Prague is beautiful but the surrounding villages are also amazingly splendid
Most people who visit the Czech Republic confine their stay to Prague, its majestic capital – and with good reason. “The city of a hundred spires” not only challenges the likes of Paris in its beauty, it also boasts a history that stretches back over a millennium, along with one of the most vibrant cultural settings in all of Europe.
Yet during a recent visit, I learned that those who fail to explore the countless treasures that abound throughout the rest of the country miss a lot. For starters, the varied landscape is strewn with shimmering lakes and criss-crossed by crystal-clear rivers. Rolling farm fields and orchards lead to forested highlands that are overlooked by mountain ranges that virtually surround the small nation.
Even with these eye-catching examples of Mother Nature’s finest handiwork, the Czech Republic’s greatest assets are man-made. Massive hilltop castles, ornate cathedrals and imposing imperial palaces dot the landscape and decorate cities and towns. Adding to the appeal for visitors is the ease of being immersed among these varied riches in a compact country that is about the size of South Carolina.
My wife and I explored the major attractions of Prague (Praha) for three days, and could have spent much longer. That splendid city overwhelms visitors with its varied architecture, then envelopes them in an aura of living history.
The entire city center is a designated UNESCO heritage site, and the fact that its buildings survived World War II remarkably intact, unlike many throughout Europe, adds to its appeal. So well preserved are the ancient neighborhoods that it can seem as if you’re walking in a stage set. To stroll through the city is to discover a cathedral here, a
palace there and Gothic spires everywhere.
The city’s Medieval core is surrounded by architectural treasures from every major period and style. The 13th century “Old Town” (Stare Mesto) consists of a labyrinth of narrow winding alleyways and picturesque squares, and the not-quite-so-old “New Town” (Nove Mesto) dates back to 1348. Only a few buildings from that time survive today, including magnificent Gothic and Baroque churches.
The New Town’s most famous landmark is Wenceslas Square, which was laid out during the Middle Ages to serve as a horse market. Today, it’s surrounded by hotels, inviting shops, restaurants and bars, and is the entertainment and nightlife center of Prague.
The sprawling Prague Castle, one of the largest in the world, overlooks the city from a steep hill. It served in the past as the seat of power for a parade of kings and emperors, and today is the official residence of the president of the Czech Republic.
The buildings and courtyards sprawl over an area of 18 acres. They include four palaces and other residences, cathedrals and churches, defensive towers and several museums.
A ditch that encircles the castle, which was dug centuries ago to provide added protection, still is called the Deer Moat, named for the animals that early rulers kept confined there. Adding color to the setting are six terraced gardens, including the impressive Renaissance Garden, which was laid out in 1534.
Another must-see is the graceful Charles Bridge, which has spanned the Vltava River since the 14th century. A line of statues that were placed along the balustrade in the 17th and early 18th centuries depicts saints that were venerated at that time.
The Czech Republic Countryside
Despite the countless attractions and appeals of Prague, and there are many, visitors who fail to explore the charming and diverse towns scattered throughout the Czech Republic miss out on a lot. Many towns have a charming central square surrounded by narrow winding streets and church steeples pointing toward the sky. In addition, each has its own unique charms.
Telc Town Square, the central square of tiny Telc (left), could have been lifted from the pages of a Hans Christian Andersen story. The fairytale setting is lined by the decorative facades of arcade-fronted Renaissance townhouses painted a variety of pastel hues and set off by ornate gables and intricate designs and decorations.
The Jewish heritage
Visitors to the Czech Republic seeking to explore its Jewish heritage often head for Trebic, about 100 miles from Prague. Among many vestiges of the Jewish aspect of the country’s history, that small city stands out.
The presence of Jewish people in present-day Trebic was first documented in 1338, but it wasn’t until the early 18th century that a ghetto was established. Today, it’s one of the best preserved ghettos in Europe and the only Jewish monument outside of Israel which is included on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
The neighborhood encompasses 123 historic buildings, including two synagogues, a rabbi’s house, hospital and two schools. The Jewish cemetery nearby contains about 11,000 graves and almost 3,000 tombstones, some from the 1730s.
It’s primarily what lies beneath the ground that makes Jihlava worth a visit. The story began in the 13th century when cellars were built under most houses in the town center for the storage of food, beer, wine and other items. Over several centuries, the storage areas were connected by tunnels, which stretched over 15 miles. Visitors today may take a tour through sections of the catacombs, past exhibits that tell the story of the tunnels and how they were created.
Spa towns and natural springs
“Taking the waters” at mineral spring spas has been an inherent part of life over centuries for people living in the present-day Czech Republic. Today, close to two dozen spa towns attract visitors in search of healing various ailments, or simply a relaxing experience. Among the most famous spas are Marianske Lazne, which is surrounded by nearly 100 natural springs, and Luhacovice Spa, which has been providing healing and hedonism for nearly 350 years
It’s hard to beat the excitement and enjoyment of taking in the major attractions of Prague, as well as strolling through its hidden back streets and off-the-beaten-path neighborhoods. Yet visiting other history-rich towns throughout the Czech Republic that share similarities, but which also have their own unique stories to tell, adds much to a visit to that enticing nation.
For more information about visiting the Czech Republic, log onto czechtourism.com.
All photos by Victor Block except Marianske Lazne, courtesy Czech Tourism.