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EurFirst Trip to the Czech Republic

Revised April 15, 2007

For many travellers, the Czech Republic invites them to see its economic and social changes as it moves out from behind the Iron Curtain. While Prague once promised a great vacation bargain, the spectacular city has become a European hot spot and you need to search to find the deals that were so common ten years ago. But head to the countryside where you can visit some of the most beautiful castles and monasteries in Europe and stay in the local inns and pensiones and you will find the Czech Republic a warm and affordable place.

We had planned to visit Pilzen, CZ on our first trip to Europe but faced some difficult logistics because our car rental company would not let us drive in easter Europe. Knowing this, we tracked down a rental agencyfor our 2006 trip that would let us take our car to the Czech Republic and Hungary. The car rental agreement imposed some conditions on where we parked the car and let us travel to Slovenia and Croatia but not to Slovakia. You may find fewer restrictions if you pick up your car in eastern Europe, but it seemed that both the airfare to Germany and the price of rentals in Germany were so much lower that we saved hundreds travelling into Stuttgart instead of flying directly to Prague and renting our car there.

Prague

If you fly to Prague, make use of public transportation if you are traveling light, and if you have much luggage, take a shuttle to your hotel. Prague is rumored to have less-than-scrupulous taxi drivers, so if you choose to take a cab, be certain you know how much the fare will cost and get a receipt.

If you are driving into Prague, select your route carefully. If you come from the east, your first encounter will be with the grime and congestion that are typical of modern cities anywhere on the planet. So make your entry from the north or south so that your first glimpse of Prague is of a city of 100 spires.

A trip to Prague should begin with a stroll across the Charles Bridge. It spans not only the Vltava River but more than six centuries of history. Today, street performers entertain passersby as they walk from the "Old Town" to Prague Castle. On summer days, the bridge fills with works of local artists who have many beautiful souveniers that will tempt you. But if you get to the bridge around 7 a.m., there will only be a few joggers and other tourists sharing it with you.

The hilltop setting of Prague Castle Prazky Hrad includes not only the Royal Palace but also St. Vitus Cathedral and St. George's Basilica, the charming servants quarters on Golden Lane and the Powder Tower which once held the gun powder that protected the castle. A single fee gets you into all of the buildings, which you can comfortably visit in a few hours.

The synagogues and museum in Old Town tell you much about the struggle of Prague's Jewish community. Persecuted for more than 700 years, the Nazi occupation destroyed much of the Jewish history of Prague but remnants were preserved at the Maisel Synagogue while the drawings in the Ceremonial Hall express, through children's art, the horror of the Nazi holocaust.

Those who love classical music can pay tribute to Mozart. At Bertramka, Mozart completed the opera Don Giovanni. You can then visit the place where Don Giovanni premiered and where part of the movie Amadeus was filmed, the Estates Theater.

 

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For Catholics, no visit to Prague is complete until they have visited the Church of Our Lady Victorious where the famous statue of the Infant of Prague, the Christ child adorned in the garments of royalty, is on display.

As you wander this beautiful city, be sure to visit Wenceslas Square. At this place, the uprisings of 1918, 1968 and 1989 began, bringing the Czech Republic to its current political structure.

The Northwestern Region

Rivaling Neuschwanstein for its grandeur and beauty, Karlstejn Castle has been restored to its original condition atop a high hill surrounded by forests. Its chapels and living quarters are a tribute to the wealth and power of King Charles IV, the 14th century ruler who built this palace.

In the northwest, you should visit Carlsbad, another beautiful castle built by Charles IV. Because of the bubbling hots springs, Carlsbad became a popular therapeutic resort. There are many different springs now open to guests, with more than 100,000 people using them each year. Heading farther west from Carlsbad, you will reach Cheb. Its impressive 12th Century castle is one of the most spectacular in Europe.

The city of Pilsen in the west considers itself the birthplace of beer. Its stark concrete architecture reminds you of a time when this was a country behind the Iron Curtain. Stop by for a tour of the famous Pilsner Urqell brewery.

Like many of Germany's neighbors, the Czech Republic bears the scars of World War II in many ways. Two dramatic memorials to the brutality of Hitler's regime are: Lidice, the mining town razed by the Germans in retaliation for the assassination of Hitler's official in the Czech Republic and Terezin, a town converted to a concentration camp that, for the sake of propaganda, was made to appear as an idyllic community. Lidice is just a short ride west of Prague and, like France's Oradour serves as a reminder that entire towns can be destroyed in the savagery of war. Terezin is about an hour north of Prague and easily reached by bus. Developed to convince the world that the German's were not abusing prisoners in concentration camps, it was painted and given park-like features and in the early years presented as to Red Cross inspectors as a typical concentration camp. Its facade was maintained because for many prisoners it was only a brief stopover on their way to other death camps. As the war continued and Hitler read the handwriting on the wall, Terezin lost its glossy facade and dissolved into another gruesome death camp.

A fair visit to Terazin takes at least four hours. We left Prague early with the hope to tour the city and camp and then head south to Czesky Krumlov. Unfortunately, we cut our time in Terezin short so we could get to Czesky Krumlov before 6 pm. We would have been well advised to be in Terezin by 8 am, start at the park and in the museum, visit the city sight and them travel to the "small fortress" .

Southern Region

We truly enjoyed our visit to Cesky Krumlov which is not far from the beautiful Austrian town of Linz. It is know for its hilltop castle that sits in a sharp bend of the Vlatva River. The suggestion from Rick Steeves is to enjoy the view of the castle as you canoe down the Vltava River. This picturesque city is home to major theater productions throughout the summer and draws huge crowds so be sure to make reservations if you want to stay in the area.

A fairytale castle arcs along the curve of the Vltava River. It is painted in vivid pastels, surrounded by dramatic gardens and protected by a tower that looks more like a birthday cake than a building.

We took his suggestion and rented a boat at the southern end of the town. It gave us a chance to circle the city and then continue on through the forested river and next village. There are a few places to stop for barbeques and beer along the lazy river before you complete the journey. It's about $20 per traveler for the boat/raft, life preserver and shuttle back to Cesky Krumlov. For those who might be intimidated, the trip from Cesky Krumlov north is a very gentle trip along a very lazy, meandering river, punctuated by a few surprises that don't involve rough water. (We found them charming, not fear-inducing). If you want a bit more excitement, do a trip that puts you in the river south of Cesky Krumlov, but be sure that you do the entire trip around the curve of Cesky Krumlov. It is indescribably beautiful

Find the best deal, compare prices and read what other travelers have to say about hotels in Czech Republic

Not far from Cesky Krumlov is Cesky Budejovice, the birthplace of Budweiser. The town prospered as a trade center during medieval times and its history lives in the many churches and buildings found in the city.

For camping information, go to http://www.camp.cz or www.myczechrepubic.com/camping.html. Specific information about campsites near Brno can be found at www.brnograndprix.com.