Window on Czechia

Check out Czechia ~ spiral doughnuts, fairytale castles and....

...endless surprises

 

We're raising a glass to Czechia!

Read on, and you will see why this upside-down view of one of Europe's most magical cities is an appropriate way to begin a visit to this newish country.

~~~~~~~~~~~

Twenty or so years ago, Czechia had a dilemma. It was to do with the name. Until 1993, the country was bigger, and called Czechoslovakia. In the Velvet Revolution, when Slovakia detached, it lost a third of its area and population, and half its name.

So there are several correct ways to talk about this place: Czechi, Czechia, or the Czech Republic. The latter became more popular initially, but finally Czechia (pronounced CHECK-ee-ah) has won out as the official name - for a strange reason, some say. As it is shorter, this makes it easier to fit on sporting emblems!

If you would like to know much more about the name, read this....

Luckily the name of the language spoken locally remains the same. Czech is a rich hybrid of Slavic, overlaying Latin and German roots, but because of its position in central Europe, English is also widely spoken, especially by younger people.

I personally believe it is good manners in any country to memorise a word or two, just to show you are trying to be polite. Thank you is my favourite one to learn - in Czech it is: Dekuji (day-KOO-yee). Click here for some more words and phrases...

~~~~~~

 

Let's begin our Czech-up in Prague

After years of travelling, we have developed our own code of practice. It begins by sampling the local food.

Almost as soon as we leave our train from the Prague suburbs where we had found a friendly hotel, our noses led us to this cinnamony, sugary place. Called kurtosh in Hungary and trdelnik in Czechia, we later find these spiral breads in several countries throughout Central Europe.

This is not surprising, as they are truly delicious. Keep reading to see what the Czechs also do to value-add these popular snacks. HINT: it gets messy!

Children are the same the world over and we pause for some time to watch humungous bubbles being blown by a street entertainer. The joy and wonder of this small child in the Nam. Republiky (Republic Square) says it all. I have to admit, we felt much the same, having long wanted to visit this ancient city.

 And it is old! A thousand years of history has gone into creating this elegant city. With a population of around two million, it draws around 30 million tourists annually. Prague is the stylish capital of Czechia. It is too simple to label it as the 'Paris of Central Europe'.

On the edge of the square, the Municipal House stands on the site of the 15th-century Royal Court. The name may be simple but its architecture is grand. Completed in 1912, it is lavishly decorated in the flamboyant Art Nouveau style.

Billboards outside advertised concerts, theatre and other performances. Inside, in addition to a concert hall and ballroom, there are cafes and restaurants, although some rooms are only open for guided tours.

This is the beginning or the Royal Route which leads directly to Prague Castle across the Vltava River. The Powder Gate (Prasna Brana, above) was first built in the late 15th century, but was rebuilt in the 1880s in this pseudo-gothic style. As the name suggests, it has been used for over a century to store gunpowder.

WATCH THIS VIDEO AND ENJOY SOME OF THE SIGHTS AND SOUNDS........

NOW READ ON...

Getting around Prague is fairly simple, although a map or GPS is valuable. This is an old city that has evolved over centuries, and streets radiate from central squares, like spokes on a wheel. This means if you take the wrong one you can, quite quickly, be a very long way from where you want to be. Trying to cut across between spokes often means negotiating a complex web of tiny and confusing lanes.

However, it is often by doing this that you get away from the crowds (more of that later) and begin to imagine the stories these old stone buildings conceal.

While walking is perhaps the best way, Prague has an efficient subway with stations located at many of the main points of interest. There are yellow taxis, as you can see (above)...

 ...but how about touring the town with a touch of retro class in something like this vintage beauty (above)?

Yes, we became a little lost too, and popped out into a shopping street to discover something quite unusual.

As far as we could understand from the signs written in Czech, this project is to provide funds for disabled children. Pay your money, collect a wooden 'brick', and paint your best wishes on it before adding it to the stack. It seemed a lovely interactive way to have fun, splash some paint around, and creatively help others - all while leaving your artistic DNA in another country.

Determined to reach the historic centre with landmarks we had read about in our Lonely Planet guide, we increased our pace and finally made it the Old Town Square - along with a good proportion of those thirty million annual tourists, it seemed.

If Prague has a downside, it is this. When coach-loads of visitors descend on a city - any city - they stretch the resources to bursting point. While no cruise ships reach Prague, many companies offer it as an 'add-on' before or after a cruise.

We travelled here in mid-June, not the absolute peak of the season, and still we could hardly move. Or see the sights. Or take photographs without a bunch of strangers in front of the camera.

Some choose to take the high position, in a horse-drawn carriage, but others resist using animals this way, and I must say I can see their point.

Back to ground-level and those crowds in the square. We are all waiting for the famous Astronomical Clock (below) to strike the hour and for those small figures above the clock to make their brief appearance. 

There is a lot of Gothic and Baroque architecture going on in this vicinity which is also rich with statues and gardens. At Easter and Christmas, of course, this square is also the ideal venue for seasonal markets.

The clock is one of Prague's most treasured drawcards, and little wonder. Installed in 1410, it is the world's third-oldest astronomical clock and, best all, the oldest one that still keeps correct time.

Packed in with hundreds of others, and unfortunately obscuring the view for diners in the squareside cafe opposite, we held our breath as the hour approached. The clock chimed, the mechanical gentlemen shuffled out, and then the crowd melted away to the next piece of entertainment.

Mine was this (below).

Ah, yes! We did promise a taste of trdelnik a la Czechi. Here, this already kilojoule-rich diet-buster of a 'snack' is filled with swirls of soft ice cream - then drizzled with chocolate. It looks splendid, however I am here to warn you to BEWARE!

Remember how this bread is tubular? The Hungarians call it 'chimney cake', so you get the idea. On a hot afternoon in Prague, this concoction wrapped only in a paper bag, is its very own disaster zone. Seconds after this shot was taken, the melting began and soon the bag was half-full of semi-liquid ice cream. And this quickly soaked a hole in the bag. Enough said!

I guess that could be considered one of Czechia's first surprises.

If there is a downside to this wonderful historic city, it is its own popularity. Just take a look at this. This is not a football crowd. It is a cobbled street in Prague, packed with tourists on a sunny Saturday afternoon in mid-June.

To walk down this main thoroughfare to Prague's major attraction, Karlov Most (Charles Bridge) entailed charging at groups approaching six or more abreast. The shops along the way, selling artifacts and fashion and memorabilia were obscured by the throng, and to enter one which you might like to look at, was almost too much trouble.

Despite this we see evidence of a love in Prague with the romance of a long history and the millions of lives lived out within the walls.

Many have also adopted the modern habit of pledging themselves with padlocks on the bridge railing. In the background is the Royal Palace, the world's largest ancient castle, founded in the ninth century and once the seat of Bohemian monarchs and Holy Roman emperors.

Now the premises are designated for the use of the President of Czechia, although most areas are also open to tourists.

Prague is situated on the Vltava River, Czechia's longest river, which is crossed by 18 bridges within the city limits. On the left (above) is a museum of the works and belongings of a famous Czech composer.

It is not difficult to see why people flock to Charles Bridge by the thousand. If you want a quieter view of it, and the city, locals advise a dawn or late evening crossing. At ten metres wide and 620 metres long, this massive bridge is lined with statues and plaques that are worth seeing - or touching, it seems, although I didn't discover why this particular one was so popular.

PLEASE LISTEN to the podcast at the end of this page to learn some fascinating trivia about King Charles IV who had this bridge built and named for him.

After walking all day, spending some time on the river might be the best idea. It is certainly the ideal way to see the city from another angle on a one- or two-hour cruise. Or, for an even better perspective, check out the range of 'botels' moored in the river offering upmarket accommodation in comfortable cabins.

In addition to stalls selling artworks and souvenirs, there was music, and this was one of the most touching.

Here a beautiful singer 'reads' her notes from the Braille score. She had a truly lovely voice and obviously others thought so too, as her tip-bucket was filling up.

Huge arches mark the eastern and western ends of this 14th-century bridge. This is the city end, and when we reached it, we knew it was time to call it a day.

Back to the streets, then 'home' to our hotel, Chvalska Tvrz which, although located in a quieter outer suburb, was still only a shortish train ride from the city centre.

That evening at the Restaurant Sezona, in the hotel grounds, we enjoyed this goat cheese salad with pears and walnuts...

..and a big and beautiful burger with fries.

Yes, we had not spent long enough in Prague. And, yes, we would definitely come again, and stay longer, with one small change. Next time  we might come earlier or later in the year to avoid peak season.

~~~~~

 

Vyškov, south-eastern Czechia

When Gordon and I are travelling in other countries we prefer to hire a car and just drive. That way we can see places that appeal to us, even if they are off the beaten track, like this little town, Vyškov in south-eastern Czechia. Actually we needed a stopping place between Krakow in Poland and Bratislava, our final stop on our eight-week tour, and when I saw that the hotel we had turned up on booking.com also had a farm-animal zoo park, that clinched my decision.

We are not fans of wild animals or birds in cages, but domestic animals are accustomed to being in paddocks and with people, and that made it much more attractive. It is not a large zoo, although it has 140 species, and of course it appeals to families with younger children.

The surprising addition was this. I guess cavemen may well have considered dinosaurs as 'domestic' animals, but it had never crossed our minds. Yet another Czech surprise.

DinoPark is a unique theme park where you can see about 70 static and movable life-sized prehistoric saurians. These models are very intricate, their robotics controlled by a system of computers. Where else would you see dinosaurs gathered in groups to enact probable scenes from their lives more than 65 million years ago?

Better still the DinoExpres is a fun inclusion for the children, and perhaps saves parents' feet as well!

The zoo park has many signs such as this, where children can identify the animals in the yard. Horses, all sorts of cattle, goats, sheep, and other smaller animals are housed here.

It was a little surprising, then, to encounter this Madigascan lemur, but he seemed happy enough with his lodgings.

And here is one which just flew in and created its own place to stay. The stork itself had flown off on the day we visited, and I was sorry to miss it, as these large birds look quite comical balancing on such flimsy and seemingly unsuitable locations.

Always popular with young and old, the peacock obligingly strutted its stuff....

... and littlies got acquainted with the hutch honchos.

These are just a couple of one of the best selections of rabbits you could find anywhere.

Look at the name of this massive spotted bunny and you will see why it is called that.

Find out more about the zoo....

This corner of Czechia is also very agricultural, with vineyards and fields planted with crops.

~~~~

 

The star in Czechia's crown - Ceský Krumlov

In case you are wondering, this picture wasn't lifted from a child's book of fairytales, although it is so magically unreal, it could have been.

This perfect little gem of a town - Cesky Krumlov, pop. 13,000 - is pronounced CHES-kee Kroom-lof. It is located a couple of hours south of Prague, upstream on the looping Vltava river.

Settled in the 13th century, this town's epicentre is the castle which has been inhabited by various rulers for centuries. It is hard to realise that during the Communist era, and until 1993, much of this had fallen into disrepair. The past 25 years has seen massive restoration and now this storybook town hosts many international festivals and events and welcomes around 350,000 tourists annually.

While many come for the views and the atmosphere of this tiny place, with a name thought to mean 'crooked meadow', there is plenty to keep everyone happy. Museums, restaurants, cafes and shops such as this one are great places to relax and change pace from the pressures of sight-seeing. 

These chunks of golden 'rocks' are amber, emphasising how near Czechia is to the Baltic Sea. It is on those beaches of northern Europe that giant pieces of fossilised resin are washed up and collected, then crafted for sale to stylish buyers worldwide.

The tower of the castle is a prominent landmark, and seems to pop up everywhere.

Interestingly, those weathered stone walls you see throughout town, are not as solid as you may have thought. Get close enough and you will see that they are created by a mural effect that looks very realistic from a distance.

Close up it is easier to see more clearly how the effect is achieved.

Even though there are many churches and statues, most Czech people are not religious now. For those who are Christians, the majority are Roman Catholic.

Here again are those trdelniks, just to one side of this creperie restaurant below the castle walls. 

They are often sold this way, to passers-by on the street who buy them sprinkled with cinnamon sugar or ground walnuts, or some other flavouring. Here, one side offers newer versions, while the traditional offerings are on the right.

The Czech koruna exchange is about 16.4 to the Australian dollar, so I'll save you the maths, here. This ice cream is around A$1.80 for a small serving.

It seems that wherever you go in the old town, that tower is in sight.

There are plenty of strings attached to Cesky Krumlov. Puppets seem to be a specialty of the town and there is both a puppet and marionette museum.

I collect chef figurines and models, and was greatly tempted to buy this fellow in the middle. 

While in town we stayed at Pension u Achilla about a fifteen-minute walk from the centre of Cesky Krumlov. The luxurious B&B has a high view of the area and was extremely comfortable and affordable.

This whimsical place, Krumlov House, is actually a hostel with dorm accommodation and good access to the town.

Unfortunately, finally it was necessary to leave this magical place.

So, here's a little more Czech to finish with: 

'Sbohem Cesko, a dekuji' 

  'Goodbye Czechia, and thank you!'

To Czechia - with love!

~~

 PLEASE LISTEN TO the podcast of SALLY TALKING ON RADIO 2GB about CZECHIA.........

~~~

 


Words and pictures: ©Sally Hammond

Video: ©Gordon Hammond

Sally and Gordon Hammond visited Czechia independently.

 

 

 

 

 

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