Mikulov, the heart and soul of Moravia’s wine region

Chance had it that I arrived in Mikulov at a propitious moment. In a country famed for beer making, this beautiful town sits in the middle of the Czech Republic’s largest and most important wine producing region … and no, I didn’t know there was a Czech wine industry either. Not only was the grape harvest in full swing, and with it a wine festival offering the chance to taste a variety of local and regional wines; it was also a national holiday, and the town was buzzing with people enjoying the autumn sunshine and the fruits of the surrounding vineyards.

Mikulov, Czech Republic

Mikulov, Czech Republic

Mikulov castle, Czech Republic

Mikulov castle, Czech Republic

Mikulov, Czech Republic

Mikulov, Czech Republic

Mikulov, Czech Republic

Mikulov, Czech Republic

Burčák bar, Mikulov, Czech Republic

Burčák bar, Mikulov, Czech Republic

I’d missed the big celebration that heralds the start of the grape harvest, but the lively atmosphere was a lot of fun in what is normally a sleepy place. Mikulov sits in beautiful rolling countryside, so close to the Austrian border that the town was virtually part of the Iron Curtain during the Cold War. The post-War period was disastrous for the wine industry. The communist government nationalised vineyards and quality suffered as a consequence. The industry is now emerging from that malaise and is beginning to make its mark internationally. The local Riesling was pretty good.

Walking through the town towards its most dominate feature, the massive Baroque castle dating from the 13th century, I kept seeing people with plastic bottles of red and white liquid. This was a local speciality known as burčák, a partially fermented wine and a popular feature of wine festivals at this time of year. I stopped at a place with two barrels of the stuff outside and, for research purposes, tried a glass of both white and red. Don’t let the cloudiness put you off, it has a low alcohol content and is deliciously sweet with a refreshing bitterness.

The burčák powered me up the steep hill and into the grounds of the castle, formerly the home of two powerful European families, the Liechtenstein’s and Dietrichstein’s. The castle was burned by retreating German troops in the Second World War, but was rebuilt and transformed into a museum in the 1950s. It’s a magnificent building that literally towers over the rest of the town. There are good views over the surrounding countryside from the castle, and it’s interesting to wander through the grounds.

I descended on the western side of the castle through an area of narrow streets that had once been home to one of the most significant Jewish communities in the country. Jews first settled in Mikulov in 1421 and the community grew to number around 3,500 in the 19th century. At its height there were 12 synagogues and hundreds of houses in the Jewish quarter. As with the history of all Jewish communities, there were periods of peace and prosperity, punctuated by periods of persecution; like everywhere in the region, centuries of Jewish history effectively ended in the horrors of the Holocaust.

Upper Synagogue, Mikulov, Czech Republic

Upper Synagogue, Mikulov, Czech Republic

Upper Synagogue, Mikulov, Czech Republic

Upper Synagogue, Mikulov, Czech Republic

Jewish cemetery, Mikulov, Czech Republic

Jewish cemetery, Mikulov, Czech Republic

Jewish cemetery, Mikulov, Czech Republic

Jewish cemetery, Mikulov, Czech Republic

Jewish cemetery, Mikulov, Czech Republic

Jewish cemetery, Mikulov, Czech Republic

Jewish cemetery, Mikulov, Czech Republic

Jewish cemetery, Mikulov, Czech Republic

Jewish cemetery, Mikulov, Czech Republic

Jewish cemetery, Mikulov, Czech Republic

Today, there is a fascinating trail through what is left of the old Jewish quarter. Many houses and synagogues have been destroyed over the years, but those that remain are a poignant reminder of the culture that was destroyed by Nazi ideology. The route passes through quiet streets to the beautiful Upper Synagogue, before making its way to the truly extraordinary Jewish cemetery, one of the largest in Central Europe. It rivals Prague’s Jewish cemetery for atmosphere but receives a fraction of the visitors.

The cemetery is close to a 15th century military tower, Kozí hrádek or the Goat Tower as it’s also known. I strolled up hill to the the entrance and then up a spiral stairway to get sweeping views over the town and surrounding vineyards. I’d passed a nice looking wine bar with a terrace on the way up, on my way back down I stopped for a glass of something local while watching the sun set over the town. I ate dinner on the lovely main square and planned my early start to visit the villages of Valtice and Lednice.

Mikulov, Czech Republic

Mikulov, Czech Republic

Wine bar, Mikulov, Czech Republic

Wine bar, Mikulov, Czech Republic

Mikulov castle, Czech Republic

Mikulov castle, Czech Republic

Mikulov castle, Czech Republic

Mikulov castle, Czech Republic

House number, Mikulov, Czech Republic

House number, Mikulov, Czech Republic

Phoenix from the flames, Moravia’s glorious Telc

In 1530 disaster struck the beautiful small town of Telc. A terrible fire swept through the wooden houses reducing the early medieval town to ashes. Today, the triangular market square is ringed by colourful Renaissance and Baroque merchants houses, and is so perfectly preserved that it made the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1992. The pastel pink, blue and yellow houses, rubbing shoulders with the sgraffito decorated facades of 16th century buildings, combine to make the square utterly unique. Well, unique in a way that looks a bit Dutch or Belgian.

Zacharias of Hradec square, Telc, Czech Republic

Zacharias of Hradec square, Telc, Czech Republic

Zacharias of Hradec square, Telc, Czech Republic

Zacharias of Hradec square, Telc, Czech Republic

Zacharias of Hradec square, Telc, Czech Republic

Zacharias of Hradec square, Telc, Czech Republic

Telc, Czech Republic

Telc, Czech Republic

Telc, Czech Republic

Telc, Czech Republic

The fire that destroyed the town also damaged the castle that stands at the far end of the square. It would take nearly two decades for reconstruction work to begin on the orders of the town’s new ruler, Zacharias of Hradec (after whom the square is named). Following a visit to Italy, he hired Italian craftsmen to rebuild the castle in Renaissance style, and where the local lord went the townsfolk followed. The houses around the square were rebuilt in the new fashion. It’s amazing that it has survived in such good condition.

I’d arrived in Telc after driving from Cesky Krumlov. This should have been a simple journey, but thanks to the malfunctioning Google Maps on my phone, I ended up in parts of the Czech countryside that have never before seen a tourist. Czech roads get smaller, more remote and more potholed the higher the road number. I realised things were going wrong as I bounced down a road numbered 40614, a route which took me into what seemed to be a farm yard and out the other side again.

My first sighting of Telc came from across the water that surrounds it on three sides, it was a clear sunny day and the town was idyllically reflected in the water. I found a car park and then walked through the old medieval gateway and down an attractive street. The square suddenly opened up in front of me, the sight was  breathtaking. It is truly magnificent. More surprisingly, I was stood in an UNESCO World Heritage Site and there wasn’t a single tour group anywhere to be seen.

In fact there were only a handful of people wandering around the square doing their shopping, or having coffee in one of several cafes and restaurants with outside seating. I decided to join them, and took a seat so that I could admire Telc at leisure. Telc isn’t a big place and, after finishing my coffee, I went for a stroll through the back streets and the park that surrounds the old city walls. Less than half an hour later I found myself back in the square. This time there were a few more people.

Zacharias of Hradec square, Telc, Czech Republic

Zacharias of Hradec square, Telc, Czech Republic

Zacharias of Hradec square, Telc, Czech Republic

Zacharias of Hradec square, Telc, Czech Republic

Zacharias of Hradec square, Telc, Czech Republic

Zacharias of Hradec square, Telc, Czech Republic

Zacharias of Hradec square, Telc, Czech Republic

Zacharias of Hradec square, Telc, Czech Republic

The church wasn’t open but the castle seemed to be. There was no one in the ticket booth so I strolled around the gardens and the interior courtyards. There are tours of the castle buildings, and they’re supposed to be worth taking, but I’d just missed one tour and the next one wasn’t for a while. I came back into the square to discover one half of it had turned into a car park, which definitely took some of the gloss off it. I was on my way to Mikulov, so bid farewell to this majestic place and went south towards the Czech Republic’s wine region.

The medieval magnificence of Cesky Krumlov

Cesky Krumlov is an incredible place. This gorgeous medieval town, dominated by a magnificent castle sitting on a hill, feels like it may have been transplanted straight out of Grimms’ Fairy Tales into the Bohemian countryside. There has been a castle here for nearly nine hundred years, and the town grew in its shadow. Over those centuries the medieval character of the town has survived almost intact. That would be remarkable in its own right, but the town dramatically nestles in the bends of the Vltava River and between the surrounding wooded hills. It’s nothing short of spectacular.

Cesky Krumlov castle, Czech Republic

Cesky Krumlov castle, Czech Republic

Cesky Krumlov, Czech Republic

Cesky Krumlov, Czech Republic

Cesky Krumlov castle, Czech Republic

Cesky Krumlov castle, Czech Republic

Cesky Krumlov’s castle is the town’s main attraction, and it has a long, proud history. The aristocratic families who owned the castle were at the centre of European politics, and were some of the most powerful people in Central Europe. Remarkably, over nine centuries of its existence, only three families have owned the castle: the Rozmberks, Eggenbergs and Schwarzenbergs. The Rozmberk’s ran the town for nearly 300 years and it’s to them that the castle’s most famous ghost story is attached – the White Lady of Cesky Krumlov.

In the mid-15th century, the ruler of Cesky Krumlov, Oldrich II, married his daughter, Perchta, against her will to Jan of Lichtenstein. He treated her miserably and she was stuck in an abusive marriage for thirty years. It’s claimed she refused to forgive Jan his sins against her, so on his deathbed he cursed her. She’s said to roam the castle still. If that seems both unfair and far fetched, it’s also said that the Rozmberk’s attempted to grow gold in the castle gardens by planting coins. The Schwarzenberg family crest is a Turks severed head being pecked by a raven.

This is the sort of history that encouraged me to climb up the steps to the castle. You can tour the castle grounds and gardens independently. If you want to see the interior of the castle you have to take a guided tour. The options were confusing and the ticket staff incredibly unhelpful, but eventually I bought a ticket that would take me through the Cloak Bridge. The dramatic three-storied Cloak Bridge is built on massive stone arches over what was once the moat, and connects the castle to the tranquil gardens.

I went to the start point of the tour and waited with a small group of Czechs for our guide to show up. My experience of guided tours in historic buildings hadn’t prepared me for our guide: a lady in her sixties wearing bright red high heels, fishnet stockings and wielding a red rose like a conductor’s baton. It was clear from the reaction of the Czechs on the tour (no photos allowed) that it was entertainingly eccentric. Sadly, it was entirely in Czech and completely lost on me. I had to put up with a boring printed guide in English.

Cesky Krumlov, Czech Republic

Cesky Krumlov, Czech Republic

Cesky Krumlov, Czech Republic

Cesky Krumlov, Czech Republic

Cesky Krumlov, Czech Republic

Cesky Krumlov, Czech Republic

Cesky Krumlov castle, Czech Republic

Cesky Krumlov castle, Czech Republic

Cesky Krumlov castle, Czech Republic

Cesky Krumlov castle, Czech Republic

The tour of the Schwarzenberg family rooms, the last family to own the castle, was interesting. Adolph Schwarzenberg, with his wife Princess Hilda of Luxembourg ,was the very last of the family to live there. He was vastly wealthy and an outspoken critic of the Nazis as they rose to power. He owned a palace in Vienna, and it’s said that when the Anschluss occurred he flew black flags above the palace; when the Nazi authorities banned Jews from Vienna’s public parks, Schwarzenberg is reputed to have opened the palace gardens to Jews.

He also donated a lot of money to the defence of Czechoslovakia. This opposition to the Nazi regime meant that when German forces annexed the country in 1939 he had to flee, first to Italy and then to the United States. That was the last time he would see the castle of Cesky Krumlov. After the war the Communist authorities claimed it for the nation, a state in which it has remained until the present day. The rooms felt a little in need of maintenance, but the furnishings and personal objects were fascinating.

Cesky Krumlov, Czech Republic

Cesky Krumlov, Czech Republic

Cloak Bridge, Cesky Krumlov castle, Czech Republic

Cloak Bridge, Cesky Krumlov castle, Czech Republic

Cloak Bridge, Cesky Krumlov castle, Czech Republic

Cloak Bridge, Cesky Krumlov castle, Czech Republic

Cesky Krumlov castle gardens, Czech Republic

Cesky Krumlov castle gardens, Czech Republic

Cesky Krumlov castle, Czech Republic

Cesky Krumlov castle, Czech Republic

I went for a walk through the lovely gardens before returning to the town. The sun was setting and most day trippers had left for the day. Cesky Krumlov’s deserted medieval streets were impossibly atmospheric. I stopped at one of the bars on the main square and watched the sky turned pink and then the stars come out. After dinner I strolled through empty streets back to my hotel and took in one final view over the town. In the morning I’d be leaving early for Moravia.

Bohemian rhapsody, the delights of Cesky Krumlov

Although it’s definitely on the tourist trail, Cesky Krumlov is a breath of fresh air after experiencing the mass tourism of Prague. Sitting in the very southern part of Bohemia close to the border with Austria, the Vltava river meanders majestically around this small town on its way towards Prague. The remarkably well preserved medieval heart of Cesky Krumlov is dominated by a magnificent 13th century castle, and is one of the most picturesque places I’ve ever visited. No wonder UNESCO gave it World Heritage status in 1992.

Cesky Krumlov, Czech Republic

Cesky Krumlov, Czech Republic

Cesky Krumlov, Czech Republic

Cesky Krumlov, Czech Republic

River Vltava and castle, Cesky Krumlov, Czech Republic

River Vltava and castle, Cesky Krumlov, Czech Republic

I’d picked up a hire car in Prague and, after battling my way through rush hour traffic, was soon heading south through rolling countryside. It took about three hours to reach Cesky Krumlov and, as I drove up a hill towards my hotel, I got my first view over the town. That small glimpse was mouth watering. It was still early and I couldn’t wait to start exploring, but first I had to check-in to the hotel. I was staying at the 1st Republic Villa, a small hotel run by a young Czech-New Zealand couple. Cesky Krumlov isn’t short of accommodation options, but if you’re visiting I’d recommend this place.

If you do visit and Cesky Krumlov feels vaguely familiar, it might be because you’re a fan of Egon Schiele’s work. The painter’s mother, Marie Soukupova, was born here and he came here to paint. The sexually provocative, explicit eroticism of his work shocked many in cosmopolitan Vienna, in feudal Cesky Krumlov it caused outrage. He painted some very memorable townscapes and typical scenes of daily life, but his ‘degenerate’ lifestyle scandalised the town. Living with his muse and mistress, Walburga Neuzil, was bad enough, but using the town’s teenage girls as models was beyond tolerable.

The town’s Egon Schiele Art Centrum is well worth a visit for the permanent exhibition which has a small collection of Schiele’s drawings, watercolours and memorabilia. It doesn’t have many original works by Schiele, but if you like his work it’s worth the €7 entrance fee. Schiele’s paintings and sketches still have the power to shock and, as I set off to explore the town, I was left wondering how explosive his presence in a religious and conservative small-town society in the early 20th century must have been.

It was lunch time and it was gloriously sunny. I walked around looking for somewhere to eat and spotted some people sat alongside the river. Down a cobbled street I found the entrance to U Dwau Maryi, The Two Marys, which not only had spectacular views towards the castle but also served up the tastiest food I had during my entire trip. The spicy lentils with salad and flatbread came without a single hunk of pork or any dumplings, something of a novelty in the Czech Republic. Thankfully, it still went well with the local dark beer.

Cesky Krumlov, Czech Republic

Cesky Krumlov, Czech Republic

Cesky Krumlov, Czech Republic

Cesky Krumlov, Czech Republic

Cesky Krumlov, Czech Republic

Cesky Krumlov, Czech Republic

Cesky Krumlov, Czech Republic

Cesky Krumlov, Czech Republic

Castle, Cesky Krumlov, Czech Republic

Castle, Cesky Krumlov, Czech Republic

From my riverside table I was able to watch the flow of day tripping tour groups from Prague and across the border in Austria passing over Lazebnický most, the bridge that connects the town with the castle. There seemed to be a lot of people heading to the castle (this is the second most visited town in the Czech Republic after all). I decided to spend a couple of hours wandering the town’s cobbled streets in the hope that most people would be heading home by the time I visited in the late afternoon.

I found my way to the attractive town square, from which a variety of inviting looking streets radiate. I chose one and found myself going up a hill towards the 14th Century church of St. Vitus, before plunging back downhill and into the main square. All roads in Cesky Krumlov seem to lead to the same place. I tried another street this time and ended up in a narrow tangle of lanes that eventually led me back to the river and the wooden Lazebnický most. I crossed over and climbed up some steep steps towards the castle …

Cesky Krumlov, Czech Republic

Cesky Krumlov, Czech Republic

Cesky Krumlov, Czech Republic

Cesky Krumlov, Czech Republic

Castle, Cesky Krumlov, Czech Republic

Castle, Cesky Krumlov, Czech Republic

Cesky Krumlov, Czech Republic

Cesky Krumlov, Czech Republic

Cesky Krumlov, Czech Republic

Cesky Krumlov, Czech Republic

A stroll through Mala Strana, a Prague gem

Squeezed between Prague Castle and the River Vltava, the district of Mala Strana is a bit of a revelation. Often referred to as the Lesser Town, this beautiful area is one of the most historic in Prague, and after the Old Town and Prague Castle it’s refreshingly light on mass tourism. Lovely winding cobbled streets, pleasant little courtyards, 16th century buildings, Baroque churches, riverside parks and interesting museums make it an area worth slow exploration. There are also good restaurants and microbreweries serving up some interesting variations on traditional Czech beer.

David Cerny’s “Babies”, Mala Strana, Prague, Czech Republic

David Cerny’s “Babies”, Mala Strana, Prague, Czech Republic

David Cerny’s “Babies”, Mala Strana, Prague, Czech Republic

David Cerny’s “Babies”, Mala Strana, Prague, Czech Republic

David Cerny’s “Babies”, Mala Strana, Prague, Czech Republic

David Cerny’s “Babies”, Mala Strana, Prague, Czech Republic

Compared to other central areas of the city, Mala Strana feels more peaceful and a little calmer. After the tourist hoards mobbing the castle it came as a pleasant change of pace. I wandered down the hill leading away from the castle and found myself next to the Charles Bridge. There was a street market selling large hunks of roasted pork and giant sausages with horseradish sauce, an enormously popular ‘snack’ amongst Czechs and tourists alike. I had a snack and a beer before plunging into the surrounding streets.

In Kampa Park I came across some of sculptor David Cerny’s weird and wonderful ‘babies’. These large bronze sculptures of crawling people with bizarre heads are a destination in their own right, obvious by the parts of the sculptures that have been made shiny by the rubbing of thousands of people. Next door to the ‘babies’ though is the Kampa Museum, an excellent modern art gallery housed in an old mill. There were two fascinating exhibitions of Czech artists Frantisek Kupka and Jaroslav Paur, neither of whose work I’d seen before.

After an hour of appreciating art, I hit the streets again and spent a pleasant couple of hours wandering Mala Strana’s alleyways. It’s not a very big area, but it’s easy to feel a little lost at times in the narrow lanes. The area dates from the 13th century, when it was settled by merchants and craftsmen who serviced the royals and nobility up the hill in the castle. In later centuries aristocratic families built magnificent palaces and gardens in the area, some of which you can still visit today.

A quirk of the area’s houses is that many still retain their original ‘numbering’. Before actual numbers were introduced, houses had symbols carved or painted above their doorways. A rising sun, three fiddles, a blue fox or a lion rampant. It’s interesting to just wander around spotting them. The best part  of all this, was the fact that there were no tour groups to be seen. That is a rarity in central Prague.

Charles Bridge from Mala Strana, Prague, Czech Republic

Charles Bridge from Mala Strana, Prague, Czech Republic

Mala Strana, Prague, Czech Republic

Mala Strana, Prague, Czech Republic

Mala Strana, Prague, Czech Republic

Mala Strana, Prague, Czech Republic

Mala Strana, Prague, Czech Republic

Mala Strana, Prague, Czech Republic

Mala Strana, Prague, Czech Republic

Mala Strana, Prague, Czech Republic

Before leaving Mala Strana, one final thing I had to do on my way back to the Old Town was to visit the John Lennon wall. This is almost as bizarre as David Cerny’s ‘babies’, although it at least has an interesting back story. Today, it’s largely a wall of graffiti, some related to the Beatles and John Lennon, and is a prime backdrop for selfies. The Lennon Wall started in 1980, just after his death. Someone, presumably in the dead of night, painted a picture of Lennon on the wall – an anti-Che Guevara from Liverpool.

It soon became a symbol of opposition to the communist regime, and although it was painted over again and again, new graffiti would reappear. I watched people posing for photos; listened to some Beatles tunes played by a busker; and then retired to the nearby John Lennon Pub for a well deserved pint of pivo. After visiting the crowded castle, I very nearly didn’t bother wandering around Mala Strana. I’m glad that I did. In touristy Prague, the area retains a sense of timelessness.

John Lennon Wall, Mala Strana. Prague, Czech Republic

John Lennon Wall, Mala Strana. Prague, Czech Republic

John Lennon Wall, Mala Strana. Prague, Czech Republic

John Lennon Wall, Mala Strana. Prague, Czech Republic

John Lennon Wall, Mala Strana. Prague, Czech Republic

John Lennon Wall, Mala Strana. Prague, Czech Republic

Prague Castle, twelve centuries of European history

Towering over the left bank of the River Vltava and above the red tiled roofs of Mala Strana, Prague Castle is both dramatic and picturesque. Seen from a distance it’s hard to get a sense of the scale of the place, but its massive size has earned it a place in the Guinness Book of World Records as the largest ancient castle in the world. It’s home to the majestic St. Vitus Cathedral, which is a rival to any cathedral in Europe, as well as a couple of palaces, churches, a treasury, dungeons, a vast expanse of gardens and a whole street that once housed artisanal workers.

You could easily spend a whole day making use of one of the unnecessarily complicated ticket options. The only down side, and it’s a significant one, is that Prague Castle is the most popular tourist destination in the city. I queued for 30 minutes just to get past security, then there was a queue to buy tickets, and then finally there were queues to get into several of the buildings on my Prague Castle – Circuit A ticket. The longest queue was for St. Vitus Cathedral, and the space outside the entrance was heaving with people as tour group after tour group swept through.

St. Vitus Cathedral, Prague Castle, Czech Republic

St. Vitus Cathedral, Prague Castle, Czech Republic

St. Vitus Cathedral, Prague Castle, Czech Republic

St. Vitus Cathedral, Prague Castle, Czech Republic

Prague Castle, Czech Republic

Prague Castle, Czech Republic

The sheer number of people made it pretty hard to enjoy many of the main attractions of the castle complex, particularly when so many people are wielding selfie sticks. The fascinating history of the place make it a must see, even if the crush of people makes enjoyment fleeting. The castle dates from the 9th century and has been the home of Bohemia’s Kings, Holy Roman Emperors, including Charles IV, Czech Presidents and, for a period during the Second World War, Reinhard Heydrich, the Butcher of Prague. Hitler even spent a night in the castle.

Heydrich, the Nazi Protector of Bohemia and Moravia, was one of the key organisers of the Holocaust and chaired the Wannsee Conference, the meeting where leading Nazis agreed plans for the Final Solution. He did more than enough to earn his nickname as the Butcher of Prague. His assassination in 1942 led to vicious reprisals against Czech civilians, including the destruction of two villages and the murder of all the villagers.

I finally made it into the St. Vitus Cathedral, so named because Wenceslaus I, Duke of Bohemia, had acquired the arm of St. Vitus as a holy relic in the 10th century. The current building dates from the 14th century but was only consecrated in 1929. It’s a very impressive building, inside and out. I strolled through the Old Palace complex before making my way to St.George’s Basilica. I headed down the lovely Golden Lane, where alchemists once tried to turn base metal into gold, and where Franz Kafka once lived and worked.

Golden Lane was packed with people and the weather had become remarkably cold, so I made a quick visit to the dungeon before cutting my losses and heading back down towards the river through Mala Strana. Just before you leave the complex there is a bronze statue of a naked young man with a golden penis, called Youth. The gold colour of the penis is made by people rubbing it for good luck. I wish I was joking, but I’m not. Proof, if it were needed, that humanity is very weird.

Old Palace, Prague Castle, Czech Republic

Old Palace, Prague Castle, Czech Republic

Golden Lane, Prague Castle, Czech Republic

Golden Lane, Prague Castle, Czech Republic

Golden Lane, Prague Castle, Czech Republic

Golden Lane, Prague Castle, Czech Republic

Old Palace, Prague Castle, Czech Republic

Old Palace, Prague Castle, Czech Republic

There’s one final surprise just after you exit the castle, a viewing point on the edge of the castle gardens that offers spectacular views over the city. It almost makes climbing up to the top of the hill and battling through the crowds worthwhile. Almost…

Statue with the golden penis, Prague Castle, Czech Republic

Statue with the golden penis, Prague Castle, Czech Republic

A Hradcany stroll, Strahov Monastery to Prague Castle

The contrast could not have been more different. I started my day with a walk through Prague’s Old Town not much after sunrise. The streets were empty. Crossing the Charles Bridge there were only a handful of people milling around. It was eerily quiet as I walked up the steep hill towards my destination, the Strahov Monastery. The monastery is one of the glories of Prague and I was expecting queues. Instead, I visited the magnificent Strahov libraries only in the company of a Japanese couple. Proof the early bird gets the worm?

Several hours later I exited Prague Castle’s massive complex of buildings and squares feeling dehumanised. The experience of tourism on a scale that was off the scale is not one I’ll readily forget. The serenity of Strahov Monastery was long gone by the time I’d been processed through the Prague Castle ‘experience’ along with thousands of other people. A day that had started with a sense of wonder at the extraordinary beauty of this elegant city, ended wandering down the hill towards the Vltava River in a tourism induced daze.

Philosophy Room Library, Strahov Monastery, Prague, Czech Republic

Philosophy Room Library, Strahov Monastery, Prague, Czech Republic

Philosophy Room Library, Strahov Monastery, Prague, Czech Republic

Philosophy Room Library, Strahov Monastery, Prague, Czech Republic

Theology Room Library, Strahov Monastery, Prague, Czech Republic

Theology Room Library, Strahov Monastery, Prague, Czech Republic

Theology Room Library, Strahov Monastery, Prague, Czech Republic

Theology Room Library, Strahov Monastery, Prague, Czech Republic

The outstanding sight at the Strahov Monastery are the two extraordinary Baroque Theology and the Philosophy Rooms, containing around 60,000 books in the second oldest library in Bohemia. The rooms are adorned with frescos and stucco decoration depicting historical and mythological scenes, and the library is home to rare gems like the Strahov Gospel from 860 AD, the oldest book in the collection. One of the guides told me they had the second largest collection of bibles after the Vatican, but there are also books on mathematics, astronomy, philosophy and poetry.

The low arched ceiling of the Theology Room is exquisite, in the middle of the room are  globes, one of which was made in Rotterdam. You’re not allowed into the rooms, a wise precaution given the age and fragility of some of the books, but as I chatted to the guide a small tour group showed up and was allowed into the room. Apparently, you can go into the room if you pay a premium and book several months in advance. It was clearly time to leave.

Outside things were hotting up tourism-wise, but the weather stubbornly remained cold and cloudy. I was heading to Prague Castle following a route that passed some of the magnificent palaces and churches in the Hradcany area, and down strangely untouristed streets and cobbled lanes. I stopped in the Loreto, the Baroque Church of the Nativity, with its plain exterior hiding a stunning interior. Its small museum has some extraordinary monstrances, including one known as the Prague Sun that is encrusted with over 6,000 diamonds.

Opposite the Loreto I popped into the gardens of the Černín Palace before losing myself in the nearby streets. Hradcany is a small area close to the castle and doesn’t take long to explore, but the unexpected peace and calm made me linger longer than I’d planned. This delay may explain why, when I finally arrived in the square outside the main entrance to Prague Castle, there was a queue of around two hundred people stretching from the entrance gate into the square.

Hradcany, Prague, Czech Republic

Hradcany, Prague, Czech Republic

Hradcany, Prague, Czech Republic

Hradcany, Prague, Czech Republic

Loreto church, Prague, Czech Republic

Loreto church, Prague, Czech Republic

Hradcany, Prague, Czech Republic

Hradcany, Prague, Czech Republic

Charles Bridge, Prague, Czech Republic

Charles Bridge, Prague, Czech Republic

It was approaching midday and, as I stood there trying to decide whether I should skip visiting the castle for a leisurely lunch, more and more tour groups were arriving in the square. I took a deep breath and joined the end of the queue, I mean how bad could it be? Pretty bad it turned out…

Magnificent and tragic, Jewish Prague

There had been a Jewish community in Prague for close to 1,000 years when the Nazis occupied the city in March 1939. A community of 92,000 Jews lived in Prague at the time of the German invasion, one of the largest Jewish communities in Europe, and there were many thousands more living in towns and villages across Czechoslovakia. The Holocaust would claim the lives of well over one hundred and fifty thousand Czech Jews, murdered in death camps including Auschwitz, Treblinka and Sobibor. Eighty-five percent of Prague’s Jewish community would perish.

Franz Kafka statue, Jewish Quarter, Prague, Czech Republic

Franz Kafka statue, Jewish Quarter, Prague, Czech Republic

Spanish Synagogue, Prague, Czech Republic

Spanish Synagogue, Prague, Czech Republic

Old Jewish cemetery, Prague, Czech Republic

Old Jewish cemetery, Prague, Czech Republic

Once in power, the Nazis immediately began to implement their race laws, and the occupation quickly turned into brutal oppression for Prague’s Jews. This culminated in the mass deportation and murder of Jews in Theresienstadt Ghetto in the Czech city of Terezin, or in concentration camps elsewhere in Europe. By the time Soviet armies forced the Germans to retreat from Czechoslovakia, a thousand years of continuous Jewish history had almost been wiped out. Encouraged by the Soviets, many surviving Czech Jews left for Palestine.

Today, around 5,000 Jews live in Prague, similar to the number living there in the early 16th century, and the city’s Jewish Quarter is one of the best preserved in Europe. It is a perverse irony that the preservation of the Jewish Quarter is a direct result of the Nazi decision to maintain it as an open-air “Museum of an Extinct Race”. Thousands of artefacts from Central European Jewish communities destroyed in the Holocaust, were brought here to be housed for posterity.

The wealth of Prague’s Jewish history that can still be seen and visited today illustrates just how significant the community and its culture was. The atmospheric Old Cemetery with its jumble of tombstones; the 15th century Pinkas Synagogue, with its interior inscribed with the names of Prague’s 77,297 Jewish residents killed in the Holocaust; the glorious Spanish Synagogue with Islamic Moorish designs that wouldn’t look out of place in Cordoba; and the Jewish Museum, home to thousands of possessions left behind by the dead, are all unmissable.

The tiny Old-New Synagogue, the oldest active synagogue in Europe, dates from 1270 and is incredible. It’s rumoured that a Golem, created by the 16th century Rabbi Loew to defend the Prague Ghetto, lives in the synagogue attic. Less visited synagogues, like the attractive Jerusalem Synagogue with its Art Nouveau-meets-Moorish architecture and housing a fascinating display on Prague’s pre- and post-1938 Jewish community, are also worth a visit. You can easily spend a day exploring this history.

Jewish Prague almost ended in 1939, but it’s not as if the Nazis originated the idea of anti-Semitism. They built on well-established Christian theological foundations and centuries of persecution. In 1179, Prague’s Catholic authorities announced Christians should avoid touching Jews, and they were forced to build their homes close to the Old Town Square. This was the beginning of Prague’s Jewish ghetto. In 1215, Jews were ordered to wear distinctive clothing. At Easter in 1389, the Church incited mobs to attack and burn the Jewish quarter. Few of the 3,000 Jews living in Prague survived the murderous mob.

Despite regular attacks against the community – the entire Jewish population of the city was twice expelled in the 16th century – by 1708 Jews made up a quarter of Prague’s population. The Empress Maria Theresa decided to expel the entire Jewish population again between 1745 – 48, before an edict of religious toleration was issued by Emperor Joseph II in 1781. Things improved a great deal through the 19th century, and even the ghetto was abolished in 1852.

Spanish Synagogue, Prague, Czech Republic

Spanish Synagogue, Prague, Czech Republic

Pinkas Synagogue, Prague, Czech Republic

Pinkas Synagogue, Prague, Czech Republic

Old-New Synagogue, Prague, Czech Republic

Old-New Synagogue, Prague, Czech Republic

Old-New Synagogue, Prague, Czech Republic

Old-New Synagogue, Prague, Czech Republic

The tragedy of this period was that Czechoslovakia’s Jews were pressured to adopt the German language, the language of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. As a consequence they were often viewed with suspicion by Czech nationalists who saw them as agents of foreign powers. By the early 20th century the Jewish community was itself divided: Zionists, who wanted nothing to do with national politics, found themselves in conflict with Jewish Czech nationalists; who, in turn, were in conflict with German speaking Jews.

How these tensions might have transformed the community became a moot point as German tanks rolled into Prague, bringing with them the start of the Holocaust.

Prague’s Old Town, medieval glories and rapcious tourism

A grey, damp and decidedly chilly Sunday in autumn was never going to be the best way to reacquaint myself with Prague. Especially as I’d read enough about the explosion of virtually uncontrolled tourism in the magnificent Old Town to contemplate avoiding it completely. Twenty-seven years ago when I first stood in the Old Town Square, I was taken aback by how beautiful it was. I climbed the old Town Hall tower, with its now famous Astronomical Clock, and gloried in the view towards the Church of Our Lady before Týn.

Afterwards, I had a beer that cost almost nothing in a cafe on the square, and watched the Prague fire brigade perform an unnerving nuclear emergency drill. I wandered down to the river and the epic Charles Bridge, before disappearing into the quiet lanes of Malá Strana. My overwhelming memory of Prague in 1990 is of a extraordinarily attractive city, relaxed and uncrowded, that was just waking up from the slumber of half a century of Communist rule.

Jan Hus statue, Prague Old Town Square, Prague, Czech Republic

Jan Hus statue, Prague Old Town Square, Prague, Czech Republic

Prague Old Town, Prague, Czech Republic

Prague Old Town, Prague, Czech Republic

Charles Bridge, Prague, Czech Republic

Charles Bridge, Prague, Czech Republic

An hour or two wandering the Old Town’s tourist hotspots in 2017 had me questioning if this was the same Prague I visited all those years ago. This new Prague seemed under siege from tourism, and an insatiable tourist industry (legal or otherwise) willing to pander to the every whim of the international hoards. Karlova Street, the main artery between the Old Town Square and Charles Bridge is a horror show, showcasing all the perils of modern tourism. Charles Bridge is little better, so crowded you could be on a London Tube at rush hour. How do local residents cope?

Almost every landmark and museum was swamped by tourists, mainly in groups. It was shocking and dispiriting in equal measure. There are also an unpleasant number of drunks, down and outs, and other assorted hustlers. Just try to avoid the attentions of the bus tour touts who are everywhere or, later in the evening, shady characters trying to convince you of the delights of strip clubs and casinos. There are probably more Irish pubs than in Dublin, and way too many Hooters bars.

Luckily, away from the main tourism hubs, and around the fringes of the Old Town, there is still plenty of the Prague I remember, and some things have most definitely improved. The price of beer may have gone up quite a lot, but to compensate the food has improved enormously, although even really good Czech food is not something to take lightly. The heavy sauces, hunks of meat and lumps of dumplings served at best lukewarm, will have you feeling like a human dumpling after a few days.

There is no doubt that the Old Town is still a beautiful part of the city, and I don’t want to be too dismissive about it. There’s a reason all those tourists are wandering around, after all, and that’s because the city has one of the best preserved medieval centres in Europe. This was the capital of Bohemia, and in the 14th century it was transformed into an imperial city by Charles IV, Holy Roman Emperor and the most powerful person in Europe. He laid the foundation stone of the bridge that still carries his name today.

Periods of turbulence and political, social and religious violence are dotted throughout Prague’s history, particularly during the 15th century Hussite Wars of Religion. In 1648 the armies of Sweden laid siege to the city; in 1744 it was Prussian armies that surrounded it. Occasionally large parts of the city were destroyed. Throughout all this though, Prague continued to grow in size and wealth to become one of the jewels of the Habsburg Holy Roman Empire, and later the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Prague survived the Second World War with little war damage (the human population was not so fortunate), so that today almost everywhere you look in the Old Town you can see elegant buildings reflecting the wealth and history of the city’s past. Throw in some excellent museums, good restaurants, entertaining traditional beer halls, and even areas of tranquility away from the the crowds, and Prague still has a lot to offer … even to a nostalgic tourist returning after a 27-year gap.

Prague Old Town Square, Prague, Czech Republic

Prague Old Town Square, Prague, Czech Republic

Prague Old Town Square, Prague, Czech Republic

Prague Old Town Square, Prague, Czech Republic

Prague Castle at night, Prague, Czech Republic

Prague Castle at night, Prague, Czech Republic

A grand time in Prague

“One way or another, it was for me a grand time in Prague. I saw and encountered there the beautiful and good, the noble and sublime, but neither was I blind to the darkness.” – Josip Plecnik

David Cerny’s “Tower Babies”, Prague, Czech Republic

David Cerny’s “Tower Babies”, Prague, Czech Republic

It was late at night as the train rolled into Prague’s Holešovice station. As we came to a halt, I realised that I’d arrived at the wrong station. Or at least a station that wasn’t in my guide book. It was late at night and the station was almost empty. Luckily for me, an enterprising ‘taxi’ driver was waiting for the occasional disoriented tourist who found themselves getting off the night train from East Berlin. It was 1990, and just six months earlier the Berlin Wall had fallen, creating shockwaves across the world, and the Velvet Revolution swept Czechoslovakia’s Communist Party from power.

Writer and political dissident, Václav Havel had been appointed President and, in a sign of changing times, the driver offered me a free ride to the city if I changed US dollars with him. The roads were almost empty of cars, and a steady drizzle of rain lent the city an air of bleakness. My week in the then Czechoslovakia, was fascinating. English was rarely spoken and communication was largely a series of gestures. The food, in my recollection, was terrible, assuming it was even edible. The beer was virtually free.

Charles Bridge, Prague, Czech Republic

Charles Bridge, Prague, Czech Republic

Prague Castle, Czech Republic

Prague Castle, Czech Republic

Kafka statue, Prague, Czech Republic

Kafka statue, Prague, Czech Republic

Old Town, Prague, Czech Republic

Old Town, Prague, Czech Republic

Old Town, Prague, Czech Republic

Old Town, Prague, Czech Republic

I have strong memories of Czechoslovakia and its people. Meeting an old man on a suburban street who surprised me by speaking English. He’d been a Spitfire pilot in the Czech Army in Exile in the Second World War, and spoke longingly of an England that had long gone. There was an epic train journey in the company of young soldiers, one disapproving old lady, a dog, several bottles of plum spirits and a crate of warm beer. We didn’t have a common language, but by the time we arrived drunk into Bratislava, we were firm friends.

I couldn’t wait to reacquaint myself with the country – even though it has split in two since then and changed its name twice (most recently to Czechia) – but I returned with trepidation. No one can be unconscious of the changes that have swept countries like the Czech Republic since the end of Communism. Much of this change has been for the good, but it’s no coincidence that Prague has a reputation as a destination for stag and hen parties, there for the cheap booze, as well as more seedy pleasures of the flesh.

As I arrived outside my Prague apartment, two massively drunk Scotsmen nearly killed themselves crossing the road. It didn’t bode well. In truth though, the freewheeling partying of earlier years seems to have calmed down in favour of more conventional tourism. I was prepared for tourist hotspots, but was shocked by the sheer number of tourist that flood the city. It’s hard to go anywhere in Prague’s Old Town without being in a crowd; the epic grandeur of Prague Castle is now drowned in an ocean of bodies; every other building seems to be a tourist shop, bar or restaurant.

Prague in 1990 saw few tourists. The beauty of it’s magnificent buildings passed down by an extraordinary history were untrammelled by selfie stick-wielding hoards. Today it has become a dumping ground for tour groups from around the world. There were plenty from North America, Europe and Asia, but China has arrived en masse. The last time I saw this many Chinese people in one place, I was in Beijing. It’s tricky to find an historic building that doesn’t have a Chinese bride and groom doing a photo shoot. It’s just a little bizarre.

Old Town, Prague, Czech Republic

Old Town, Prague, Czech Republic

Old Town, Prague, Czech Republic

Old Town, Prague, Czech Republic

Old Town, Prague, Czech Republic

Old Town, Prague, Czech Republic

Architecture, Prague, Czech Republic

Architecture, Prague, Czech Republic

Wedding photos, Prague, Czech Republic

Wedding photos, Prague, Czech Republic

Between the boozing Brits, tour group masses, sordid sex clubs and neighbourhoods emptied of their original inhabitants, it would be easy to agree with Josip Plecnik, the great architect of early 20th century Prague. This is a city of immense beauty and sublime culture, but it’s also a city that has many dark corners, and many dark periods throughout its history. A history that is fascinating to explore as you wander its streets, providing you can find some peace and quiet away from the tour groups to enjoy it.