The Czech Republic offers great attractions and is very affordable.
Prague is a must. An absolutely wonderful town. We enjoyed our 3 days there immensely and wasn’t even bothered too much by the other 10 million tourists 🙂
Can’t get enough of all the beautiful castles, and loved the great trekking of the Northeastern part of the country. Check the travel description below for a detailed account of the trip.
Packing for the trip
We recently bought a car, and therefore decided that this years trip should make use of that. Eastern Europe seemed to be the logical choice being both a relatively cheap travel destination and one rich on attractions. The exact route ended going through the Czech Republic, Slovakia and one corner of Poland. Our expectations were met in all regards. There is lots and lots to see, and we spent only about US$1500 on our 20 days journey. Including gas, food, accommodation and all. My guess is that we will visit Eastern Europe again!
Packing for the trip was a new experience. We are used to travel with a backpack and the limited space that follows. Having a car and wanting to bring a tent added quite a few items to the list we usually lean against when packing. It also turned out that there was a number of practical things to remember when going by car. Maybe a section on this will be added to the WEB site at some point…
The only thing I will mention now is, that you are required to buy a sticker which allows you to drive on the Czech roads. It can be bought at most gas stations.
Our first stop in the Czech Republic was Terezin. Maybe better known by its German name Theresienstadt. The fortresses of Terezin were built in 1780 by Emperor Joseph II so that the city could defend itself against the Prussians. The fortress must have been very effective, because the city was never attacked.
Instead, part of the fortress, called lesser fortress, was made into a prison in the 19th century. In 1940 Gestapo established a prison in lesser fortress. By the end of 1941 the entire city was a transit camp – or ghetto – for Jews being sent to concentration camps in Poland.
The nazis tried – with great success – to make the rest of the world think that Terezin was a peaceful oasis for Jews, a place where they could decide for themselves and do what they wanted. Even the Red Cross organization was fooled.
The truth was, that almost 150.000 people passed through Terezin on the way to extermination camps. About 35.000 died in Terezin from torture, suicide or disease. The fortress was originally built to house about 5.000 people, but during WWII up to 60.000 people were detained in the camp.
Lesser fortress was used as an actual prison with both tiny cells and larger rooms in which far too many people were gathered. The conditions were horrible. As in many of the nazi camps, the prisoners in lesser fortress had to walk through a gate with a sign saying “Arbeit macht frei” (work makes you free) – a cynical nazi motto.
Saw the Ghetto Museum. In one of the rooms in the museum, many of the names of the people who passed through Terezin are listed on the wall. There were also a film about Terezin. It told about all the transports of people to the extermination camps. A 1000 people would leave by train, and only a few of them would survive the war.
The destination for many of the transports were Auschwitz. An extermination camp is a terrible place – but everybody should see one. To see what horrific events took place there, and help make sure that nothing like that ever happens again.
Next stop was Prague – an absolutely wonderful city! A must see. There are extremely many people in Prague, but in spite of that, it is a great city. We had read that it was difficult to find a room in the high season, but we had no problems and checked into a hostel right next to Old Town Square. Great. If you want to try something difficult in Prague, then try to find an ugly building or street. That’s difficult!
Had a sandwich at a restaurant on Old Town Square and then went out to see some of the city.
Followed the stream of people down to the Vltava river and the famous Charles bridge (Karluv most). It is a special bridge, and we could understand why it is so famous. There is a great atmosphere on the bridge with music, artists and small stalls all along the sides of the bridge. The view is fantastic with the Prague Castle lying on a hilltop. In both ends of the bridge there is a large watch tower. For a small amount you are allowed to go up in these towers and get a good view of the bridge.
The Charles bridge have existed in different versions. The first couple were made of wood, but they turned out to be too weak. They were toppled by floodings. The work on the bridge in its present form began in 1357 under Charles IV. The king was interested in astrology and the foundation stone was therefore laid at a very special time – the 9th of July 5:31. Year, date and time can be written 1357 9 7 5 31. In astrology terms this is a “lucky number” because it is the same forwards and backwards.
To make absolutely sure that the bridge would hold, they mixed the mortar with milk, eggs and wine. Whether that actually made the bridge stronger will be left in the open, but it still stands…
At the MalÃ¡ Strana end of the bridge lies an area called Prague’s Venice. Beautiful houses next to small canals.
Next stop was Prague Castle. It is possible to buy different kinds of tickets depending on how much of the castle you want to see. All of it is worth a look though so get the large package.
Going through 2 courtyards brings you to the impressive St. Veits Cathedral, founded in 1344 by Charles IV. It took nearly 600 years to finish it. The church hold the Czech crown jewels, but unfortunately they are seldom on display. It is possible to climb an 80m high tower. The 2-way staircase leading to the top can be a bit claustrophobic, but the magnificent views of the city of Prague from the top makes up for that.
Saw the Old Royal Palace dating back from 1135. There was a beautiful hall inside which was used for banquets, councils and coronations – and even jousting in bad weather.
We also saw the Convent of St. George, Bohemia’s first convent established in 973 by Boleslaw II. Continued down the Golden Lane, a tiny street filled with tiny houses. It was built in the 16th century for the sharpshooters of the castle. In more recent times the houses have been used by artists. Kafka lived in no. 22 from 1916-1917. Today the houses are small souvenir shops.
Now it was time for a break. We walked back to Old Town Square, passed the beautiful TÃ½n Cathedral and took a time-out at our hostel.
In the evening we went for a walk in the streets of Prague. Got a glimpse of the National Museum before we found a place to eat.
First stop this day was Josefov – the old Jewish quarter. It still stands as a memory of the Jewish culture of Prague, which was practically eradicated by the nazis during WWII. As was the case for Prague Castle, you by a ticket package for the sights you would like to see.
The most famous sight in this part of Prague is probably the Old Jewish Cemetery. The cemetery was in use up to 1787. According to Jewish beliefs, a grave cannot be discontinued. People therefore lies in many layers on this cemetery. There are an estimated 12.000 grave stones on the cemetery, but as many as 100.000 graves in the ground.
It is tradition to place small stones on top of the grave stones. Sometimes with a little note below the stone.
Saw a small museum and then a couple of synagogues. The Spanish Synagogue is built in Moorish style, making it somewhat more interesting than the Maisel Synagogue.
Prague has an excellent metro system. From Josefov the nearest metro is the Staromtska station. From there we took the metro to the Mezeum station which lies right next to the National Museum.
As can be seen from the pictures to the left, the metro is both modern and clean. Trains run every few minutes from 5am until 12 midnight and carries an incredible 450 million passengers a year! There are different kinds of tickets, but a safe bet is the red ticket (12 Kč) on which you can go anywhere within an hour.
We are not really museum people, so having read that the best feature of National Museum is the building itself, we skipped the museum. The building is beautiful though! The museum building is from 1890 and totally dominates the large square in front. It looks like a palace, and it is said that the Russians fired shells at the building during the invasion in 1968. They thought it was the home of government.
At the foot of the museum steps there is a small memorial in memory of Jan Palach, a student who set himself on fire in protest against the Russian invasion. The memorial is placed where he fell and died.
Walked out to the Vltava river and then up towards the National Theatre. Passed the New Town Hall on the way. It looks exactly like the Old Town Hall.
The National Theatre holds a special place in the heart of most Czech’s. The money for the building was collected in a national subscription. The building was finished in 1868 but burned to the ground a few months later. The Czech’s immediately started building again, and the Theatre in its present form was finished in 1881.
Crossed a small bridge to go to the Slovansk ostroy island. It is possible to rent a boat from this island, but we just enjoyed the great view.
The bridge in the middle picture below is Legil most. We crossed this bridge and walked through the Mala Strana quarter. Lots of narrow streets. Even though there are tons of people in Prague, it is easy to avoid them. Just stroll 50m to either side of the main streets and you will have Prague for yourself 🙂
Walked up to the Church of St. Nicholas, one of Europe’s finest baroque buildings. The church was finished in 1755 and now features the largest fresco in Europe. It covers the ceiling of the church and depicts the life of St. Nicholas. The fresco is made by Johann Kracker.
It is possible to get up a level in one side and get some great views of the church.
We now made our way up to Prague Castle once again. This time to see the gardens next to the castle. The gardens are pleasant, but the best part is the view. The river with all the bridges and all the beautiful buildings makes sure that you never get tired of the view.
Walked back towards Stare Mĕsto. Passed lots of trams, and on the Charles bridge there was an organ grinder. Again we enjoyed the small narrow streets – even the street signs in Prague are picturesque. Why make them stiff and boring when they can look like this.
Back on Old Town Square we found a pleasant restaurant where we had a beer and watched the astronomical clock on Old Town Hall do its magic. The clock is made by Hanus Ruaze. It is said that the city council had him blinded after he finished the clock, so that he wouldn’t be able to build an even greater clock in another city. The working conditions were tough in those times! Or maybe it’s just a story 🙂
The restaurants on Old Town Square are more expensive than elsewhere in Prague, but the view is worth paying a little extra for.
Later in the evening we took a romantic stroll down to the Vltava to enjoy the view of Prague Castle by night. When it gets dark the lights are turned on and both the castle and the Charles bridge are lit up. There are benches all along the river where it is possible to sit.
That was it. Another full day in Prague had come to an end.
Day three – it was time to see the rest of Prague. Just kidding. It would be impossible to see all of what Prague has to offer let alone in 3 days. But we gave it our best and started out seeing some of the sights on Old Town Square. The beautiful Tan Cathedral where the famous danish astronomist Tycho Brahe is buried. There is also a St. Nicholas church on the Old Town Square, but it was nothing like the one in Malâ¡ Strana.
For the third day in a row we decided to visit Prague Castle. Crossed the Charles bridge, which was surprisingly empty, and entered the castle grounds by way of the old castle steps. Our goal was actually the Strahov Monastery, but we got curious when we discovered that the area in front of the castle was closed to visitors. It turned out that the Austrian president was visiting.
We decided to wait a while, and after half an hour an orchestra marked the prelude to the arrival of the president. Then a large motor caravan came and the president entered the castle.
We continued towards the convent. Things are easy to find in Prague because of extensive signposting. There are even markings in the sidewalks marking walking trails.
Passed the ČernÃn Palace and visited the Loreta. A baroque place of pilgrimage founded in 1626. The Loreta holds an impressive treasury in which the most valuable item is a 90cm high monstrance called the Prague Sun. It is made of silver and gold and more than 6200 diamonds!
Next stop – and the real goal of the day – was the Strahov Monastery. This monastery has a fantastic library. The book collection is very interesting, containing books by among many others Tycho Brahe, but the library’s halls are what we found most impressive. You can almost see Indiana Jones searching for leads to the lost ark within the books in the Philosophy Hall (the hall with the red carpet). The Theology Hall is also beautiful although less spectacular.
An incredible 3 days in one of Europe’s most beautiful cities had come to an end. We took the metro back to the bus station and then the bus back to our camp ground.
Plzen – the famous beer capital of the Czech Republic – is only a 2 hour drive from Doksany where we were staying. Parked the car in a multi-storey car park. Found a nice pension and went out to see the city. Like Prague, Plzen is a beautiful city with lots of interesting buildings and narrow pleasant streets.
The main square is called Namesti Republiky. The Bartholomew Cathedral looks impressively large lying there in the middle with nothing around it.
First stop was Plzen’s underground. In the period 1400 – 1900 the citizens of Plzen digged a lot of wells and cellars in connection with their houses. They were used for various things like producing beer, keeping food etc. Extensive excavations has laid open a lot of these wells through almost 11km of tunnels below the city. 500m are open to the public and can be seen on a 40min guided tour..
On the tour you see examples of the things that have been excavated. Pottery, glass material, weapons etc. Very interesting actually.
It’s only 10Â° Celsius in the tunnels so bring some extra clothes.
Last stop was the tower of the Bartholomew Cathedral. 300 steps brought us about 60m up in the 100m high tower. The view of the city was excellent. The building in the picture to the left is Old Town Hall.
Now there was only one thing left to do. Buy a couple of Plzen’s famous Urquell Pilsners and relax!
Caught a final glimpse of the cathedral and then headed north west towards one of the most well known castles in Europe – Karlstein Castle.
It’s a short uphill walk from the parking lot to the castle. The first glimpse of the castle is pretty amazing. It looks like something out of a fairytale. A real castle. The castle was founded in 1348 by Charles IV with the purpose to function as a treasury for the Czech crown jewels.
It is only possible to see the inside of the castle on guided tours. In one of the rooms 4 violin players supplied the exact right atmosphere – it felt like being back in the 14th century.
The tour was interesting, but the best part of the visit is definitely seeing the castle from the outside. The road leading to the castle is filled with souvenir shops and small restaurants.
The high tower where the crown jewels were kept is closed for restoration. Apparently the many visitors have caused the humidity to be all wrong for the paintings in the tower. Some guidebooks doubt the tower will ever be opened to the public again.
As mentioned earlier, the crown jewels are now kept in the St. Veits Cathedral in Prague Castle.
Our original plans called for a trip south to the Äsumava National Park, but we changed our minds and drove north west instead, to Jičän, a good base for visiting the rock formations of the north western part of the Czech Republic.
Found a nice place to stay on the outskirts of Jičän and went sightseeing. About 20km from JičÃn lies the castle Kost. It was built in the last part of the 14th century and is one of the best preserved castles in Bohemia.
Later in the day we took a stroll into the city of JičÃn. The square in the centre of the city is absolutely beautiful. Right down to the lamp posts!
Having met lots and lots of foreign tourists in the Prague and Plzen area, we saw almost no foreigners here. There are still lots of people though because the Czechs enjoy traveling in their own country.
Cesky Raj (meaning “the Czech paradise”) is a wonderful area with castles, ruins and rock formations. Perfect for trekking. We started in Prachovskä skä¡ly where some of the most impressive rock formations are. Parked the car in the small town of Prachov and went for a walk in the area. There are different coloured routes, of which the green route passes most of the largest formations and best view points.
The highest rocks are 20-30m tall, so you feel quite small when standing at their foot. There were a lot of mountain climbers trying to scale the vertical sides of the rocks. Some succeeded and had a well deserved lunch at the top.
The round trip on green route is only about 3km. It was easy to see why this place is very popular among the Czechs. It’s a spectacular place.
Look hard at the two pictures to the left and a couple of mountain climbers will appear. It looked pretty hazardous, but I guess they know what they’re doing.
Prachovskä skalä is not the only place to see rock formations in Cesky Raj. We drove north towards Turnov and turned left just before the town. Here, hidden in the hills, lies the Valdstein Castle. It’s not nearly as spectacular as some of the other castles mentioned here, but the view from the place was good. The most interesting part was a couple of recreated rooms where it was possible to see how the people of that time lived.
From the castle it is possible to make a roundtrip to another castle, Hruba SkÃ¡la, by taking red trail one wayand yellow back. There are lots of impressive rock formations along that route. It’s about 7-8km and a beautiful trip.
The formations here were even taller than the ones we had seen earlier in the day.
The Hruba SkÃ¡la lies beautifully with rock formations in the foreground and the ruins of Trotsky Castle in the background. The two towers of the latter castle lies on a hill top and can be seen from many view points in the area. The Hruba SkÃ¡la Castle is a hotel today, so if anyone wants to be king for a day, this is a good opportunity.
The weather was great, so the rest of the afternoon was spent on the terrace with a couple of cold beers and a game of backgammon.
Yet another day in the sign of rock formations. A 2 hour drive took us passed Trutnov and to the town of Adrspach, not too far from Polish border. This is where the Adrspach – Teplice rock formations can be found. The formations here were the largest and most dramatic we had seen, but so was the crowds! Lots of school children and tour busses. Fortunately 98% of the tourist as usual kept within 500m of the giftshop, and on the yellow trail to Teplice (about 5km) we therefore hardly met anyone.
There aren’t a lot of rock formations on that trail, but pleasant marsh and wooded areas. Ladders and bridges made it possible to avoid climbing and wet shoes.
From Teplice we took the red trail back. Another 5km later we were back in Adrspach. Great trip.
That was about it for the Czech part of this vacation. We now headed east towards Slovakia. There was time for one last castle though :-). The Bouzov Castle is another fairytale castle, lying beautifully on a hilltop. If was founded in the 15th century but heavily renovated in the period 1895-1910.
The castle was occupied and ravaged by the nazis during WWII
Now it was time to continue the trip in Slovakia. There is still lots to see in the Czech Republic though and we will hopefully be back for more at some point.
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