The Czech Republic
|Here There Be Few Tourists: The gates to the Prague Castle (PhotoDisc)|
The Czechs have endured a seriously troubled history. Within the 20th century alone, they faced the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Nazi occupation, and 40 long years of Communist rule. As a result, the country has had its hands so full with establishing a national and social identitynot to mention a consistent name (Slovakia peacefully split from the Czech Republic in 1993)that tourism hasn't exactly been a first priority. But 15 years after the overthrow of Communism and the Czech Republic's inclusion into the European Union means Czech citizens are touting their countryincluding and emulating its long-popular fairytale capitalas the measure of some of Europe's more established tourist hot zones.
In many regards, Prague's assets (which endured something of a tourist binge in the 1990s) have made that job easier than in other cities long-shrouded behind the Iron Curtain. Because the entire country was effectively given to the Nazis under the infamous 1938 Munich Pact, the country wasn't firebombed during the war. Unlike Dresden, victim of arguably the biggest Allied carpet-bombing campaign, Prague remained relative unscathed from the destruction of WWII. More recently, following the remarkably peaceful 1989 Velvet Revolution, Prague enjoyed a vigorous civic cleaning job that scoured decades of soot off the old building facades to reveal a glittering cityscape of giddy architectural variety, from gothic to Romanesque, from art nouveau to Baroque. The Communist era's dreary, block-shaped tenements still exist, but now stand in stark counterpoint to the city's statue-lined bridges, soaring cathedrals, and quirky Cubist architecture. Mix this scenic opulence with inexpensive prices and some of the best beer in the world and it's no wonder tourists are flying into Prague faster than the pubs can pour 'em a Pilsner.
First, the bad news: the city's main tourist thoroughfares can resemble that of a crowded mall two nights before Christmas. The key to avoiding these swarming masses, then, is to head to Prague during the shoulder and off-season for your urban-cultural fix, before retreating into the country's expansive countryside, which will shelter you from the crowds that surge into the city during the fall and winter. Prices in Bohemia and Moravia will be less expensive than Prague (read: really cheap) and the people are much, much friendlier.
The Prague shoulder season usually falls around September or October. By then, the dropping temperatures scare off most tourists from venturing east of Germany, so you won't have to wait until after the pubs close to enjoy the iconic, pedestrian-only Karluv Most (Charles Bridge). Built in 1357 and lined with 30 statues, this structure was the city's only bridge until 1841. Today nine bridges span the Vltava, but Karluv remains a signature of the city. Foggy October nights add an ethereal quality; early November imbues the air with crispness and clarity, inviting a slow, meandering pace; and December snow offers a mournful shroud to the statue saints.
Prague's Bohemian charm outlasts the cold till early Januarythe snow is still fresh and the mulled wine hasn't yet become sickeningly sweet. During Christmastime, which can see an influx of holiday tourists, vendors set up small "villages" of shops in the center of Old Town Square selling trinkets and candy. There's even a massive Christmas tree reminiscent of the one in Times Square, though it was prematurely removed last year when it fell and struck a British vacationer on the head. Word to the wise: if you're thinking of hitting Prague around Christmas, aim to get there by December 5 and the spectacle that is the Saint Nicholas tradition. Think of it as a combination of Christmas and Halloween. Tradition dictates that on this day Saint Nicholas (Mikulá) visits children, joined by the Devil (cert) and the Angel (andel), and they collectively decide whether the kids have been good or bad, handing out chocolate or a sack of coal accordingly. Today, costumed saints, devils, and angels patrol the city, interrogating the cutely dressed children, who usually have to sing songs to "prove" that they've been good. The entire city seems suddenly transformed into one inviting playground, with kids laughing giddily and the adults warming themselves against the December chill with sips of homemade slivovice (plum brandy).
The country's aforementioned turbulent history and its sudden introduction to modern capitalism in the early- to mid '90s have resulted in a certain degree of cynical tourist exploitation, but when you escape the capital city, the near-mythic friendless of Bohemia and Moravia will offer welcome embrace. In fact, it's Czech tradition for most city dwellers to retreat each weekend to countryside cottages for hiking, cycling, canoeing, or just imbibing with families and friends. Make no mistake: outdoor activity is important to these folk, and they don't mess around. My "short day hike" outside the Moravian town of Olomouc with my friend Jana involved a trek through the Carpathian Mountains in three feet of snow and a few near-death experiences concerning ravines and log bridges. I'll never forget the perplexed look on her face when I naively asked when we would reach a trail.
The umava Range in southern Bohemia, the third highest mountain range in the Czech Republic, offers some of the best hiking in the country. In Kasperske Hory, a small mountain town on the edge of the umava National Forest, stands the zamek of Kasperk, a fortress built in the 13th century. The imposing tower sits over 1.2 miles above the town, surveying the surrounding mountains and trails. The Aparthotel Sumava 2000 (www.sumava2000.cz) and the Pension Sona offer affordable accommodations, but anything in area will be inexpensive. Another suggestion is Zelezna Ruda, less than two miles from Germany and one of the most popular hiking and ski towns of the umava. Check www.sumava-info.cz for additional info on this region, including details on hiking, biking, and cross-country ski trails.
Canoeing is another wonderful way to explore the countryside. But banish images of raging whitewater. The Ohre River, which flows about 50 miles northwest of Prague, is a placid, tranquil way to spend time with a paddle in your hand, and if you're there in October, you've got a bank-side seat for the changing foliage.
Try the three-hour paddle from Loket to Karlovy Vary, which you can do with or without a river guide. In addition to the Royal Guard Castle, Loket is filled with Romanesque architecture, meaning you should linger a bit before hopping into you canoe.
When you reach Karlovy Vary, a network of marked hiking trails weave in and around the surrounding countryside for over 62 miles (guided walks are offered but aren't really worth it). Or ease your aching muscles at the town's biggest draw: its natural hot springs. Most spas have major off-season discounts throughout late autumn and winter. The best lodging bargain in town is the Buena Vista Hostel (www.premium-hotels.com/buenavista/), but there is a price to pay for the great deal: though close to the center of town, the hill between the hostel and the main road is brutal.
If you decide to return to the river, two hours of rowing will bring you to Hubertus, where you can catch serious rafters and canoe-competition training. From here the rental company will pick up your canoe, or you can keep going to Kyselka (also bikeable from Karlovy Vary), a smaller spa town. To brave the river on your own, check out www.raft.cz or www.canoe.cz for rental equipment, or visit www.raftcentrum.cz for organized trips and tours.
But if you really just want to beat feet or push the pedals in the grand outdoors, the most picturesque hiking and cycling destinations are Cesky Krumlov, near the Austrian border, and Cesky Raj, a true Bohemian paradise famous for its natural sandstone cliffs. The historic center of Krumlovdecorated with a Gothic castle, a 16th-century Renaissance chateau, a surprisingly impressive Egon Schiele museum, and a slow, meandering riverqualified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1993 and looks a template fairytale town. You can lose yourself for days along the trails and country roads around this small burg, then either return to Prague by cycle (or bus), or continue across the border toward Vienna, Austria.
Regardless of which activity you pursueor even if you are more anxious to sample Bohemia's young wines, made in the fallthe most impressive thing about the Czech countryside is its locals. Ask a Prague Czech a question and you'll likely receive an irritated glance along with a dismissive "Nemluvim anglicky"meaning, "I don't speak English." But in the less-frequented towns, people are so much more apt to greet strangers with warmth and happiness. During my trip to Cesky Raj, we arrived at the castle just in time to find that it was closed for the next three months. To ease our disappointment we decided on dinner. I ordered food by pointing to a nearby table and gesturing, "I'll have what he's having." Soon I received a platter of raw meat and stared at it blankly. Our neighbor caught my perplexed expression, laughed, took the plate, mixed in some extra spices, and handed it back. It was the greatest meal I'd ever tasted. Turns out the guy handled maintenance at the castle and we got a guided tour the next morning.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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