A Czech Republic travel guide – medieval castles, scenic skiing, and plentiful spas in the birthplace of pilsner
Get your bearings
Land-locked in Central Europe, the Czech Republic is divided into the ancient regions of Bohemia and Moravia. The larger Bohemia is home to soaring sandstone mountains and the spa town of Karlovy Vary to the north with the capital Prague in the centre. Moravia encompasses the eastern third of the country is and home to Brno, the Czech Republic’s second city, and the country’s best vineyards in the south. The picturesque ski resorts of the Krkonoše Mountains on the north-eastern border with Poland are the place to head for skiing holiday in the Czech Republic.
Nature-loving Czechs cherish the backcountry delights of mountainous scenery. The plunging gorges in the Bohemian Switzerland National Park attract hikers and climbers while the ski-resort hub of the Krkonoše Mountains centres around Sněžka, the country’s highest peak. Meanwhile, the Berounka and Vltava rivers carry canoeists along for a leisurely paddle past castles, monasteries and beer gardens.
The spa season starts in May with ceremonies to bless the springs. Visitors flood to the mineral-rich waters, mud and gases of the country’s 37 spas, but the top three of the so-called Bohemia Spa Triangle remain favourites. Karlovy Vary, or Carlsbad, is the most famous with its annual International Film Festival and local spiced herb liquor, Becherovka. Františkovy Lázně or Franzensbad has waters to improve circulation and Mariánské Lázně or Marienbad comes beautifully lined with honey-colored Renaissance facades.
Holidays in the Czech Republic deserve at least one exploration of a medieval castle or royal chateau. The 12th century saw the foundations of Křivoklát Castle laid and later, the Czech King and Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV grew up there. Today the curious can explore its macabre torture chamber. Established by Charles IV in 1348 to house the coronation jewels, Karlštejn Castle didn’t acquire its photogenic neo-Gothic towers until the 19th century. Further from Prague, the fairytale castle buildings, grounds and Baroque theatres of the small city of Český Krumlov are also worth a visit.
The Czech Republic is famous for its beer. The United States might have hijacked the name, but the Southern Bohemian town of České Budějovice brewed the original Budweiser, known here as Budvar. The western Bohemian town of Plzeň brewed the world’s first golden lager and call it Pilsner Urquell, while Staropramen is still brewed right in the centre of Prague. Gambrinus is a Czech favourite, but do also try Ferdinand, Bernard and Kozel. If a brewery tour isn’t to your taste, head south to Moravia where the Czech Republic’s increasingly sophisticated vineyards offer free-flowing tasting sessions. September’s burčák festival in Znojmo, celebrates the young, still-fermenting wine, which you should treat with some caution. A shot of slivovice, plum brandy, will warm any night.
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