan,” “Les Misérables,” “Mission: Impossible,” and “Schindler's List.”
The Czech Republic has a rich cinema history and culture, which is reflected in popular film festivals, where cinephiles gather annually to share the finer points of their common obsession. The Karlovy Vary International Film Festival will take place this year on June 30-July 8. The Prague Independent Film Festival will take place on Aug. 5-8.
3. Spas and hot springs
Karlovy Vary, aka Carlsbad, is a thermal area in Bohemia that has attracted celebrities and elites from throughout Europe for centuries because of the purported healing power of the hot mineral springs. The name Carlsbad translates as “Charles’ Spring,” named for the Bohemian King Charles IV, who is said to have stumbled onto the thermal springs around 1350.
For hundreds of years, it has been a spa town, a center for people to gather from great distances to gain the health benefits of the hot springs. It is one of the most concentrated regions of thermal activity in the world, with more than a dozen principal sources and many smaller springs.
A public hot spring in Carlsbad. Photo: David Cogswell.
The claims of healing powers of the mineral waters have attracted the rich and famous for centuries, making Karlovy Vary an elite travel destination. But there are public, free springs so that not only the rich can have access to the mineral water.
Among those who went to Carlsbad to rest and convalesce were composers Frederick Chopin and Johannes Brahms. Beethoven and Johannes Goethe famously took walks together there when the composer went to Carlsbad seeking recovery from his encroaching deafness.
The biopic of Beethoven, “Immortal Beloved” sets a principal plot point in Carlsbad, where Beethoven allegedly set up a rendezvous with his mysterious “Immortal Beloved” at the Swan Hotel. Because of torrential rains, his passage is delayed, and by the time he arrives at the appointed hotel, she has gone and they never get together again. The film shows an enraged Beethoven throwing a chair through the window. (Don’t try this at home!)
Like Prague, Karlovy Vary, is a treasure trove of architectural beauties, but in a mountain country setting.
Czech Republic is rightfully known for its castles, of which it has hundreds. Most notable is the Prague Castle, with Gothic towers that loom largely over the landscape of Prague. Dating from the 9th century, it has been the home of kings of Bohemia and emperors of the Holy Roman Empire, and now for the president of the republic. It is the largest castle complex in the world, measuring some 750,000 square feet.
The State Castle at Ceský Krumlov rivals the Prague Castle as a spectacle. It is a complex of 40 buildings clustered around five castle courtyards and a castle park of 17 acres — making it one of the largest castles of Central Europe. Because of the castle, Ceský Krumlov is the second most popular tourist destination in the Czech Republic after Prague.
The Hluboká Castle at the town of Hluboká nad Vltavou is a perfect fairy tale castle. It was originally built in the 13th century, and has been rebuilt many times since, incorporating various styles such as Renaissance and Baroque, and finally coming to its present Neo-Gothic appearance in the 19th century. The castle, with sentry towers that look like chess pieces, charges the imagination. A tour through the castle shows a level of opulent living that stretches one’s concept of wealth and luxury.
5. The real Budweiser
The city of Ceské Budejovice is the home of the original Budweiser beer, which now goes by the name Budweiser Budvar because of international trademark disputes with Anheuser Busch, the producer of the American Budweiser, which sells more beer in America than any other company.
The Czech original dates back to 1265 when Ottokar II, king of Bohemia, granted brewing rights to the city. The name Budweiser Bier meant beer from Budweis. In 1876, Adolphus Busch, an American businessman, started calling his beer Budweiser and borrowed from the Bohemian process to brew it.
Busch modified the process and added rice to the barley malt that is usually the staple of a beer recipe. Anheuser Busch is the largest purchaser of rice in the U.S. The company says the rice gives the beer a “crisper” flavor. Some may use a different adjective. Rice is also cheaper than barley malt.
Because of the trademark dispute, the Czech Budweiser has to use the brand Czech Var when it sells in North America. Try it yourself. My vote goes to Budweiser Budvar.
The view on Charles Bridge. Photo: David Cogswell.
6. Charles IV Bridge
Everyone who has been to Prague will insist that you walk on the Charles IV Bridge, and it is so. You must. Its construction was initiated in 1357 by King Charles IV, (yes, him again). At the time, it replaced a previous bridge built in the 12th century. For centuries, the Charles Bridge was the only bridge across the Moldau in Prague. The bridge made Prague an important point on East-West trade routes. Today, it is arguably the throbbing aorta of the city, a place to go to immerse yourself in the sparkling center of the energy of Prague.
7. Old Town Square
The Old Town is the cultural heart of the city and the Old Town Square itself is, like the Charles Bridge, one of the perfect centers at which to absorb the timeless cultural energy of Prague.
Looking for a book to read while you travel? Prague was the home of a number of notable writers, including Franz Kafka, who came up with one of the most unusual first lines in any novel: “When Gregor Samsa woke up one morning from unsettling dreams, he found himself changed in his bed into a monstrous vermin.”
Czech writer Karel Capek was the person who first came up with the concept and the word “robot.” That alone assigns him to immortality.
Milan Kundera wrote “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” and “The Book of Laugher and Forgetting.” He not only produced powerful portraits of real human drama, but gave us a vivid picture of life in Prague during the Communist period.
This is just a quick smattering of reasons to love the Czech Republic. There are so many more things to talk about! We’ll save the rest for some other time.