The red tile roofs of Prague fan over white and yellow buildings sprawling in no apparent pattern around the Vltava River, the result of a natural process of undisturbed development over centuries. Undeterred by city planning, it is what makes this city of spires so surprising, charming and rare. Prague is one of the most beautiful capitals in the world, largely because it has never suffered the devastation of war and reconstruction.
I was drawn to this landlocked nation in Central Europe by the promise of unspoiled medieval cities and towns preserved like no others in Europe, but I was not prepared for the stunning diversity and grace of the architecture and the lyrical natural beauty of the land. I'd also heard about the glass, porcelain, textiles and other decorative arts, but I was most intrigued by the promise of the greatest beer in the world.
Shaped somewhat like a dumpling, the Czech Republic is surrounded (clockwise) by Germany, Poland, Slovakia and Austria and has a population of only 10.3 million. It is roughly the size of Pennsylvania, and its countryside is reminiscent of the rolling green hills, mountains and forests of the Pocono region. The economy is strong with only about 3 percent unemployment.
I explored the western two-thirds of the country known as Bohemia. The region is divided into North, South, East, West and Central Bohemia. Prague, the capital, is in Central Bohemia and contains 10 percent of the nation's population, with the rest scattered about in small cities, towns and villages. Bohemia has nothing to do with the artistic life on the Left Bank of Paris or the Beat Generation. It was the name of the Celtic tribe that inhabited the land before the coming of the Slavs in the fifth century.
Driving is not an option in much of Prague. Its cobblestoned streets were designed for exploration by foot. For transportation, there's an excellent rail and bus system for about a dollar. A circular highway is currently in construction to funnel truck and auto traffic away from the inner city.
It is useful to learn a few phrases in Czech that will go a long way with locals when asking for help. Most speak some English, but they appreciate visitors' taking the time to learn such words and phrases as dobry den, hello; dekuji, thank you; prosim, please; and pivo, beer. I found pivo prosim quite handy.
The Czechs drink more beer per capita than anywhere else in the world (adults consume about 80 gallons per year), and it costs only about $1.25 a glass. The ubiquitous brewpubs are centers for social and intellectual life.
The city is also rich in ornate churches, many of which have been converted to concert halls and other performance venues, and the numerous museums, from the puppet and torture museums in the city of Cesky Krumlov to the Mucha, Mozart and National museums in Prague.
Visitors must also climb the never-ending steps leading to Prague Castle and St. Vitus Cathedral, which loom above the city; cross the heavily statued Charles Bridge that links the Old Town with the Little Quarter, explore the hundreds of years of architecture on display in the Old Town Square and wait on the hour for the Astronomical Clock to whirl its figures. Other must-sees are the Jewish Quarter and Cemetery and the whimsical dancing houses that guard the Jirasek Bridge over the river. Designed by American architect Frank Gehry, they are nicknamed Fred and Ginger after the dancing duo.
Hearty Czech cuisine includes lots of pork, dumplings, cabbage and potatoes.
While in Prague I took a cooking class at the Culinary Institute taught by one of the country's top chefs, Vaclav Fric, who helped us make a spectacular lunch that included crispy roast duck, a delicious cream chicken dill soup with poached egg, the best chewy dumplings I've ever tasted and a fruit-filled pastry for dessert.
Beer lovers will want to make a pilgrimage to the Pilsner Urquell Brewery in the town of Plzen, about 50 miles southeast of Prague. The original Budweiser Budvar beer, which began brewing in 1785 in South Bohemia, is nothing like its American cousin. Na zdravi — to your health.
Renting a car is the best way to see the countryside, but it can be expensive with gas costing between $6 and $7 a gallon. I visited the spa town of Karlovy Vary, close to the German border and about 60 miles northeast of Prague. Here it's possible to take the cure from the healing mineral waters, if one can get past the taste of iron ore, magnesium and potassium. Most people sip the scalding hot waters from little porcelain teapots, but I'd rather drink the local liqueur, Becherovka, an herbal digestive served chilled. The Becherovka Museum of Liqueur at the far end of town offers a tour and a taste.
Nearby is the world-famous Moser glass factory for a tour and a view of artisans spinning hot glass into delicate and colorfully etched masterpieces. The workers cool themselves with up to five bottles of pilsner a day, provided by the company.
Just a few kilometers from the factory is the medieval town of Loket, encircled by the Ohre River, which forms a natural moat. According to locals, this was Goethe's favorite town in Bohemia. The castle tower provides a grand view of the area. The town is also famous for its porcelain and as a setting for the 2006 James Bond film "Casino Royale."
The South Bohemian town of Cesky Krumlov is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Its photogenic narrow streets, monumental castle, cobbled lanes, tiny shops and inviting riverside restaurants make it second to Prague in tourism. Ballooning over the city in the early morning is an excellent way to see the sights. In the summer canoeing and rafting down the encircling river are also popular pastimes.
In the town of Ponesice I visited the local distillery, which makes fruit liqueurs and spirits (Slivovitz). The award-winning walnut liqueur is worth the visit. The first shot is free, and others cost $1. I spent a few.
WHEN YOU GO
Housing and dining options range from country inns and local eateries to world-class hotels and restaurants. Every hotel I stayed in had free Internet service — in Prague at the Holiday Inn outside the city and the modern designer hotel Andel's in the city.
I had delicious chewy potato pancakes and a huge roasted pork leg at U Provaznice, a traditional restaurant on a side alley in the city ($12). I also dined on Matylda, one of the elegant riverboats.
In Loket I had lunch at Cisar Ferdinand, a local restaurant that served huge portions at reasonable prices (a recurring theme). In Karlovy Vary I stayed at the Hotel Resort Sanssousi and Hotel Imperial. In Plzen I ate at the Brewery restaurant Na Spilce, a large underground dining hall converted from a fermentation cellar, and stayed at the Hotel Angelo Pilsen. In Cesky Krumlov I dinned at the historic Hotel Ruze and stayed at the Old Inn.
For more information: www.czechtourism.com
Photos courtesy of John Blanchette.