We spent more than half our time in the Czech Republic in small towns. There is almost as much history, the food and beer is as good and one-quarter the price, and no crowds!
From Eger in Hungary we drove about 5 hours back west through Budapest, then northwest up into Slovakia and into the Czech Republic, stopping at a small town called Mikulov, just north of the Austrian boarder.
This is the town square and pretty typical of the square in these smaller towns in Hungary and the Czech Republic. The square if cobbled - this seems to be a rule. There is nothing in the square other than a couple of fountains, usually with religious connotations, or marking a battle won or lost.
The buildings around the square are usually in pretty good condition. Most have some sort of tourist trap on the ground floor, with living quarters on the upper floors. The black and white building here is a pub - great Goulash for about $3 and a half-litre of local beer for about $1.
The town has a small castle and a church. As well, for birders, there is some good hiking nearby that involves a little climbing. Not many birds this time of year, but a nice hike anyway.
This is what the town looks like from the nearby hill.
The nearby town of Lednice has a fabulous castle with huge grounds - worth several days birding in migration season.
This is one of the back entrances. The castle was owned by the Lichtenstein family for several hundred years, then seized by the state under Communist rule just after the Second World War. Most seized land is being returned to the owners -- this may be as well. This estate could be larger than the country Lichtenstein.
From Lednice we drove an hour or so to the amazing little town of Telc.
Built on a meander of the local river, the old town is not much more than the square, shown in the wide photo below, with one very narrow street on either side.
Like all these towns, the ground floor is commercial (tourist trap), the upper floors are accommodation. Unlike other towns, there is a colonnade in front of the shops, and very artistic false fronts on all the buildings. The style is called Renaissance. The idea of having fancy fronts on the buildings on the square is standard all over central Europe. Telc got a little more carried away than most other towns.
It definitely has the Dodge City feel of false fronts.
This is our room [room 1] in the Hotel Telc, just off the old town square. This is a pretty standard room, with slightly more interesting wall decorations. About $60 Canadian, with a very small breakfast. Our hotel in Prague had a huge breakfast buffet, but the buffet alone cost $40 Canadian for two.
The bed is standard - equivalent of a king sized bed in Canada, it is two twin beds pushed together. The mattresses don't seem to have springs or foam. There is no box spring - the mattress rests on a solid plywood surface. They are firm, but comfortable.
Each bed has a comforter and that is all. The room is warmer than we expect in Canada - at least 21.5C, often 22.5C. Too warm for me, most of the time. Brenda was able to cope, even using the comforter.
Like most of these little towns, Telc has a fine castle and church.
This is a pan of the smallish castle grounds. The owners lived in the building on the left, the building on the right is a chapel. Notice the colonnades - either copying or being the inspiration for the colonnades in the town square.
They let you take pictures of the grounds, but no picture once into the castle itself. In my opinion this is a really dumb idea. If I could I would organize a boycott of all castles/churches/... that did not allow pictures. The big church in Prague allows them, but charges about $15 Canadian for the privilege. I suspect most of these places hope that people will buy their picture books of the castle if they cannot take a picture. In some places there is a rush on the booksellers after each tour.
The castle has a split personality. Part is more or less original to the time of the building of the town - 500 years ago. The other part is completely redone in the late 1800's to resemble an Italian palace. Quite a contrast in styles. A good tour that would be better if they allowed pictures.
I have no idea why they didn't renovate the entire castle. Perhaps they would have if they did not run out of money, time, or heirs.
Prague is the best preserved big old European city that I have ever seen.
Vienna has bigger buildings, but Prague is on a people scale. The buildings are two, three and four stories tall - usually not a lot bigger than a big house wide. In Vienna, most buildings are both wider and taller. In Prague, they seem more people sized.
This picture is a composite of 6 pictures taken from the top of the cathedral in the Prague castle. The grey roofs in the foreground are the buildings in the castle itself. The red-roofed buildings next are the area called Lesser Town. The river that runs through Prague is just above the middle of the picture. Beyond that, on the left side of the picture in the crook of the river, is the Old Town (in particular, the Old Town Square).
The castle and the old town, across the river from here, are the two places where we spent most of our time. Three days is not enough to see even a small part of what is available here.
Scroll around and look at this wonderful city.
All that green on the right of the picture is a large park with a nice hill for a daily hill climb. There are gardens at the top as well as an observatory. The tower is a 1 in 5 copy of the Eiffel tower, they claim, but it does not look at all like the Eiffel tower to me.
The old city is across the river. It is almost like a museum - a display of what the city was like over the last 100 years. The new Prague is a modern city surrounding the old city, leaving it like a time capsule. This is not unusual in Europe - many cities in Provence do the same - leave the old city as it was, but develop a new city around it.
It is impossible to drive in Prague - all the roads seem to be one way leading you away from where you want to go, with no left turns when you need them. We drove in without a map and were lucky to end up at our hotel. With a good map showing the one way streets you can drive here with a little planning; without it you could end up anywhere. This is not a bad thing. Traffic moves quickly and locals get where they are going in good time. We left the car in the hotel parking lot the whole time we were here.
Our hotel was on this side of the river, 5 blocks from the old town. We walked everywhere we wanted to go. A nice hotel, a trifle expensive, but nothing in Prague is cheap.
The Old City Square is mind boggling.
This house, just off one corner of the square is just a little more fantastic than most.
Most of the buildings are well preserved, well designed, good looking buildings. Each different from its neighbour in the details, but each fitting into the pattern of the city.
A few like this one stop you in your tracks. What was the person thinking who built this facade? Did she have an end in view when she started, or did she just keep on adding things until there was no more room?
There are beautiful buildings like this all over the old town, particularly in the area of the square - always something to catch your eye.
There are also cafes, shops full of fantastic crystal that in some cases is as overdone as this facade.
There are churches, municipal buildings.
There are lots of tourists here - moving along in bus sized packs for the most part, following an umbrella from stop to stop. The orient has apparently decided to travel and the Czech republic appears to be the destination. Some days it looked like a third of all the tour groups were orientals. Even more interesting, there were even a few Americans travelling - out of fortress American to see how old Europe does it.
We had no problems being hassled by pickpockets. One person asked if I needed any money changed, but that was it. They do have street people begging here, but in a style I have never seen before -- they kneel on the ground then put their arms on the ground, their face down on their arms, their hands extended to form a cup for money. Pretty startling the first time you see it, but no more effective than street kids in Victoria panhandling.
This is the expensive part of Prague. A beer on the square is $5. The same beer across the river in a Pizza joint near out hotel was $1. Good pizza too, although nothing like Il Greco pizza in Victoria.
The Cathedral in the Castle area on the west side of the river is worth a few hours of everyone's time.
It has perhaps 10 of the greatest stained glass and painted glass windows I have ever seen. This particular window intrigued me, although I normally an not a fan of non-representational art.
The Cathedral has the sense to allow people to take pictures - no flash - if they buy a special ticket that costs around $15 CDN. That seems like a lot for a few pictures (almost 80 in my case) but I prefer it to spending the same amount of money on a book full of pictures. There is a chance I will not often look back on these pictures, but there is also a good chance I would not look back at a picture book of the cathedral as well.
It is tough to make comparisons, but I think this cathedral has more to see than the St. Stephen's Cathedral in Vienna. Certainly the stained glass is pretty amazing here, along with other typical cathedral art and sculpture. Perhaps it is just a case of what we saw last seeming the most impressive.
We spent a couple of hours in the Cathedral, including a hike up the tower where I took the pictures in the first pan of Prague. Quite a climb up a very narrow spiral staircase. Because the cathedral is also on a hill, you get a much longer view than from the tower in Vienna.
We also did the full tour of the Old Jewish Cemetery and adjacent buildings. Pretty interesting.
In addition to the distant past, the Czech people have a recent past of which they are very proud -- the peaceful overthrow of the Communist Regime. Walking tours, simple balconies with historic significance. This movement, confined as it was to a small area near the old town, was able to change the government and the history of the country. It is hard to imagine the same thing happening in Canada - that concentration of power and influence. Does anyone have any power or influence in Canada?
Here in BC, perhaps someday they will have walking tours of the BC Teacher's Federation offices or perhaps the BC Federation of Labour. They appear to have the same attitude to our current provincial government (it is an authoritarian regime that must be overthrown) and have similar goals (its overthrow and the establishment of a new regime I presume controlled by the BCTF and the BC Fed). Oh, when will the province be free of the tyranny of democratically elected governments?
One other thing about Prague - there have concerts everywhere, everyday.
This was the room in which we attended a chamber music concert -- flute, piano, viola.
We got there early and grabbed front row seats with a view of the pianist.
The players were probably from the symphony orchestra - they certainly were in control of their instruments. The program was all classical - no surprise there.
Listing to the music that close in a small room is totally different from the symphony -- or CD -- experience.
The one thing that you have to put up with in Prague is being pestered by people selling tickets to concerts. It seems as if every church has a regular concert schedule and people all over the city selling tickets to tourists. It seemed to me though that at least half of the people at this small concert were locals - wearing everyday clothes. They did not look like tourists to me.
This concert was early afternoon. With so many concerts, I guess organizers have to try different time slots to get some of the action.
It occurred to me that Victoria has the players and the tourists to make something like this work. These concerts are not cheap - $25 to $35 a person - and they appear to be pretty well attended. They must be self-supporting for the organizations putting them on.
We managed to get tickets for the ballet Swan Lake on our last night.
This is a shot of the two principals taking their bows in front of the swans. Both dancers were excellent, as were the other main dancers. As you can almost see, the set was minimal. That shape in the upper right of the picture is actually a mirror roughly in the shape of a lake that floated above the swans, rather than below. The mirror was made up of many pie shaped sections.
The ballet was in the Prague Opera House. The interior more closely resembles the Budapest Opera House in that every possible surface is gilded - Vienna relies on gilding only the accents.
While not staged with the production values of the Vienna Opera, it is much more like classical ballet than the ballet we saw in Vienna.
Cesky Krumlov is a small town near Austria with a bustling tourist business. We arrived here without a hotel reservation and walked into town. As we passed this shop and neighbouring house, we noticed the Zimmer Frie sign on the door. This is a room in a private house, sort of a bed and breakfast. After finding a couple of hotels were full up already, we went back. The owner was in the window chatting to the woman next door above the shop. We had a look at the room -- it turned out to look much like a regular hotel room and cost half as much.
Cesky Krumlov gets a lot of tourists and many of the formerly private residences in the old town are now B&Bs. It worked out really well. We were one lane over from the square. Since the entire old town is a pedestrian zone -- except when tourists drive down the narrow lanes to their B&Bs to drop off their luggage -- it was a very quite place at night.
Although this town gets 1.5 million tourists a year, it is cheap compared to Prague.
In addition to the castle and church, both worth visiting, Cesky Krumlov has an old theatre. It may be that the theatre was actually only for use of the family that owned the castle - the seating area is very small.
This is a shot of the stage (no photographs please!) The set is actually a very ingeneous series of sliding paintings - each one of the first 6 columns on the left of the stage (mirrored on the right) is a painted canvas stretched over a frame that slides in a groove in the floor. The remaining columns are cleverly drawn on the backdrop to simulate a much larger stage. A similar series of paintings hang from the ceiling to give the impression of a very ornate roof.
This was very effective -- even standing right at the front of the stage, in the dim light the stage looks several times as deep as it actually is.
At each of the six positions they had several different paintings, allowing them to change the set for different scenes. The set change mechanism was accomplished by a very ingeneous rope, pulley and winch system.
The woman who was the guide for our tour of the theatre appeared to be one of the main people involved in its restoration. She knew all about the history of the theatre -- its changed use patterns over the hundreds of years of its existence, including the last 50 years under the communist regime (it was not destroyed, but the heavy handed preservation techniques almost made it unusable).
She also knew all about the current attempts to rediscover how the theatre operated and to restore it to full operation. Very interesting tour -- no matter what Rick Steves says in his guide book.
The castle also has an interesting tour -- using the same very well informed guide. The interesting thing about the castel though is it relies on murals to turn a rather plain building into something more interesting.
The tower, for example, has been painted to give it the appearance of being a lot more than the silo that it may well be. Most of the walls visible from the interior courtyards are also covered with painted detail that adds windows and columns to otherwise blank walls.
The town also had at least one pretty good restaurant. Aside from the $1 beer made in the local brewery (at one time part of the industrial empire of the occupants of the castle), the food was hearty (that is, simple but plentiful). The local style of cooking is over an open flame -- you have to ignore the slight odour of fire starter this seems to require.
That's a wrap.Back to the Travel 2005 page