Travel With Monica Frim

Bohemian Paradise

By Monica Frim
Photography by John Frim and Monica Frim



Bohemia.

If your mind springs to the 1960’s hippy subculture, or the Beat Generation literary movement of the forties and fifties or even the late 19th century opera La Boheme, you may be tuned in to subculture and opera, but you haven’t been to the Czech Republic. For long before the Bohemian moniker pegged the Beat Generation, or Freddy Mercury’s hit song and biographical drama Bohemian Rhapsody hit the top of the charts, Bohemia denoted a central European kingdom in the Holy Roman Empire. Bohemia later became a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire; then, from 1918 to 1993, the western part of the sovereign state of Czechoslovakia. Today it is the westernmost region of the Czech Republic, a picturesque country known mainly for castles and beer.

As history and politics reshaped Bohemia’s border, Prague remained its stolid epicenter. Known as the “City of a Hundred Spires,” Prague is dotted with the spires and turrets of castles and churches and a laundry list of architectural styles. Cobblestoned lanes lined with palaces and formal gardens spill down hills and into public squares surrounded by Gothic, Baroque, Renaissance, Art Nouveau and Functionalist buildings all standing shoulder to shoulder in their latest incarnations as shops, restaurants and museums. Around the Old Town Square multicolored houses join palaces and multi-spired churches looking for all the world like stage sets from history’s most striking eras. Along with the square’s most ingenious feat of engineering, the medieval clock on the tower of the Old Town Hall, they draw the crowds with their come-hither presence. For more than 600 years, the clock has been telling not only the time but the months, seasons, Christian festivals, and positions of the sun, moon, and constellations. Its hourly show featuring 12 revolving wooden Apostles is one of the square’s chief attractions.

Creativity still looms large in Prague. The National Theater comprises several buildings that feature both modern and classical opera, drama and ballet performances, and there’s scarcely a block that doesn’t have a museum, gallery or exhibition place. Parks and gardens rife with sculptures and statuary play homage to political and cultural heros—from Wenceslas, the 10th century Duke of Bohemia, revered as Good King Wenceslas in song, to composers Bedrich Smetana and Antonin Dvorak. But strewn among the old masters are touches of outsized whimsy, such as the satirical statues by David Cerny that spoof the pragmatism of Prague’s Communist era when artistic expression was heavily repressed. Cerny literally overturned the famous statue of Wenceslas astride his horse on Wenceslas Square with his version of the famous duke (he was given the title of king posthumously) astride the belly of a dead horse hanging upside down in the shopping mall of Lucerna Palace. Cerny’s Hanging Man, a caricature of a suicidal Freud looking remarkably like Lenin, dangles midair from a beam in Old Town while the monumental rotating head of Kafka, an 11 meter-high work of 42 reflective rotating stainless steel panels, looms outside the Quadrio shopping center in New Town.

Prague may have taken on a modern patina but the nerve center of its past is still the medieval

Charles Bridge over the Vltava (Moldau in German), Prague’s most celebrated river. Lined with baroque statues and teeming with artists and crafts people hawking souvenirs of variable quality to a crushing crowd, the pedestrian bridge is the link between Old Town on the east bank and the hills and castle of Lesser Town on the west.

According to the Guinness Book of Records Prague Castle is the largest medieval castle in the world. Comprising palaces, galleries, churches and gardens, and dominated by St. Vitus Cathedral, the castle looms over the copper-green spires and sloping red roofs of Lesser Town’s embassies, government offices, palaces, and courtyards.

Duly, Prague’s magical mien is also its bane. Near constant crowds jostle for views and optimal selfie perches, and tacky souvenir shops share street space with upscale galleries and showrooms. But wander away from the central tourist nub and you’ll find some of the most delightful but underrated parts of Prague—up-and-coming neighborhoods like Holesovice where many industrial buildings have been converted into trendy cafés, restaurants and galleries, or Letna Park with its sweeping bird’s eye views of Old Town and the bridges over the Vltava River.

About a two-hour drive west of Prague, the West Bohemian Spa Triangle is one of the world’s largest concentrations of therapeutic springs, favored by celebrities ever since Charles IV found relief for his paralytic legs in the area’s mineral-rich waters. Today three major spa towns—Karlovy Vary, Marianske Lazne and Frantiscovy Lazne— make up the healthful triumvirate, each purpose-built with parks, gardens, promenades, and colonnades echoing the sentiment that what the waters do for the body, nature and beautiful architecture do for the soul.

In Bohemia balneology is serious business. The resorts come staffed with doctors who diagnose and prescribe spa treatments for everything from gastrointestinal to musculoskeletal to cardiovascular problems. Even cancer patients come to recuperate from the after-effects of radiation and chemotherapy. Of course one doesn’t need to be ailing to enjoy the healthful benefits of the soothing springs and beautiful surroundings. A dip—or a sip—for prevention can be worth the course of a cure.

Karlovy Vary is Bohemia’s largest and liveliest spa town, and the only one with warm springs. Surrounded by mountains and bisected by the Tepla River, the town is full of old-world charm, storybook buildings and gateway to 112 miles of walking trails with scenic lookouts and benches. Historical buildings that once housed the likes of Goethe, Wagner, Austrian Empress Maria Theresa and Norwegian King Harald VI line the Tepla River, culminating at the prominent neobaroque Grandhotel Pupp, which still accommodates bluebloods and international celebrities. The Pupp is a partner of the annual Karlovy Vary International Film Festival and suitably displays the names of Hollywood’s glitterati—guests from Antonio Banderas to Renee Zellweger—in the brass bricks of the pavement in front of its main entrance. A star in its own right, the Grandhotel Pupp was a film location in the 2006 James Bond film “Casino Royale” and “Last Holiday” starring Queen Latifah.

Indubitably, a place that boasts a sophisticated clientry also flaunts exclusive mementos. Two of Karlovy Vary’s most iconic products are the medicinal Becherovka liqueur, concocted from a recipe of secret herbs and spices, and the prestigious Moser glass, esteemed by collectors all over the world. Moser’s lead-free crystal, known for its clear, irreproducible colors, graces the palaces of monarchs such as Queen Elizabeth II and dignitaries like Elton John, Michael Douglas and Madeleine Albright. If you’re looking for a superstar souvenir, a Moser glass puts you in good company.

On the spa route between Karlovy Vary and Marianske Lazne, the Bohemian hills billow with fairyland forests and Hansel and Gretel trails that spider throughout the countryside or follow along meandering rivers. Every bend, whether of the road or river, reveals a natural or man-made wonder. At Loket, an 800-year-old castle soars above the winding Ohre River and the opulent burgher homes of the town below. Charles IV frequently stayed at the castle, which served variously as a fortress, administrative center and prison before becoming a museum with porcelain, weapons, tombstones and archaeological displays.

Closer to Marianske Lazne, the Chateau Kynzvart teems with the heirlooms of the Metternich family whose 300-year-occupation lasted until the chateau was confiscated in the aftermath of World War II. The castle and adjacent Schlossrestaurant Metternich make for another noteworthy stop along the 30-mile road between Karlovy-Vary and Marianske Lazne.

Marianske Lazne is smaller and quieter than Karlovy Vary with a central park surrounded by springs, neoclassical buildings and grand hotels. One of the most opulent is the Nove Lazne, an Italian Neo-Renaissance building known for its carbonated baths that reputedly improve blood circulation and other wellness treatments.

The biggest happening in town is sampling the various mineral waters.  Serious imbibers—and fascinated tourists—may stroll through town pausing at the Singing Fountain with its 250 pulsating jets or the iconic 72-columned Cross Spring Colonnade, all the while sipping from specialized porcelain cups with a shapely spout that arcs from the bottom of the cup to preserve the carbon dioxide (or heat in Karlovy Vary). In spa territory, the toast “na zdravi” (to your health) takes on a literal meaning.

Throughout the Czech Republic raising a glass (or cup) is somewhat of a national pastime, although the healthful implications depend on the contents of the vessel. In spa towns, it’s probably mineral water; elsewhere, more likely beer. Czechs consume more beer per capita than any other nation given that beer often costs less than bottled water. A favorite is the foamy Pilsner Urquell, a pale lager born in the city of Pilsen (Plzen in Czech), a mere 44 miles west of Marianske Lazne, then copied by breweries all over the world.

Fittingly, the Pilsner Urquell Brewery is one of Pilsen’s top attractions even among non-drinkers. Exhibits in its historical buildings and modern brew house tell stories that would interest anyone with even a smidgen of curiosity about the city’s sociohistorical roots. One doesn’t have to be a connoisseur of the bibulous brew to appreciate the cradle of the quaff.

Beyond the beer, Pilsen oozes with intoxicating sights of a cultural kind. Republic Square in the center of the city features gilded fountains with stylized sculptures of objects depicted in Pilsen’s coat of arms, as well as a cathedral that  boasts the highest church tower in the Czech Republic. Streets lined with beautiful baroque and Renaissance buildings lead from the square to parks and some of the most remarkable museums and galleries in West Bohemia, many of them housed in unconventional buildings such as a former Gothic butcher shop or medieval market. From armaments to puppetry, Pilsen’s most connotative icons pepper the tourist trail. One of the most visit-worthy museums is Pilsen’s Underground—a labyrinth of medieval cellars, storehouses, wells and tunnels—once used to store and transport supplies, food, water and, of course, the ubiquitous beer. 

Breweries of all sizes, from major industrial establishments to micro and restaurant breweries, dot the country producing what the locals informally called Czech gold or liquid bread.  In Ceske Budejovice (Budweis in German), the eponymous Budweiser beer draws crowds to tours of its brewery. For more than a century, The Budweiser Budvar Brewery has been engaged in a trademark dispute with American-based Anheuser-Busch over the Budweiser name, which has resulted in a tentative compromise: American Budweiser must be sold as Bud in Europe, and the Czech brand of Budweiser as Czechvar in North America.

While beer is Ceske Budejovice’s bedrock, Ottokar II Square is its cultural core. Elegant, pastel-tinted townhouses that once belonged to noblemen and burghers surround the square, their Gothic and baroque architectural styles in contrast with the square’s spirited and utilitarian past as the site of markets, fairs and executions.  The central baroque fountain of Samson fighting a lion still dominates the square but the fountain’s statues are copies of the originals, now housed in the majestic Town Hall on the south-west corner of the square. Surrounding the square, narrow streets are lined with the classicist facades of houses and historical treasures such as the Cathedral Church of St. Nicholas, the Masne kramy, a butcher shop turned popular Restaurant, and an Art Nouveau palace turned headquarters of the Komercni banka. Next to the Cathedral Church, the 16th century Black Tower offers a bird’s eye view (if you’re willing to climb the grueling 225 steps to the top) of the historic town and surrounding countryside that stretches all the way to Hluboka castle 23 miles away. 

Looking for all the world like a giant sugar cube castle perched on a hill, Hluboka Chateau looms over the Vltava River and the red roofs of the town below. It’s one of the country’s most romantic castles, owned for almost 300 years by the powerful Schwarzenberg family. Although the Schwarzenburgs were ousted from the castle in the political upheavals of 1939, their legacy lives on in the intricately decorated ceilings and opulent belongings they left behind: masterfully carved furnishings and a prodigious collection of weapons and artillery.

The Schwarzenburgs owned dozens of castles across Europe, but their main home until 1918 was in Cesky Krumlov, today Bohemia’s most tourist-trodden town outside of Prague. Dominated by a cliff-top castle with a colorful sgraffito façade, the castle comprises more than 40 buildings and a protective moat that’s home to a resident family of brown bears. Inside the castle, grand halls, salons and lavishly furnished bedrooms abound with heirlooms from the noble houses that occupied the castle for 700 years.

But if the historic castle appears dreamy and romantic, the town itself unfurls like a pop–up book of fairy tales. Bisected by the deep bends of the Vltava River, the town’s labyrinthine streets are lined with gingerbread-like houses turned into galleries and museums, or refurbished as medieval taverns, restaurants and shops selling amber jewelry, porcelain and glass.  Residents, who got more than they wished for in tourism, generally live outside the historical town center, away from the throngs of tourists who can barely pass each other on the bridges and walkways of a town that’s been scrubbed and refurbished to Disneyesque perfection. Sadly too few people allow themselves time to absorb the area’s authenticity and historical significance. Most come for day visits from Prague and spend only a few hours walking or taking selfies in front of medieval buildings and florid facades before snapping up an impromptu souvenir or a hasty pub lunch without so much as a look-see at the magnificent interiors of the castle, monastery, galleries and museums that have inspired the town’s moniker, pearl of South Bohemia.

Cesky Krumlov boasts an assortment of hotels and B & Bs but if you’re looking for accommodation away from fairyland excess, Svachovska is the perfect foil. Only a 10-minute drive away, Svachovka bubbles out of the surrounding greenery, rustic yet without Cesky Krumlov’s swagger and flare. With a main hotel in a converted farmhouse and a restaurant in an old horse barn Svachovka offers space, calm, and restful contemplation and best of all, a key to its private, gated parking lot in Cesky Krumlov.  Onsite, the resort’s own distillery, chocolate factory and brewery quietly stimulate the senses with aromas of apple and pear distillate or sweetened cocoa. And Svachovska’s award-winning Glokner beer has been deemed the best semi-dark beer in the Czech Republic, although the brewery also produces light, stout and others. But you don’t have to be a beer drinker to soak up, or rather in, the suds! Just step into one of the hotel’s wooden soaking tubs and lather up in a frothy beer bath specially prepared by an attendant. This distinctly Bohemian pastime is tingly, soothing and supposedly good for the skin.

Bohemia is like that, a bucket list destination full of fanciful sights like fairytale castles, crazy clocks and statues, and whimsical undertakings like bathing in things you would normally drink—all in the name of good health, of course. Na zdravi.





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Diplomatic Connections thanks the following hotels and restaurants for their support:

IN PRAGUE:

Mama Shelter Prague (hotel)

Veletrzni 1502/20, 170 00 Prague 7-Holešovice

Tel: +420 225 117 862

www.mamashelter.com

prague@mamashelter.com

 

Art Deco Imperial Hotel

Na Poříčĭ 15, 110 00 Prague 1

Tel:  +246 011 600

www.hotel-imperial.cz/en/

info@hotel-imperial.cz

 

Next Door by Imperial (restaurant)

Zlatnická 1126/3, 110 00 Nové Mĕsto

Tel: +420 295 563 440

www.next-door.cz

info@next-door.cz

 

Kuchyň (restaurant)

Hradčanské Sq. 186/1, 118 00 Prague 1-Hradčany

Tel: +420 736 152 891

https://kuchyn.ambi.cz

kuchyn@ambi.cz

 

Spojka Karlín (restaurant)

Pernerova 697/35, 186 00 Prague 8-Karlín

Tel: +420 226 203 888

www.spojka-karlin.cz

info@spojka-karlin.cz

 

Holešovickaá sedma (restaurant)

Dukelských Hrdinů 696/43, 170 00 Prague 7- Holešovice

Tel: +420 233 931 003

www.holesovickasedma.cz

info@holesovickasedma.cz

 

IN SOUTH BOHEMIA:

Solidní šance (restaurant)

Sq. Čsl. Armády 2, 373 41 Hluboká nad Vltavou

Tel: +420 602 879 444

www.solidnisance.cz

info@solidnisance.cz

 

Hotel Budweis

Mlýnská 6, 370 01, České Budĕjovice

Tel: +420 389 822 111

www.hotelbudweis.cz

info@hotelbudweis.cz

 

Masné Krámy (restaurant)

Krajinska 13, 370 01, Česke Budĕjovice

Tel: +420 387 201 301

www.masne-kramy.cz

info@masne-kramy.cz

 

Svachovka (hotel and resort)

Svachovka Lhotka 1, 382 32 Mirkovice

Tel: +420 774 499 812

https://en.svachovka.cz

info@svachovka.cz

 

IN WEST BOHEMIA:

Hotel U Zvonu

Pražská 2685/27, 301 00 Plzeň 3

Tel: +420 731 506 705

https://u-zvonu-cz.book.direct/cs-cz/

recepce@hotel-uzvonu.cz

 

Na Parkánu (restaurant)

Veleslavínova 59/4, 301 00 Plzeň

Tel +420 724 618 037

www.naparkanu.com/cz

 

Beer Factory (restaurant and brewery)

Dominikánská 13/8, 301 00 Plzeň 3

Tel: +420 379 422 526

www.beerfactorypilsen.cz

rezervace@beerfactoryplzen.cz

 

Nové Lázně Health Spa Resort

Reitenbergerova 53/2, 353 01 Mariánské Láznĕ

Tel: +420 354 644 300

www.ensanahotels.com/nove-lazne/en

novelazne@cz.ensanahotels.com

 

Metternich (restaurant)

Zâmek 350, 354 91 Láznĕ Kynžvart

Tel: +420 736 612 482

www.metternich.cz/en

Metternich@metternich.cz

 

Grandhotel Pupp

Mírové nám. 2, 360 01 Karlovy Vary

Tel: +420 353 109 631

www.pupp.cz/en

reservation@pupp.cz

 

Le Marché (restaurant)Mariánskolázeňská 675/4, 360 01 Karlovy Vary

Tel: +420 730 133 695

www.le-marche.cz/en/

info@le-marche.cz

 

U šimla (restaurant)

Závodní 19/1, 360 06 Karlovy Vary

Tel: +420 353 592 112

www.usimla.cz/en

usimla@usimla.cz

 

TOURISM OFFICES:

CzechTourism USA & Canada

26 Broadway, 8th floor

New York, NY 10028

www.czechtourism.com

newyork@czechtourism.com

 

Czech Tourism

Vinohradska 46, 120 41, Prague 2

www.czechtourism.com

 

Český Krumlov Tourism

Infocentrum

Námĕsti Svornosti 2 (town square), 381 01 Český Krumlov

www.ckrumlov.info

info@ckrumlov.info

 

Tourism Authority of South Bohemia

B. Němcové 1824/8

CZ 370 01 České Budějovice

+420 387 201 283

www.jiznicechy.cz

info@jccr.cz

 

Visit Pilsen

námĕsti Republiky 41, 301 00 Pilsen

www.visitpilsen.eu

info@visitplzen.eu

 

Destination Agency for the Karlovy Vary Region

Závodní 379/84a, CZ-360 06 Karlovy Vary

www.zivykraj.cz

info@zivykraj.cz
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