Saturday, 7 January 2012

ITTP TEFL Prague: Getting out and about - 5 essential Czech Republic weekend destinations.

There is no doubt that Prague is the main tourist draw of the Czech Republic. It is one of the most beautiful cities in Europe; every year hundreds of thousands of tourists pound Prague's cobbled streets, looking up in awe at the diverse and stunningly preserved architecture, and looking to experience the unique shopping and entertainment options which this Mother of Cities has to offer. The tourist season in Prague used to begin at around Easter time and flag off when the Winter months drew in but since the advent and subsequent boom of discount air travel options, the tourist season is now one continuous loop and although there are peaks and troughs in the statistics nonetheless the Old Town Square is now busy with camera-toting visitors pretty much every day of the year.

Fortunately the tourist sites are concentrated in the center of the city - the main draw to Prague for most of our clients are the Bohemian districts which sublimely border the tourist circus - and the tourist trail can easily be avoided, but once in a while you do still get the inclination to get away from all the hustle and jostle and take in wonderful sites without the crowds and tourist-associated annoyances.

The good news is that places of interest in the rest of the country are much less developed than Prague and prices tend to drop away the further you do travel from Prague. The following are 5 places (listed alphabetically) which I would recommend you visit for a weekend getaway, assuming of course that you can drag yourself away from Prague's eternal grip on the senses. When you typically turn to search engines looking for places to visit in the Czech Republic you do tend to get the same destinations popping up, such as Olomouc and Ceske Budejovice and while these are worthwhile destinations they are at the same time essentially just watered down versions of Prague; a bit like Prague but without all the stuff :-) My big 5 list includes a few places on the main tourist trail and a few completely off it, but definitely still worth a visit of course - places where I have visited and wondered in awe why more people don't know that it exists.

Please note: transport prices are not listed because they do tend to fluctuate and the purpose of this blog isn't to provide out of date information. Trains and buses are very affordable in the Czech Republic and no matter where you travel within the Czech Republic a single journey won't cost you more than 500 CZK. As an example, the train trip from Prague down to Cesky Krumlov costs just 261 CZK (2nd class). Also, pls remember that Friday is the busiest travel day of the week and if you do want to travel out on a Friday then my advice is to buy your ticket in advance a day or so beforehand. Expect packed trains and buses if traveling Friday late afternoon to early evening.

1. Cesky Krumlov

Cesky Krumlov, located in the South of the country between Ceske Budejovice and the Austrian border, boasts UNESCO World Heritage Site status with 300 protected medieval buildings and is a stunning little town hosting Gothic, Renaissance, and Baroque style architecture dating back from between the 14th through to the 17th century. The core of the town itself lies straddled to a bend on the Vltava river - the same river which divides Prague. Cesky Krumlov has an unusually large castle complex and for me the main castle circular tower defines Krumlov's enchanting, almost mystical status.
The main draw of Krumlov is as a chilled weekend getaway from Prague and most visitors tend to spend their time wandering the castle complex, eyeing the castle bears, doing a bit of shopping, and of course eating and drinking. I do recommend taking one of the many marked walking trails around the perimeter of the city and into the surrounding countryside and for water lovers in summer it is possible to hire canoes and paddle to your heart's content.
If you only have time for 1 trip out of Prague then make a trip to Cesky Krumlov. You will not be disappointed.

> How to get there?

It's possible to reach Cesky Krumlov either by bus or train.
Trains from Prague Main Train Station go via Ceske Budejovice (home to the original Budweiser Beer btw) and the journey takes a rather laborious 4 hours - sometimes less and sometimes more. The train journey is ok but don't expect any spectacular scenery. It's important to note here that Cesky Krumlov town center is a bit of a (downhill) hike from the train station.
Buses from Prague to Krumlov leave from the Na Knizeci bus terminal, a little down the road from the Andel metro stop. The bus journey takes approx 3 hours and 15 minutes.

> Where to stay?

For Backpackers I definitely recommend the Travelers Hostel, located in the heart of Krumlov's Old Town: Soukenick√° 43. Beds begin at around 270 CZK for the night for a Dorm room bed.
For Flashpackers I also recommend the same Travelers Hostel but go for one of their spacious and cosy log cabin-style apartments.

2. Karlovy Vary (Carlsbad)

Karlovy Vary lies in the spa belt of Western Bohemia and has been a magnet for writers, artists, nobility, the bourgeois, and gamblers for centuries. It is here that Dostoevsky penned The Gambler and it is here that the annual Karlovy Vary international film festival is held. Often described as being a 'Little Russia' it has for decades been a playground for Russian high society and the Russian presence is overwhelmingly seen throughout the more upmarket section of town. Karlovy Vary is a large town but the main area of interest to anyone making the journey out there is the area hugging the main colonnade, which runs for a couple of kilometers and which is lined with casinos, restaurants, hotels, luxury shops, cold/hot springs, and spas. At the end of the colonnade is the famous PUPP Hotel (where the casino scene from the James Bond film Casino Royale was filmed), and is the hotel of choice for many visiting international film stars and performers. Apart from the gambling, drinking, stuffing your face, and people-watching, the idea is that you slowly meander up and down the colonnade while sampling the different water springs - there are many many options to purchase the special type of drinking vessel considered de rigueur for this. There is no charge to taste the waters. Each spring has its own health benefit claim and it seems to me that the greater the health benefit the more undrinkable the waters become (think sulphur). It is considered a major faux pas by the way to express any distaste with the spring water so if you don't like a particular one it's best to just carry on to the next. Hotel PUPP at the end of the colonnade is definitely worth a peep in and I recommend having a coffee or drink in either the cafe or bar there. Karlovy Vary makes for a wonderful weekend trip and also recommended is the nearby medieval village of Loket approx 15 kilometers away, with its gorgeous 12th century Gothic castle.

> How to get there?

The best way to get to Karlovy Vary is by bus and the journey from Prague takes just 2 hours and 10 minutes. Buses leave from Prague Florenc Main Bus Station. I recommend taking the Student Agency bus for this journey and you can normally buy tickets on the platform right before your departure (Student Agency have bright yellow buses). There are trains plying the Prague to Karlovy Vary route but they take around 3 and a half hours. I'd take the bus.

> Where to stay?

For Backpackers the Quest Hostel at the top of Moravska Street (44) comes recommended. Karlovy Vary definitely isn't a cheap accommodation destination but the Quest Hostel manages to fine balance affordable prices together with great location and comfortable rooms.
For Flashpackers I recommend the PUPP Hotel - why not treat yourself if traveling with your significant other.

3. Krkonose

The Krkonose region in the North of the country is home to the highest peak in the country: Snezka (1,602 meters). Snezka is on the border between the Czech Republic and Poland. The Krkonose mountainous range is a national park and definitely worth a trip at any time of the year, but especially so during the ski season - even if you don't ski there is something charming about being in a ski resort location and only a few hour's drive from Prague. It's in the Krkonose that you will find a lot of white washed houses with dark wooden jointings and it's a great place to relax for a weekend, preferably with your students at their cottage, hiking in the snow during the day and huddled around wood burning stoves and sinking shots in the evening. My favorite places in the Krkonose to visit are Pec Pod Snezkou and Harrachov and every time I visit I ask myself why I don't visit more often because the air is clean and the countryside is spectacular.

> How to get there?

By far the easiest way to get up to the Krkonose is by bus. It's a 2 hour bus ride to Harrachov and a 3 hour 20 minute ride to Pec Pod Snezkou. Both bus routes leave from Prague's Cerny Most bus station, located close to the Cerny Most Metro Station.

> Where to stay?

Ideally you want to be staying at one of your student's cottages and in my first Winter of teaching in Prague I was fortunate to be invited up for the weekend by a group of my students. If you do find yourself needing accommodation then I would recommend booking in advance one of the many guesthouses available online, either in Harrachov or Pec Pod Snezkou. Booking in advance is essential.

4. Kyjov

Kyjov might seem at first a bit of an odd destination recommendation; it's a small town with few historical sights. However, Kyjov is an excellent base to discover the surrounding region of Slovacko (Moravian Slovakia), and the picture postcard perfection of Chateau Lednice. This is one of the main wine growing regions of the country and although the quality isn't always top notch it is getting better with every season and some local white wines are now world class. If you get the opportunity then I definitely recommend going for a wine tasting in one of the many privately-owned wine cellars edged into the picturesque hilly landscape. For me though the main draw of Kyjov and it's surrounding towns and villages are the many varied and unique cultural traditions and festivals which are taken seriously here. Easter in particular is a fantastically colorful time in this region with an intense following by almost everyone to the letter of regional and national customs and this is an excellent rare opportunity to take a glimpse at living traditions and customs which are slowly dying out in other parts of the country as time progresses in our internet age. The additional draw of this area is that it is extremely affordable.

> How to get there?

It's a 4 and a half hour train journey from Prague, changing trains at Brno. The bus, which leaves from Prague's Florenc Main Bus Station, takes around 4 hours and also with a change in Brno. My tip for this journey is to use the bus AND train: take a Student Agency Praha Florenc to Brno bus and then walk the 5 minutes from Brno bus station to Brno train station and catch the train to Kyjov - it breaks up the journey considerably and the Student Agency buses now have TV screens on the back of every seat, plus they serve a free hot drink and offer complimentary magazines and newspapers.

> Where to stay?

I don't have any tips on where to stay in Kyjov because whenever I visit the area I have very good friends there who offer to put me up. My advice for a Winter break is to have a look around and check availability of hotels and Pensions (guesthouses) and book something as close to the center as possible. There is always something available at any time of the year. In Summer I would recommend taking a sleeping bag, meeting the locals, and taking a gamble on a friendly local maybe offering to put you up and if not then you get to sleep under those softly woven Moravian stars - they don't receive a lot of international visitors here and the vast majority of locals definitely go out of their way to make you feel welcome.

5. Slavonice

Under the period of communist rule all border areas were officially off limits except for soldiers who patrolled the borders and for the very very limited traffic flow between the Communist Eastern Bloc and the Capitalist West. The communist government wanted to 'protect' it's peoples from escaping over the border basically. This was a very dark period in the country's history and the effect of communist rule can definitely still be seen today - even more so along the border areas between the Czech Republic and it's Western neighbors: Austria and Germany. The benefit though of this period of absurdity is that there is a band of virgin forest and low population density along the border and perfectly preserved towns and villages (albeit somewhat crumbling), which escaped the lifeless communist type style of architecture projects which steamed through the country in the 70's and 80's. Slavonice is one example of a village which was completely inaccessible under communism and it's additional attraction, asides from the fact that you do feel that you are at the end of the world, is that it is in close proximity to the nearby ceramic artists village of Mariz. This area is unofficially dubbed Ceska Kanada (Czech Canada).
There isn't a whole lot to do in Slavonice except stroll around its Baroque buildings, walk up the steps of the 16th century Renaissance City Tower, hang out in one of the cafe's, bars, restaurants, take a walk over the border into Austria (just 7km distance), rent bikes and go visit Mariz. The UNESCO town of Telc is also not that far away but I much prefer Slavonice - Telc is a tour group destination and in my opinion lacks atmosphere. In Slavonice you really do get that other worldly feeling and this is a great location for the writers and artists amongst yourselves to let off creative steam and as with Kyjov to be in a place where you can feel special and unique as a foreigner and not, like so often happens in Prague, viewed as just another expat clogging the cobbled arteries of the capital.
Btw, it's interesting to note that Slavonice applied for UNESCO World Heritage status at the same time as Telc did but withdrew its application towards the end of the application process - maybe they had a change in heart and (very wisely) decided to protect their heritage from mass tourism.

> How to get there?

Traveling to Slavonice can sometimes feel like actually traveling to the end of the earth.
It takes about 3 hours by bus from Prague's Florenc Main Bus Station and a chugging 4 and a half hours by train from Prague's Main Train Station Hlavni Nadrazi.

> Where to stay?

Slavonice is so small and so infrequently visited that you can simply turn up, stroll around the main Peace Square, popping into the guesthouses and seeing which one you prefer best and for Backpackers this is what I recommend doing.
For Flashpackers I recommend either the Hotel U Ruze (Hotel Rose) or Hotel Besidka, both located in the main Peace Square.
For meals and drinks, etc., I recommend the cafe/bar/restaurant located on the ground floor of Hotel Besidka.

Hezka cesta!/Good journey!

Neville :-)