CZECH REPUBLIC: Czech it out (sorry) – su-perb.

Click on images to enlarge them.

Vltava River runs through Prague.
Prague Mediaeval Astronomical Clock from 1410 [background link]:
Position of the Sun, Moon, various astronomical details;
an hourly puppet parade of the Apostles; a calendar dial.
Clockmaker's eyes gouged out to prevent a copy? Unverified.


Prejudice disclosure: Wheezy was born in Prague, parents fled with the baby, hence a dual Czech-Canadian citizen. The childhood Czech language skills are pathetic, but one can fumble through. So yes, I'm a bit prejudiced; also love the rich food and the straight-forward, often business-minded people, with their warm earthy self-deprecating humor.

You'll love it too, a promise. Most Czechs speak a second or third language - many have some English, or German and/or Russian, so language is not a huge issue.

I claim that Prague perhaps contends for 'most beautiful city in Europe' architecturally, although not in cuisine or shopping, nor in scale. Some even agree. Although much smaller and thus more compact than other great cities, the wide variety of influences and the intense downtown old-world charm, makes it a frequent jaw-dropper and strolling heaven.

For classical music lovers, even before Mozart's day, it has been one of the world capitals. Visual arts too, some amazing stuff to see and hear.

No matter which European city is your favorite, Prague and some other Czech cities like Cesky Krumlov, are stunning steps into an amazing cultural aesthetic history.

Czech Republic does accordingly well in tourism by global standards, even though it is landlocked, has no beach resorts and its tourist season is somewhat restrained by central European winters. It ranks 35th [link] among major tourist countries.
A nice summary [source link]: Nestled between Austria, Poland, Slovakia, and mighty Germany is the thriving center of Emerging Eastern Europe. With a low-cost and skilled labor force and close proximity to Western Europe, the Czech Republic is standing on the cusp of a promising future. Today, the country is a bustling industrialized powerhouse and a magnet for tourism. Smaller than Scotland or South Carolina, the country is home to fairytale castles, some of the world’s best spas, quaint medieval towns, and a bounty of natural beauty that stretches across the ancient lands of Bohemia and Moravia.

As a nation, the Czech Republic has witnessed constant invasions, merciless conquests, and unsurpassed unions and divisions. Its national anthem is a poignant reminder of its turbulent past: Kde domov můj, kde domov můj? (Where is my home, where is my home?)


Economy & modern history: Czech Republic is already doing very well post-Communism: GDP per capita (PPP) was $23,700 in 2008, which is a healthy 82% of the European Union average, and catching up. Principal industries are heavy machine-building, iron-steel, metalworking, chemicals, electronics, vehicles, textiles, glass, beer, china/glass and pharmaceuticals.

It ranks 49th in the world in productivity, close to South Korea and New Zealand [source link.]

Here's an excellent one-page article [link] on the history and opportunity of this small 10.5-million population country.

The post-Commie changes in Czechland astonish one to the positive. In Slovakia & Czech during the Communist era and it was horrid, corrupt, poor, a testament to what happens to industrious, educated, smart people when instincts and incentives are outlawed. Now it's a successful member of the EU.

Today it still has lingering corruption, which will hopefully fade in a generation, but is sliding way down the 'Transparency International' corruption list [source link]. On the freedom of press and politics index it ranks, according to 'Freedom House,' in the top tiers alongside Western Europe, North America etc. Big changes in a couple decades!

Since the Fall Of The Wall in 1989, it quickly feels quite West European, with fine German cars aplenty, among the very plentiful and good VW-owned Czech-made Skoda cars [link]. The Skoda brand sells very well globally, is very popular almost everywhere we have travelled outside North America.

But even in the Communist 80's it was relatively 'happening'; other East Europeans were not allowed to travel here, because they might get jealous – in short, other places were way worse. Communism did bad things here to the work ethic; it was the Czech joke of 'we pretend to work, they pretend to pay us' ethic. This lingers among some raised under the old system, but diminishes with time.

These landlocked countries – then one as Czechoslovakia prior the 'velvet separation' on January 1, 1993 – did very well between the world wars, punched way above their weight;
It was among the top 10-15 economies of the world in sheer size, with GDP per capita in top 6, even with a miniscule land and population.
Czechs are industrious, perhaps a bit like Germans in that regard, but softer in manner, self-effacing with ironic humor.

The differences between Slovakia and Czech Republic are obvious to the traveler; it is not the same language albeit very similar; culturally also similar but not the same.


Travels: After Slovakia we headed to Olomouc [map link] a nice old Moravian university town, stayed in pension U Jakuba [link] which had a nice apartment and good parking, centrally located. The town is worth touring for a couple hours if passing through, but it was just a waypoint for us.

Wonderful travel coincidence befell us in the Small World Dept: Packing the bike next morning, a car pulled in next to us, we heard some English spoken, a conversation started, the Czech-accent gentleman was playing an organ concert in town – 'Oh, I used to manage keyboard players...' I said. Well, he turned out to be internationally-known Czech-American organist Karl Paukert and wife Carol, he is Curator Emeritus at the Cleveland Museum of Art [link] and was a prestigious customer back in my arts years; presented and loved my former clients Anton Kuerti and the Orford String Quartet, both among the world greats in the classics. Karl and I remembered each other well, had spoken often and done business a few times – although we had never previously met.

What a long-shot coincidence, in an Olomouc parking lot. Fond memories and new-old friends.


Travels cont'd: We headed south-west to Blansko which is where Moravsky Kras or Moravian Karst [map link] is located, very recommended. Here's some information and more photos [link] – about 3 hours from Prague, 30 minutes from Brno. The most famous cave is Punkevni Jeskyne; you cruise down a very narrow channel by boat with a guide on the underground river Punkva, see the bottom of Macocha Abbys. It's a world famous, 138 meter deep abbys, decorated with non-stop attractive cane stalagmites. Worth it.


Then north to Adrspach a very worthwhile destination, rock formations and mountains park, right by the Polish border in the northeast [map link] and [text/photo link.] Have never seen rock formations quite like it, and even as a Czech I did not know it existed! It's a unique, seemingly out-of-place rock formation, an easy day of hiking, plus add another day for driving the charming region. We really liked Hotel Javor [link] with great spacious modern rooms with a balcony view, good food, nice folks, reasonable prices of $50/night or less; a 2-day holiday destination with nice driving in the area.

These are tall amazing rocks, nice hiking, lovely area with great driving or motorcycling of twisties, a very fine reasonably priced hotel ... altogether definitely worth it.

The rocks below are called 'the lovers' – kissing.


On to Prague through the great bucolic twisty-biking countryside. Lots of great riding. We set Black Bike's GPS maps to 'shortest distance' versus 'fastest' which takes one through the smallest country roads, some mere farm roads and obscure villages ... the best way to travel!

We were meeting our travel companions for the next leg, Marg Telfer and Ed McConaghay, lifelong friends, now living in Minneapolis.

We followed them around in their rented car; they had done their reading in advance so led us to things we'd otherwise have missed. Great travel companions.

They own a superb service company you might use – PhotoBook Press [link] – their best-of technicians make a fine hardcover art-quality book of your photos, and improve/repair your old photos after digitizing them. Plus they can make as many copies as you may need for other family members/friends, for very reasonable prices. Weddings, corporate everts or badly torn-worn-yellowed antique family shots of Aunt Martha in 1925 – contact them and see this great service. Not just a plug for friends – I know digital publishing intimately, and this is among the best quality one can buy.

Prague: Like other major cities, so much has been written and photographed elsewhere, we'll skim over it rather than do it injustice; better just to see photos online [link], and then go and see it for yourself.

It's such a great city architecturally, culturally, a UNESCO world heritage city and any traveler's absolute must-see.

Prices are catching up to western Europe, but when you go, try stay in the historic downtown area of Prague so you can walk, not for safety reasons, but for eye-sore avoidance: Stay away from the Communist-built outlying areas which must be and will be razed and re-built.

But wandering downtown Prague is great, done it many times and each time make new discoveries.


A few random Prague things we stumbled upon, out of hundreds of choices to see/do:

The Dancing House – or Tančící dům [lovely photo link] is the nickname given to a building designed by Croatian-Czech architect Vlado Milunic in co-operation with Canadian Frank Gehry – you can see a woman and man dancing together, holding hands. Such a contrast to the old architectural environment, such a risk taken by someone with prime real estate on the Vltava river; the Czechs do take creative risks.

The Charles Bridge, justly so famous.
Click to zoom in one little details on some of those amazing statues.

Marg found these cute yellow penguin sculptures on a riverside wall outside the very interesting Museum Kampa [link]. Lots of small creative decoration items pop up everywhere, in more artistic styles and influences than any other city I know of.

The Jerusalem ("Spanish") Synagogue built in 1906 happened to be half a block from our hotel (info below) – we stumbled upon the blingiest, and very lovely original-styled synagogue. Just another architectural-cultural surprise in this highly varied city.

Prague accommodation. We did a couple days of shopping and here's the best over-all deal we found: The Dasha Pension [link] is highly recommended. Actually it's a bunch of apartments that were being renovated; easy walking to everything; very good value (€50 range) in a not-cheap city; locked courtyard parking for your bike/car; internet in the room; a kitchenette, so you make your own breakfast. Jindrich is owner/manager speaks English, his cell: 420-602-395-579.

A highly recommended accidental find Prague restaurant and 4-star business/tourist hotel, we chanced upon for our delicious last supper with Marg & Ed: Hotel Troja Prague [link]. We had memorable roast duck, chicken, goose liver - and superb service. Not central, but fine by taxi, charming, classy, modern, well worth the money if you seek upscale, both as food and accommodation.

U Fleku [link]: I don't care that it has become a tourist staple, it's still the best – this ancient restaurant is beyond fabulous for food, beer and atmosphere. My father hung out there as a student at the very same tables we use today, the same recipes, equally well cooked – I ate with my dad here too, 35 years ago. It is an absolute must-visit if in Prague, period. In my biased but Czech-chow-experienced opinion, the roast duck or pork and dumplings and cabbage (knedlik and zeli) are non plus ultra. The non-stop flow of amazing Czech beer is of course a gourmet experience – but make sure you walk or taxi home, I challenge anyone to go home sober.

A couple Swiss damsels shared our table – one sits at long tables here, meets abundant strangers because it's crowded and its ultra-friendly, convivial. These damsels tried to pick up Ed and me, that's how drunk they were; Marg and Thao's presence was barely an inconvenience for them – but we were loving the food, beer and atmosphere, not the Swiss chicks. For me it's almost a reason to go back to Prague, the mouth waters as I write this.

Prague Castle and Vltava River


Outside Prague, a sampler: In no particular order because we drove all over, on mostly small country roads – Lonely Planter has recommendations too [link.]


Seldec Ossuary [photos link] In the town of Kutna Hora [map link] not far east from Prague; an old Catholic church containing 40,000-70,00 human skeletons arranged as art, done by a wood carver in late 1800s. Marg and Ed led us here, it is unforgettable and surprisingly not morbid when you consider people actually asked to be part of it. Kutna Hora was added to UNESCO's World Heritage List in 1996. We stayed in Pension Centrum [link] which is recommended.

Kutna Hora [link] also features the remarkable gothic St. Barbara's Church. Buttresses flying all over the place. It's no Notre Dame de Paris, but ... Here's a [link] to a fabulous night shot.

St. Barbara's Church, Kutna Hora


Český Krumlov is a UNESCO world heritage sight, 1200's Mediaeval steep hilly town, very authentically restored, gorgeous and among the very top places on the planet to visit, no exaggeration. National Geographic Traveler magazine's survey of experts [link], ranked Český Krumlov #16 destination in the world. It's my third visit; it has not become Disney-esque and is just fabulous and once-in-a-lifetime Mediaeval experience. Some fine art pieces for sale. Here's a [link] to many photos including panoramas.


Karlovy Vary or Karlsbad in German – a very famous and hugely successful spa city, with 13 main springs, about 300 smaller ones – where (forgive the semi-true stereotype) you will see Russian women with too much jewelry and a poodle, Germans in S-class Mercedes, the show-off watches and other yawn displays of money and attitude, seeking miracle hot-tub cures in $500/night hotels and sipping vile sulpher water. We love Lonely Planet's humorously ironic summary [link].

The other social extreme is naturally attracted to the tourist money; some Russian thugs were eying Black Bike suspiciously, quickly vanishing when I showed up, I heard the Russian mumbles about my presence.

It's a hard steep city to ride with the cobblestone hills and many dead-ends – and is Disney-esque. The Czech liqueur Becherovka comes from there, and that do I highly recommend, it's available anywhere. Famous Moser Glass too. The movie Casino Royale was filmed there if you care. It is very pretty, not a necessary to visit for us, but it is obviously for others. We stayed in Hotel Kavalerie which is fine [link.]


Litomerice [map link] is just 10 minutes north of Terezin [Wikipedia link] – the latter being the huge and well preserved concentration camp. Former is a nice town, a 15-minute drive to the latter camp.

Litomerice is pleasant to visit, not a brilliant anything, but has a huge attractive central square and a very nice underground cave restaurant in the square – anyhow it looked nice but was unfortunately booked solid.

We toured a little of the vast underground network of man-made tunnels/caves, which was fine engineering/digging in the very olden days – invaders would find it impossible to get in and steal food, residents would have easy hiding and surprise attack places.

Stay in Litomerice if heading to Terezin, which frankly I found offensive in two ways:
..........(a) An enormous dominant Cross on a mostly-Jewish graveyard,
................and a relatively small Star of David? 'Insensitive' is being kind.
.............................. ... and ...
..........(b) Ridiculously high entry fees to one part, I refused en principe to pay
................walked away disgusted. What; a for-profit concentration camp?

Terezin touring is not a happy day, but it is recent factual history.


The village baker's family in Zbiby 15 km from Prague, the Hubaceks (Vlasta, Milan, Kveta seated below) are not blood relations, but their parents and they themselves – plus the local Masek family – were extremely ethical, acted upon the courage of their convictions, during the war and afterwards; major courage of convictions at great personal risk, and ethics running deep.

They are my adopted Czech family today. We stayed in their fine charming Pension Tom [link] a few nights, in the village of Zdiby about 20 minutes from downtown. It's a small 3-star hotel with a very good restaurant, ideal if you wish to stay a bit out of town, in a charming country village area. Find them by email at <> or phone: (+420) 284 891 301.


Cuisine: Czech beer, is considered the best in the world, even if the reader is Belgian or German, and an abundant staple. A really superior, fine rich flavor. Czechs also invented blonde beer.

Czech food? Well, it's not light, but I love it as do (some/most) others. Roast pork, duck, goose, chicken, here's one pork recipe [link]; another to a delicious stewed saurbroten-type beef dish called 'svichkova' [link].

Also look up Czech goulash, various fish dishes, Czech-specific dumplings, Czech-specific cabbage variations. Sauces. Caraway. Dill. Fine deserts/pasties, some major. It ain't French or Italian fo shoor – nor dieting, but bursts with flavors. And goes well with beer. Or for that matter numerous acceptable Czech wines.

Recommend the Czech Republic? Yes, for anyone. Newbie travelers, the highly experienced, backpackers, biker trash like us, or first class deluxe.

There is a Four Seasons right at one end the Charles Bridge if you prefer the $500 places, or student hostels, and everything in between. There are many package tours as well.

Prague is magnificent, and so are a few other places. Go!


Some more good Czech photos [link]

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