Czeching Out A
Story and photos by John Blanchette
Red tile roofs of Prague
lying into Prague, the city lies below, red tile roofs fanning 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.
St. Vitus Church, Prague Palace and the Little Quarter
are linked to Old Town by the ornate Charles Bridge, which spans the
is one of the most beautiful capitals in the world having never suffered
the full brunt and 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 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 three 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. The Capital of Prague is in Central Bohemia and contains
10 percent of the nation's population, with the rest scattered about
in pristinely preserved 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 5th century.
In Prague, driving is really not an option in much
of the city. Its cobblestoned streets were designed for exploration
by foot. It has an excellent rail and bus system that will transport
you around for 18 Czech Crowns (Koruna), about a dollar. There are lots
of walking streets with only the occasional automobile snaking through
the crowded, meandering lanes. A circular highway is currently in construction
around the outside of the city to funnel truck and auto traffic away
from the inner city.
The Old Town Square dates back to the 13th century
and is the magnificent focal point of Prague.
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 appreciate you taking the time to learn words and phrases like Dobry
den (dobree den) hello, dekuji (dye qui) thank you, prosim
(proseem) please and pivo is beer. I found pivo prosim
The Czech's drink more beer per capita than anywhere
else in the world (adults consume about 80 gallons per year) and it's
cheaper than Coca Cola, costing about $1.25 a glass. Brewpubs are everywhere
and, as in Ireland, the centers for social and intellectual life.
If you're not imbibing, make sure to visit the numerous
ornate churches, many of which have been converted to concert halls
and offer performances on a daily basis, 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.
You 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 which 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 as hundreds of tourists look on, visit the
Jewish Quarter and Cemetery and the whimsical Dancing houses which guard
the Jirasek Bridge over the river. Designed by American architect Frank
Gehry, they are also nicknamed Fred and Ginger after the dancing duo.
Left: the Charles Bridge; right: Ginger and Fred
I also sampled quite a bit of the hearty cuisine, which
includes lots of pork, dumplings, cabbage and potatoes.
Pork, mashed sauerkraut, dumplings 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. He
was off to Galway, Ireland following class to participate in the Annual
World Oyster Shucking Contest, where he finished 12th last year.
Crispy skin duck, on jellied red cabbage and chewy
dumplings made by finest chef in Czech Republic
And did I mention the beer? It is worth making a pilgrimage
to the Pilsner Urquell Brewery in the town of Plzen, about 50 miles
southeast of Prague. Also try the original Budweiser Budvar beer, which
began brewing in 1785 in South Bohemia and is nothing like its insipid
American cousin. Na Zdravi (nazzdravee - to your health).
Pilsner Urquell brewery
Horrible tasting mineral
hot springs in Karlovy Vary.
You can spot the iron rust in the water.
Renting a car is the best way to see the countryside,
but can be expensive with gas costing between $6-$7 a galloon. Plan
your excursions wisely. I visited the beautiful and wealthy spa town
of Karlovy Vary, close to the German border and about 60 miles northeast
of Prague. Here you can take the cure from the healing mineral waters,
if you can get past the vile and noxious 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. Visit the Becherovka Museum of Liqueur at
the far end of town for a tour and a taste.
Better for you health to take a stroll through town
along the river
Nearby is the world famous Moser glass factory, where
you can tour and view the artisans spinning hot glass into delicate
and colorfully etched masterpieces, while cooling themselves with up
to five bottles of pilsner a day, provided by the company. Cold beer
and hot molten material seemed an odd combination, but why fool with
Just a few kilometers from the factory is the medieval
town of Loket, encircle by the Ohre River, which forms a natural moat.
According to locals this was Goethe's favorite town in Bohemia. Be sure
to climb the castle tower for a grand view of the area, and see why
Goethe was so enamored. The town is also famous for its porcelain and
as a setting for the 2006 James Bond film "Casino Royale."
Goethes favorite town, the castle of Loket
dominates the picturesque
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 a popular and entertaining way to see the sights. In the summer canoeing
and rafting down the encircling river is also widely enjoyed.
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. First shot free, others a dollar.
I spent a few.
Heading back towards Prague, I stopped in the historic
town of Pisek, which has the oldest stone bridge in the Czech Republic.
When You Go:
There are a number of housing and dining options 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
Typical lunch of pork leg with horseradish, onions
and two types of mustard
I had delicious chewy potato pancakes and a huge roasted
pork leg at U Provaznice, a traditional restaurant on a side ally in
the city ($12). I also dined on Matylda, one of the elegant riverboats.
Stacked meats over sauteed vegetables
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. In Pisek at the Hotel Biograf.
For brochures, housing, spa and restaurant information
and lists of events and festivals, contact the Czech Tourist Office
in New York, 212-288-0830, ext. 101, email@example.com.
from Prague; Czech
Republic Part 1; Czech
Republic Part 2, Czech
Republic Slideshow; Bavaria;
and Stylish Slovenia; Bled,