Hear about travel to the Czech Republic as the Amateur Traveler talks to Anthony Hennen from anthonyhennen.com about his trip to the areas of the country outside of Prague.
“I think in general the Czech Republic is a great introduction to seeing the former communist countries or central-eastern Europe in general and Slavic countries as well. I think it has a fascinating history, it is very friendly, English is widely spoken at least by people under 30 or 40. It has a very unique culture where you can find great music from Jazz to something like bluegrass. There’s great trips to be had in hiking or taking long biking trips. there’s plenty of castles and various Châteaus. To me, Prague is a very beautiful and fascinating city, but the rest of the country I think deserves more of a look and offers a more relaxed pace and there’re fewer tourists around as well.”
Anthony guides us on a tour of both Bohemia in the west and Moravia in the east. He recommends stops at a bone church, hikes in some of the National Parks, a visit to the former Nazi concentration camp at Terezin, and a visit to the UNESCO World Heritage Sites of Kutná Hora and Český Krumlov.
We talk about the caves in the Moravian Karst, the Romani culture, and the old Jewish Quarter of T?ebí? which is yet another UNESCO site.
Find out why, as wonderful as Prague is, it is worth seeing more of the Czech Republic.
DK Eyewitness Travel Guides – One of my favorite guidebook series
Šumava National Park
Cathedral of St. Pater and Paul
Kašpárek’s Guide to Brno
Czech Republic – UNESCO
Tugendhat Villa in Brno
Museum of Romani Culture
Hiking South Bohemia: Šumava National Forest
Oblivious in Zizkov
Chris: Amateur Traveler, episode 465. Today the Amateur Traveler talks about historic towns, beautiful hikes, Jewish Ghettos, and a church made out of bones. . . as we go to the Czech republic.
Chris: This episode of Amateur Traveler is sponsored by DK Eyewitness travel guides. These colorful guidebooks are filled with great information and are one of my favorite guidebooks. I have 25 of them right here on my bookshelf. Learn more on DK.com.
Welcome to the Amateur Traveler. I’m your host, Chris Christensen. One quick note about last weeks show on the Tennessee River Valley. If you had trouble hearing me on that show, just delete the version that you have and download it again. There was a problem that’s now fixed. But now, let’s hear about the Czech Republic.
I’d like to welcome to the show, Anthony Hennen, from AnthonyHennen.com, who’s come to talk to us about the Czech Republic. Anthony, welcome to the show.
Anthony: Thanks for having me, Chris.
Chris: And I say the Czech Republic. When I did that, a lot of you immediately thought about Prague, and that’s actually not what we’re talking about. We’re talking about the parts of the country that everyone ignores, which is all the parts outside of Prague. We do have another episode on Prague if you want to learn more information about that, but Anthony pitched dealing with all the ignored parts of the Czech Republic. Anthony, why should we go to the Czech Republic, and then get outside of Prague?
Anthony: I think in general, the Czech Republic is a great introduction to seeing the former communist countries, and more of central and eastern Europe in general, and the Slovak countries, as well. I think it has a fascinating history, the people are really friendly, English is pretty widely spoken, at least by people who are under 30 or 40. And it has a very unique culture, where you can find great music, from Jazz to something like Bluegrass. There’s great trips to be had in hiking, or taking long biking trips. There’s plenty of castles and various Chateaus. To me, Prague, in general, is a very beautiful and fascinating city. But the rest of the country deserves I think more of a look, and to offer a more relaxed pace to explore and just be a tourist around, as well.
Chris: Okay. Let’s assume that we’re starting visiting the country by visiting Prague because I think that’s very likely. Where would you go next? What itinerary would you have for after we’re done with the city?
Anthony: So I think if you’re coming into Prague, you’ll be in Bohemia. And if you want to see more of that, there’s basically two main parts of the Czech Republic. There’s Bohemia, which is in the west, and there’s Moravia, which is in the East. So if you’re starting in Bohemia, the big places outside of Prague are Kutna Hora, which has an old bone church, which was part of an Ossuary that was one of the older ones in the Czech Republic.
Chris: Before we move on from that, let’s just make sure everyone knows what you’re talking about. I assume you’re talking about a place that was a monastery–usually it is– where you have preserved the former residents. You have basically just their bones preserved in some sort of a collection place. Is that what we’re talking about here?
Anthony: Yeah, yeah. Exactly.
Chris: I feel like I said that very poorly, but. . .
Anthony: No, no. I think that gives the general idea. What generally brings people out there is that the church, and the city, it’s composed of many, many human bones from the Ossuary out there. So it’s very, very odd.
Chris: When you say the church is composed of bones, I’m not sure I’m getting the picture. The whole church? Or there’s an outer shell?
Anthony: The outer shell is normal. But inside it itself, it’s decorated with and composed of bones, essentially. It’s a very strange sort of look.
Chris: Excellent. And the city again where that was?
Anthony: Kutna Hora. That’s K-U-T-N-A H-O-R-A. There’s plenty of companies running day trips out of Prague, as well. So it’s very easy to get out there.
Chris: Okay. And is there more to see in that area before we move on?
Anthony: In that area specifically, not that I’m aware of. But going out from Prague again, there’s also Terezin, which was a concentration camp during World War II, which was sort of the model camp that the Nazis would use when the Red Cross would come in to check. They preserved it very well, it’s a very moving experience. But if you’re interested in World War II or Holocaust history, that would be another day trip from Prague.
Anthony: And as far as Bohemia in general, one place that people tend to get if they’re going outside of Prague, is ?eský Krumlov, which is a beautiful small city that is very highly recommended. In the summer, it will be very crowded. But it’s still a very beautiful place to see.
Chris: And are there specific things you recommend that we do while we’re there? As I recall, this is a mountain city.
Anthony: Yeah, pretty much. It has a reputation of being Prague, but much, much smaller. The town square and generally walking through the city is a big draw to it. The river actually curves around the city, so on three sides its penned in by the river. So there’s a lot of hiking opportunities, and that sort of thing. But most of the draw is getting out of Prague into a small city, to see a more relaxed version of the Czech Republic, I suppose.
Chris: Okay. And at this point, we’re south of Prague near the border with Austria.
Anthony: Well actually, it’s closer to Germany and Austria. It’s near the divide there. And if you’re interested in hiking, probably one of my favorite day trips I did from Prague, and in general when I was in the Czech Republic, was going down to the Šumava National forest, which runs along the German and Austrian border. And it’s a beautiful area. It’s very remote and relaxing for anywhere from a short biking trip, to a day-long one. I would highly recommend that, if you can do it.
Chris: Any particular hike you would recommend there?
Anthony: I started from a small town, named Churanov, C-H-U-R-A-N-O-V. And I combined that with a few different routes that took me. . . It’s about 12 miles altogether. Around the mountains, there’s a couple of small towns. But there’s many, many out there. And within the Czech Republic, they have a lot of well-marked hiking trails and maps that you can find and create your own route. So it’s not too difficult.
Chris: Excellent. Where to next?
Anthony: I would very much encourage getting to the Eastern part of the country, into Moravia. The Czech Republic is smaller than Indiana. So it’s relatively easy to get around most places, Prague to the second largest city of Brno, is about three hours by train or bus. And Brno doesn’t have much of a reputation to tourists. It’s sort of a boring Czech town that’s not Prague. But Brno, the joke I heard from Czech was basically, someone from Prague was talking to someone from Brno, and the person from Prague asks, “How did you guys view Prague? What’d you think of it?” And the person from Brno says, “Oh well, you see, people living in Prague, it’s a little more focused on business, it’s a little more arrogant. . . “And the person from Prague was offended and says, “Yeah, well, we don’t even think of you.” So it’s sort of a playful rivalry there. But Brno itself is about 400,000 people. It’s very relaxed, there’s a lot of sights. I was actually living out there for three months, so I’m slightly biased on that account. But Brno, as a tourist, there’s plenty to see in the city itself to last three or four days. And then you can get out into the countryside as well and find a lot of things to do.
Chris: Now, when I think of Prague, I think of a beautiful city, but someplace that gets really busy with tourists in the summer. Are some of these other cities you mentioned–and my pronunciation of Czech is not going to be great.
Anthony: Neither is mine.
Chris: Český Krumlov was also busy in the summertime?
Anthony: Yeah. Not as busy as Prague, but decently so.
Chris: Are there places to go in the Czech Republic that would avoid the crowds in the summertime?
Anthony: I mean, outside of those two, you’re pretty well on your own. At least, while I was in Brno, I rarely met any non-Czechs, non-Slovaks. Karlovy Vary, which is in Bohemia, near the German border as well. . . it’s a popular spa town, so that can get pretty crowded. But in general, tourists don’t really leave Prague very often. So if you’re getting outside of Prague, the only tourists you’re running into are other Czech’s so it’s pretty relaxed.
Chris: Okay. And then in Brno, what would you recommend that we do?
Anthony: So the two biggest symbols in Brno are Špilberk Castle, and the Cathedral of St. Peter and St. Paul. Špilberk has a very nice view around the city. Inside it is a city museum of Brno. You can keep yourself occupied for at least a day up there, if not more. And throughout the summer and the fall, they generally have various events going on up there as well.
Chris: Any particular event that you would recommend that we check out?
Anthony: It really rotates with the year. At least when I was there, one weekend they had a Balkan dance night, which was interesting. They do historical reenactments from the city history, so there’s usually something going on up there, there’s something to see.
Chris: Historical reenactments, like battles? Or what are we reenacting here?
Anthony: Yeah, generally.
Chris: Okay. Any particular resources you could recommend, for those of us who don’t speak Czech, in terms of knowing what’s going on?
Anthony: Actually, there’s one guy who’s from Brno, who does a guide to the city. His name is Michal Kašpárek. And he has a guidebook that he updates every few years, just focusing on the region. That can be very useful. And he’s founded the website, ‘Brnonow.com’, but that’s a very good resource that’s from a local that focuses on the city and on the area. As far as American guidebooks go, Lonely Planet’s isn’t that good if you’re leaving Prague. Their newest addition just focuses on Prague, and then a few side trips. Their edition from 2010 is actually pretty useful. If you can find one of those, they’re much more useful, if you’re going to Moravia, but it’s a bit trickier.
Chris: I think that might be the first time we’ve recommended the older guidebook over the newer guidebook.
Anthony: I actually lucked out on that one, but yeah. It was surprising. It makes sense, most people are focusing on Prague, the guidebook will focus on Prague.
Chris: Sure, absolutely. Let’s take a break here, and hear from our sponsor, who is DK Eyewitness travel guides. I’m torturing myself a little bit here, because I have the Portugal guide here in front of me. On the way home from Morocco, we actually changed planes in Lisbon, and Portugal is a country that I haven’t been to, obviously not counting being in the airport. So I was opening up the Portugal guide and looking at what I missed in Lisbon. Seeing some of the things that we heard on the recent episode on Lisbon, the Castle of St. George for instance. And then the way it tackles the city, we have Lisbon at a glance, and then we get some information about the 1755 earthquake that reshaped the city in such a major way. And then we get sections about entertainment, about the fado music that Lisbon is so well known for, and then it goes into the individual neighborhoods. All of them with maps and pictures of the various sights to see in Lisbon. I enjoy things like the street by street guide to some of the smaller neighborhoods. And again, one of the things that I like about the DK Eyewitness travel guides, as somebody who is a visual learner, is the pictures of the different spots, as well as the maps and the cutaway drawings. If you’re interested in getting your own guide to Lisbon, or one of the other guides that DK has, you can get them at DK.com
Chris: Anything else that you would recommend that we see in the Brno area?
Anthony: There’s one castle that’s close to Brno, called a Veveří Castle. And it’s an older castle, it’s very attractive. Again, not many non-Czech’s get out there. But also, alongside the castle, there’s a dam that has created a lake. That’s sort of a nice area to think about adding on, just going along the lakeside can be very calming. There’s also in that region, there’s some Moravian Karst which is a various caves and things about nature to see. I haven’t actually gotten out there myself, but it’s been highly recommended to me by various friends who live there.
Anthony: What I found really interesting is, sort of, there’s a lot of small villages and towns in Moravia that are surprisingly attractive or interesting. The one that I really enjoyed was a small town called Šternberk, which is sort of. . . it’s a few hours north of Brno. A little closer to the Polish Border. It’s this very attractive small town that has a nice town square and church. There’s a leftover castle tower above the city that gives you a nice look over the entire area. It’s also very nice for hiking and things of that nature.
Chris: I was surprised when I was looking at the UNESCO World Heritage sites in the Czech Republic, how many of them were not in Prague.
Chris: That is really what we hear about. So for instance, I think there was a villa in Brno, and there’s a number of different castles, as well as the former concentration camp, and a number of different things that were really completely off my radar.
Anthony: Yeah, that’s what I found going over to the Czech Republic. Because I had been there multiple times before, but I had never really gotten out of Prague. And when you get out there, you see a lot more of those UNESCO sites. There area small villages or interesting things of that nature. The one that you mentioned in Brno, the village Tugendhat, it’s an architectural style from “the 1920s”, from the modernism movement. That’s supposed to be very good as well.
Chris: Interesting. What time of year would you recommend going to the Czech Republic.
Anthony: The high season is summer. For good reason, it’s very beautiful in the summer. I would recommend the summer, or the fall as well. Early fall is very, very nice. You see the trees start to change, fewer tourists, the weather gets a little better, it’s less hot. . . so I would highly recommended the shorter season from the end of summer and going into fall.
Chris: Okay. I was there in December, and it was quite cold as I recall. And of course, if you’re obviously if you’re a skier or something like that, there are reasons to go in that season. But if you’re not, other than the fact that it won’t be that crowded, I would say go sometime when it’s warmer.
Anthony: Yes, exactly. And if you’re interested in skiing, most of the Czechs I met would either go to Slovakia or to Austria for that. It doesn’t seem to be as popular as a place to ski as some of the nearby countries.
Chris: Interesting, okay. What surprised you about the Czech Republic?
Anthony: In general, how western it feels for a country that was communist 30 years ago. The transition was sort of very, very strong and sweeping. If you get farther east, you’ll still see a lot of, at least in Russia. . . not so much Ukraine, right now, for obvious reasons. But other places, you still see a lot of those communist monuments, communist hangovers…
Chris: Right, sure.
Anthony: Throughout the Czech Republic, I mean, the biggest thing you really see is the old apartment blocks. But otherwise, English is very widely spoken, fairly prosperous country, you would hear very bad American top 40 music almost everywhere you go. If you have a calling for something of that nature. . . Probably that, and also just how beautiful the countryside will be. All throughout the Czech Republic, you’ll be going along in a bus, or driving, and it’s just these rolling hills throughout the countryside. And it’s just a very beautiful view of lakes, and rivers, and everything else that you’ll find.
Chris: And you mentioned getting around in a bus, or driving. What would you recommend? I’m assuming it’s easy to get around either way.
Anthony: Yeah. Obviously, I think driving will be the easiest way. The highways are pretty easy to navigate. The bus system if fairly cheap. I mean you can go from Prague to Brno, usually for about $15. So it’s not a big financial cost. The train system is also very reliable.
Chris: Okay. And you mentioned pubs. Obviously, the Czech Republic is known for beer, but I don’t know what other things I should try while I’m there.
Anthony: Czech food is fantastic, I think. It’s not the most healthy. It’s very heavily meat-based and potato-based, but they do a very good job with [inaudible 00:16:17] and everything else. The two biggest dishes are goulash and Svíčková. Goulash is sort of beef with a sauce, sometimes they add on cranberries for a little flavor. And also, Czech dumplings, which are these big, big pieces of bread, essentially. Very good. Svíčková, it’s a little sweeter. Usually might have some cream on top of it as well. But those are the two very traditional dishes over there. There’s also. . . this is more so in Prague, but they have this pastry called Trdelník , which is where they cook it over an open fire, and they add on cinnamon, sometimes they’ll put Nutella, or some sort of plum, sort of grapes, or some sort of jam inside it…it’s very, very tasty.
Chris: You had me at Nutella.
Anthony: Exactly. In general, walking into a Czech pub and just ordering something you can’t really understand or read. But order it and it will be tasty, more than likely.
Chris: Now, you mentioned that the Lonely Planet guidebook removed some things in their latest version. If we were using that guidebook, what would we miss?
Anthony: There’s no huge gaps, really. The biggest thing is just, they take out the focus of sort of the regional countrysides and things like that. You don’t get much info on other cities, like Ostrava or Olomouc, you sort of miss smaller places. Like another UNESCO site that we referenced earlier. There’s Třebíč. Třebíč is very well known for it’s historic town square and center, Třebíč is well known for its well preserved Jewish quarter. Those are both out in Moravia. Probably an hour or two hours from Brno. So if that’s up your alley of interest, I would also recommend seeing that.
Chris: Oh, I misconstrued that the Jewish Quarter of Třebíč was associated with the former concentration camp, but I realized that I am wrong there.
Anthony: Oh yeah, yeah. No it’s completely opposite sides of the country.
Chris: Okay, got it.
Anthony: Also, what I found interesting in terms of surprises was. . . so I’m from Appalachia, and I’ve always had this interest in Bluegrass. There’s also a subculture in the Czech Republic that has a strong element of Bluegrass, and sort of American country music. It’s a little harder to find in Prague, but it was part of. . . During the communist era, there was this culture that would usually tramping where people, during the weekends would leave the cities and go out into the countryside. They would camp out, they would hide, forage through the forest for mushrooms and whatnot. During World War II, when Americans were stationed throughout Europe, over the American radiowaves, they would play some country music and some bluegrass. Czechs started hearing this for the first time and got interested in it. And so they would sort of try to do their own versions of it. And I believe in 1968, or so, sometime in “the 60s”, Pete Seeger did a concert around Czechoslovokia. And that was the first time anyone had seen a banjo, and they realized that was the instrument they had been hearing. And so one guy actually made his own banjo from a picture of Pete Seeger’s. And that sort of got into the tramping culture over there. And so this is mostly during the summer and the fall, but throughout the countryside, there’s various festivals and things of that nature where you can find people playing sort of older Czech music, and some traditional music, also infused with some American country influences and bluegrass. And so if you’re over there at at time where there’s a festival going on like that, I would highly recommend getting out to see it. It’s a unique experience. It’s very strange.
Chris: I would not have expected that. Interesting.
Anthony: Yeah, it’s a twist.
Chris: If you’re standing in the most beautiful spot in the Czech republic, where are you standing? What are you looking at?
Anthony: I think probably hiking around Šternberk. There’s an area that used to be a rock quarry, but now it’s a nature preserve. And you can keep hiking around it, and hike above it to one of the nearby hills. And you get this fantastic view of the area, where you can see for miles. You see rolling hills, the small villages sandwiched between them. It’s just absolutely gorgeous on a clear, sunny day.
Chris: And this is the area you were talking about before, that’s on the German border?
Anthony: Yes, yes. But it is just a wonderful experience just getting out into the countryside, or hiking and getting out to a small village and sort or relaxing on a square. Or getting up on a hill near the town itself. You just get this expansive view. It’s wonderful.
Chris: What do you wish you’d known before you went to the Czech Republic?
Anthony: Czech, mostly.
Chris: Did you pick up much Czech?
Anthony: A little bit here and there, but it’s a tricky language. It’s close with Slovak, and they’re basically mutually intelligible. But they have a few pronunciations that are just impossible to do in coming from just speaking English. It’s not necessary to learn, but if you really get out into the countryside and you don’t have any Czech friends with you, it might be slightly difficult. Workable, but difficult. That’s probably the main thing, really. Otherwise, everything else is pretty easy to pick up. The Czech Republic as a whole has a very good infrastructure, it’s very clean, it’s not too difficult to navigate on your own.
Chris: Right. Of all the countries we used to call Eastern Europe that are really central Europe, it’s certainly one of the first to develop a tourist infrastructure.
Anthony: Yeah, and I would also avoid referring to Czechs as Eastern European in front of them.
Chris: Yeah, as I say, it’s really not Eastern Europe.
Anthony: They’re the heart of Europe. They’re central Europe, and Prague is farther West than Vienna is.
Chris: Right, and if you look at a map, they are correct….So who was the most memorable local that you met?
Anthony: This one Czech, he’s a musician, but he played Czech bluegrass. And talking with him about how he got into bluegrass was interesting, where he heard it first. Czechs will open up with you if you get to know them. They’re lives. . . it’s very interesting to listen to their experiences. But especially if they grew up during the transition from communism. Because they tell you some stories about growing up under that system that’s very interesting. And I think he was one of the most interesting one’s I’ve met.
Chris: And I imagine, really you’ve got to find someone who’s over 35, 40 years old before you even get somebody that would remember communism?
Anthony: Yeah, that’s correct. There’s also a friend of mine, I went to his hometown and visited with him and his family for a few days. And he introduced me to his grandfather who had worked at the Tatra factory up there, Tatra was one of the old Czech car companies. But he was sort of telling me about his life and growing up. He started working in “the late 30s, “early 40s”. So he was working in the factory under Nazi occupation, and then he was working at the factory for the next 40 or 50 years under communism. And sort of hearing that was fascinating.
Chris: Any particularly notable stories that he mentioned?
Anthony: The most notable of that was probably under the Nazi occupation, when some high ranking officials came out to tour the factory, and that sort of thing. But it’s just very interesting to get out to a lot of the former communist countries and hear the experiences that they went through. It’s a completely different perspective that we don’t really hear very much in the United States
Chris: Sure. Before we get to our wrap-up questions, anything else that we should know before we go to the Czech republic?
Anthony: Another interesting thing I found, was out in Brno, there were a lot of very good Indian restaurants. I still can’t figure out why, it made absolutely no sense to me, but they were wonderful. If someone ever figures that one out, I would be very interested in knowing. But also, another place in Brno, they had a museum of Romani culture, of the Roma people in general, which I found fascinating. And there’s not really one like it anywhere else. So if you find yourself in Brno, I highly recommend going there. It talks about history, culture, and music. It’s very interesting.
Chris: And if someone doesn’t recognize that people, we’re talking about the people often called gypsies.
Chris: Excellent, that would be interesting. I know so little about that culture, it would be interesting to go there.
Anthony: Yeah, and one more thing. As far as accommodation goes, Prague is probably the worst for that in terms of the quality, and it’s the most expensive. Just because it’s such a strong tourist city, prices are so low that it’s very easy for a lot of Europeans to go there for a weekend trip. But when you get out of Prague, most places you’ll stay in terms of hostels, the high-quality prices should be around $10-15 a night. That’s an upswing when you leave the capital and get to other places.
Chris: Well, I know some people even recommend finding a place along a commuter train outside of Prague for staying in Prague. Basically that it’s such a difference between the two in terms of price.
Anthony: Yeah, exactly.
Chris: One thing that makes you laugh and say, “Only in the Czech Republic”?
Anthony: Boarding a train at 8:00 a.m. to cross the country, and being surrounded by people with two liters of their favorite local beer for the trip.
Chris: Okay. They had to bring a two liter bottle on the train trip? It’s not that long a train trip.
Anthony: Yeah, it’s interesting with the cultural norms over there, where Czechs per capita, I believe they drink the most of any country in Europe. But it’s very interesting, because you rarely see them drunk. It’s usually just a beer with every meal, a beer in the evening. It’s a larger volume overall. But its spread out and moderated very well.
Chris: Finish this sentence: You really know you’re in the Czech Republic when, what?
Anthony: When you leave Prague, and you don’t hear English spoken anywhere else.
Chris: And if you had to summarize the Czech Republic in just three words, what three words would you use?
Anthony: Beautiful, relaxing, and intriguing.
Chris: Excellent. And Anthony,where can people read more about your travels?
Anthony: If you check out my blog at AnthonyHennen.com You should get more than you’d probably want.
Chris: And do you have a particularly great post about the Czech Republic that we should remember to link to from the show notes?
Anthony: Probably either the narrative when I was hiking in the Šumava National Forest in South Bohemia, or the one where I was in Prague with a friend. We were just exploring the city for the night, and we ended up in a gay bar. But it took us a few minutes to piece it all together.
Chris: Good to know. Thank you so much for coming on the Amateur traveler and sharing with us your love for the Czech Republic.
Anthony: Of course. Thanks for having me.
Chris: I’ve still got a lot of community news to share with you, and feedback, But I’m not going to get to it this week. Because I’m trying to get on a plane to Barcelona for the TBEX Europe conference, where I’m speaking. So with that, we’re going to end this episode of the Amateur Traveler. If you have any questions, send an e-mail to host at amateurtraveler.com, or better yet, leave a comment on this episode at amateurtraveler.com. You can also follow me on Twitter, @Chris2x or Instagram @Chris2x as well. And as always, thanks so much for listening.
Transcription sponsored by JayWay Travel, specialists in Central & Eastern Europe custom tours.