Still smiling from the Renaissance dinner blast the night before, which you are encouraged to experience for yourself, we headed to Ponesice to visit the local distillery that produces plum, pear, apricot, carrot, honey, and black current spirits, and liqueurs. After a delicious sampling, the historic town of Pisek, with the oldest stone bridge in the Czech Republic, was our next stop for a brief guided tour and a delicious lunch in the Hotel Biograf.
Beautifully served, we started with tomatoes with mozzarella followed by baked trout from the Otava river of with garlic and spring onion, boiled potatoes with parsil, followed by a luscious dessert, (Postre) panna cotta with fresh fruit.
Remember, because the country is small, you can cover many towns in a matter of one or two hours from Prague and we were now headed back to that famous city known for its old world charm.
Located on the right bank of the river Vltava, the Old Town, framed by historic townhouses, Prague Castle, and the green dome of the Church of St. Nicholas with its spires soaring into the sky, Prague is like stepping into a Grimm’s Brothers fairy tale. With its winding cobblestone streets filled with shops that sell anything you could possibly desire, including their famous Bohemia Crystal and authentic marionettes, Prague is truly a magical experience. Stroll along the famous neo-Renaissance stone Charles Bridge that will be was crammed with tourists who linger to take pictures and walk along the Royal Road that leads from the original city gate called the Powder Gate which led to the powder tower used for storing gun powder.
At night Old Town is ablaze with lights and having a glass of wine in one of the elevated cafes will add to your enchantment as on this night, a full moon crowned our sensory delight. Not to be missed is the mechanical astronomical clock on the Gothic tower of the Old Town Hall. This historic technological masterpiece displays the time as well as the lunar cycle and the position of the planets and every hour a procession of 12 apostles appear in the clock’s windows to the delight of the throng gathered below in the square. Prague is to savored. Explore the hidden streets, enjoy lovely gardens, stroll along the river, stop in a café for coffee or beer or a glass of wine or treat yourself to an exquisite Bohemia Crystal piece of jewelry. Oh yes. For you shoppers please note that although the Czech Republic is part of the European Union, the Euro is not widely accepted so do have Czech Korunas handy as some of the smaller stores do not accept credit cards either.
While you’re strolling, check out the awesome neo-Renaissance post office built in 1890 but don’t take out your camera as it’s verboten and you will upset one of the guards. With lots of marble benches, it is set up like our DMV where you take a number and wait for it to flash on a screen. Very orderly and very civilized. Also not be missed is the Cathedral of St. Vitus, another church that adds to Prague’s exquisite skyline.
One of the highlights of a visit to Prague is the very famous Jewish Quarter, ranked among the most valuable Jewish historical monuments in the world. It houses the Old Cemetery and the famous Gothic Old-New Synagogue. The cemetery, which is crammed with 12,000 tombstones, the largest in Europe, dates back to the first half of the 15th century and is one of the most important monuments as it is the final resting place for poets and scholars. The Jewish Museum has the most comprehensive Judaic collection in the world and is a cultural center for lectures, concerts, and exhibitions.
For music lovers, free concerts, from classical to pop, are offered daily in many of the churches as well as ticketed concerts in such historic locations as The Prague Castle – St. George’s Basilica.
After a wonderful day of sightseeing and yet another lovely dinner in the Botel Restaurant Matylda, it was time to bed down for the night in the very modern, four-star deluxe Andel’s Hotel, located in Prague’s new business and entertainment district “Andel City,” just a five-minute ride by metro or tram to the city center.
Prague abounds in festivals throughout the year including the celebration of spring that welcomes the new season with music, and concerts featuring all types of music – from classical to jazz. (www.festival.cz) Being the beer capital of the world, it’s only fitting to hold the Czech Beer Festival which offers a wide range of brewers, smokehouses, butchers, delicatessens, and pastry chefs. (www.beerfestivalprague.com).
One of the joys of travelling is experiencing the ethnic food and you can find a culinary adventure at the Prazsky Kulinarsky Institut (Prague Culinary Institute) where award-winning Chef Vaclav Eric conducts cooking classes in the Czech and Moravian traditional cuisines – hearty, rich, and tasty. Although on the road to a healthier way of eating, including the use of organic farm products when possible, the typical national meal is roast pork and sweet-and-sour cabbage with dumplings (knedlik) or the very popular roast sirloin in cream sauce.
Fun-loving Chef Eric conducts his class like a fine ballet, sipping wine or beer as he tends to several pots of food at once – stirring, tasting, smelling, and adding more salt or other spices to enhance the flavor to his liking. For those faint of heart, do not recoil from the large vats of pig or duck lard used in his cooking for the resulting taste is something to die for (too much of this and you could.) Like so many chefs the world over, Eric reaches back into his childhood to recreate some of the dishes that he grew up with saying “all moms are good cooks.” Moving about the kitchen like a well-rehearsed dance team, his Sous Chef, Doman Vanek assists in the stirring and tasting, and aids in keeping all surfaces clean, disposing of pots or pans when they are no longer needed.
After participating in the preparation of each of the dishes, which were prepared one at a time, our eating pleasure began with Kulajda, crème soup with lost egg. We returned to the kitchen and as the day progressed, our chef whistled and hummed as the next dish was prepared - sirloin of beef with Karlsbad dumplings. The combined ingredients for both dishes included bacon, fat, butter, carrots, celery, parsley, onions, applies, bay leaves, allspice, pepper, sugar, vinegar, mustard, white wine, beef bouillon, flour, fresh crème, parsley, rosemary, thyme, salt, black pepper, lemons, eggs, and milk. The result, was well, quite delicious.
Other dishes included the chef’s signature dish – roasted duck with red cabbage and potato dumplings (Kachna) that he serves at home for company. Surprisingly, the duck was almost fat free and had a delicious sweet taste. The dessert, Bohemian cakes with plum jam and cottage cheese, was well worth waiting for as it was truly a spectacular taste sensation.
Having one master chef in the house would be enough, but Eric’s wife is also a professional cook who prepares their meals during the week so that when he comes home from work, a delicious supper awaits him. His “busman’s holiday” is cooking at home on the weekends.
No trip to the Czech Republic would be complete without a visit to Moravia, which you can reach by taking a train from Prague’s Main Train Station. A UNESCO World Natural and Cultural Heritage Site, Olomouc is charming town that is known for its cheeses. Visit the Cheese Museum where a delightfully funny film will give you the history of Alois Wessels, the visionary who despite his wife’s objections, started the cheese industry making the Freud inspired “Phallic Cheese.” By all means do stop in the nearby charming cheese shop and pick up something to snack on as you continue your journey.
There is much to see in this charming town including an assortment of beautiful churches, its famous astronomical clock where every afternoon figurines of peasants and proletarians move to the sound of the chimes, and the famous St. Wenceslaus Cathedral, which has the second highest tower in the country and is the seat of the archbishop.
Restaurants abound including Moravska, where we ate lunch, and then headed to the town of Kromeriz, designated as an UNESCO World Natural and Cultural Heritage Site where we visited the visually stunning Kromeriz Flower Garden, a huge carpet of colorful flowers and its haunting English-style shrub labyrinths
Try to overnight in the Hotel Octarna where you can experience authentic Czech cuisine including fried cheese balls and be delightfully entertained by a local folk group who will play traditional, spirited folk music while you sip some of the amazing local wines.
After a visit to the Archdiocesan Museum located in the Archbishop’s summer residence, we had a divine lunch in the Hotel Alley Restaurant consisting of pea cream soup, duck breast, cherry latke, and potato gnocchi followed by a sumptuous dessert of hot raspberries.
The nearby town of Svaty Kopecek is home to the Baroque Church of the Visitation, one of the most famous pilgrimage destinations in Moravia. With its highly visible picturesque onion cupolas jutting into the sky, the approach to his structure is a beautiful lime-tree lined avenue.
Alas, this most wonderful journey was coming to end and it was time to head back to Prague where we overnighted in the most elegant Crowne Plaza Hotel for departure back to the States the next morning.
The Czech Republic has come a long way since the gray days of the Soviet occupation. Slowly the infrastructures are being restored and the emerging hospitality industry is growing. Your tour guides, if you choose one, will be full of Czech charm and will make your journey as easy and pleasant as possible. And remember, because the country is so small, one could stay in Prague and take a number of day trips by car, train, or bus to some of the towns and villages covered in this feature.
With summer vacations plans being made now, the Czech Republic should go to the top of your list for a very unique travel adventure as you can choose from a broad range of activities and accommodations ranging from luxury hotels to guesthouses, holiday camps, hostels, and private homes. Toward that end, to set up a tour, either work with your travel agent and/or go the www.prague-info.cz or email: [email protected]