Monday, May 30, 2016

Top 30 Beautiful Towns and Villages in the Czech Republic



For anyone planning to visit the Czech Republic, my first advice is always "see more than just Prague." The lands of Bohemia and Moravia are packed with picturesque and historic small towns and villages, many of which receive just a trickle of foreign visitors. While Český Krumlov, Karlovy Vary and Kutná Hora are now firmly on the beaten tourist path, many other towns of equal attractiveness with beautiful town squares, churches and castles sit waiting for intrepid tourists to come and discover them. Apart from a lack of awareness about these towns, the biggest challenge for travellers is often understanding how to use the network of trains and buses to reach places off the main transport corridors between cities. The Czech Republic has one of the world's most comprehensive systems of public transport, and even the most remote villages can be reached with a little research and planning in advance. This website provides a journey planner search engine which can tell you the best way to travel between two destinations by public transport (change into English in the lower right-hand corner of the page). For those eager to explore, there are many gems to be found and experienced, and these 30 destinations are merely a sampler to get a taste of what the country has to offer (the photo above shows the central square in Slavonice). This list only includes towns with less than 50,000 population, so although cities such as Olomouc, Hradec Králové, Pardubice and České Budějovice are really worth visiting, they aren't included here as the focus is on smaller towns and villages in the countryside. Hop on a train and go and see these places for yourself!

1. Český Krumlov - This small town in South Bohemia has been well and truly discovered by the tourist crowds, but don't let that put you off; an evening stroll through the river-encircled old town and castle area is simply stunning, an unmissable experience on a visit to the Czech Republic. The fastest way to get there from Prague is by bus with the company called Student Agency; the bus takes almost three hours and departs from the small bus terminal outside Anděl metro station. Book ahead in summer as the route is very popular. Travelling there by train takes longer (3 hours 30 minutes) and requires a change of trains in the city of České Budějovice.



2. Karlovy Vary - The biggest of the Bohemian spa towns, Karlovy Vary's pastel and cream-coloured buildings line the sides of a deep forested river valley with a series of mineral water springs dotted throughout. The rugged surrounding landscape adds greatly to the ambiance, and a walk along the trails on the hillsides above the town provides memorable views of the town centre. Buses from Prague's central bus terminal (Florenc) take 2 hours and 15 minutes, while direct trains take 3 hours and 15 minutes.



3. Telč - A perfect medieval square of arcaded buildings with brightly painted facades makes this one of the most appealing towns in the country. Its UNESCO heritage site status draws visitors, but thankfully Telč's location far from major cities and railway corridors has prevented it from becoming a mainstream tourism destination. The fastest way to get there from Prague is by bus from Florenc station with a change of buses in the city of Jihlava (almost 3 hours for the total journey).



4. Loket - This small hilltop town surrounding a castle on the summit seems almost too picturesque to be real, and gives Český Krumlov some stiff competition for the title of most beautiful town in Bohemia. The town's proximity to Karlovy Vary ensures a steady flow of tourists, but it still retains a quiet atmosphere for most of the year. The fastest way to get there is by bus from Prague's Florenc station, with a change of buses in Karlovy Vary (about 3 hours for the full journey).



5. Mariánské Lázně - A Bohemian spa town which draws visitors with its healing waters and grandiose 19th-century architecture. Once the playground of European royalty, today the town still retains an air of its former glamour. The most convenient way to travel there from Prague is by direct train, taking 3 hours.



6. Slavonice - This small town on the Austrian border boasts an exceptional collection of sgraffito-covered facades in its two main squares. Visitors to nearby Telč should make the effort to see Slavonice as well, as the architectural style is distinctly different and equally as visually impressive. Buses from Prague's Florenc station take a little over 3 hours to reach Slavonice.



7. Mikulov - This small town next to the Austrian border is spread out along a hillside with a large chateau placed at the top. Nestled among the vineyards of South Moravia, Mikulov is a fine place to experience the local wine industry. Trains from Prague take about 4 hours with a change of trains in Břeclav; since the town is closer to Vienna, Brno and Bratislava it is more easily accessed from those cities.



8. Třeboň - This small town in South Bohemia has luckily retained its medieval walls and fortifications, while the charming central square is among the most architecturally intact in the country. If the town had a river and hilly surrounding landscape like Český Krumlov it would be a major tourist draw, though it does attract many Czech and German visitors. Trains from Prague take 2 hours 50 minutes with a change of trains in the town of Veselí nad Lužnicí.



9. Tábor - This pretty town lies close enough to Prague to be within day trip range, yet it still draws far fewer tourists than its charming streets and squares deserve. Don't miss the Klokoty monastery just outside the town centre, and be sure to climb the tall church tower in the central square for sweeping views of the town and surrounding countryside. Direct trains from Prague take 1 hour 30 minutes.



10. Kutná Hora - A medieval silver mining town which had a population equal to London in the 14th century, Kutná Hora boasts several superb monuments in its old town centre. First among them is the gothic church of St. Barbara with its triple-tented roof and interior decorations related to miners and mining. The nearby suburb of Sedlec contains an ossuary which draws hordes of visitors who gawk at the bizarre sculptures and decorations made entirely from human bones. Direct trains from Prague take 50 minutes, some require a connection in the town of Kolín.



11. Štramberk - This is possibly my favourite small town in the Czech Republic, with an impressive collection of wooden cottages in the distinct Wallachian style spread across a hillside under the tall, round castle tower known as Trúba. Trains from Prague take around 3 hours 45 minutes with a change of trains required in the town of Studénka.



12. Nové Město nad Metují - This small town in East Bohemia features a perfectly-preserved town square and castle, while its hilltop position affords great views over the green countryside nearby. The castle gardens are good for a wander, and hiking trails lead outwards to villages where views of the town reveal just how significant its dominant hilltop position must have been defensively when foreign invaders rode into view. Buses from Prague's Florenc station take 2 hours 30 minutes.



13. Prachatice - This walled town in South Bohemia lies close to Český Krumlov, yet sees a fraction of the latter's tourist visitor numbers. Historic gate towers and several impressive sgraffito building facades are its main draw cards. Prachatice can be reached by bus from Prague's Anděl metro station in 2 hours and 45 minutes.



14. Litomyšl - A small town in East Bohemia with a beautiful old town and chateau, as well as the bizarrely-painted Portmoneum. The Czech composer Bedřich Smetana was born in the local brewery and a large statue of him now stands in the main square. The most efficient way to reach Litomyšl from Prague is to take the train to the town of Česká Třebová and then catch a connecting bus from in front of the train station (2 hours 20 minutes).



15. Litoměřice - This town in North Bohemia is easily visited together with the nearby former Nazi concentration camp in the fortress of Terezín. A beautiful central square and an abundance of cathedrals and churches reflects the town's former historical significance. The unusual watchtower on the roof of the town hall (shaped like a chalice) is particularly noteworthy. Buses from outside Prague's Holešovice train station take 1 hour to reach the town.



16. Znojmo - A picturesque South Moravian town perched on the edge of a deep river valley, with impressive Romanesque frescoes in its old town streets. Don't miss walking down to the river and up the opposite bank for views of the hilltop church and cottages lining the steep hillside. Buses from Prague's Florenc station take 3 hours and 10 minutes.



17. Jindřichův Hradec - This small town in South Bohemia is built around a massive castle complex with a series of courtyards. Don't overlook the backstreets of the old town as there are several beautiful building facades tucked away out of sight. Trains from Prague take 3 hours with a change of trains in the town of Veselí nad Lužnicí.



18. Kroměříž - A pretty town in South Moravia with a large chateau and extensive landscaped gardens (keep an eye out for the wandering peacocks). Few foreign tourists make it here which is part of the attraction. Trains from Prague take 3 hours and 20 minutes with a change of trains required in Hulín, and for some connections also in Olomouc.



19. Pustevny - A small settlement of colourfully decorated wooden folk cottages on a mountaintop, with excellent hiking or skiing options in the vicinity. In March 2014 the cottages were heavily damaged by fire and are being gradually rebuilt according to the original designs by early 20th-century Slovak architect Dušan Jurkovič. The village is hard to reach from Prague due to its remote mountain location, but a combination of trains and buses make access possible in about 5 hours. Trains from Prague require a transfer to a second train in Valašské Meziříčí before reaching Rožnov pod Radhoštěm where buses travel up the slopes to Pustevny at the summit.



20. Jičín - A welcoming East Bohemian town with an arcaded central square and a renaissance palace. Jičín is also the closest town to the spectacular hiking trails among the rocky outcrops of Prachovské Skály. Trains from Prague take 2 hours and 15 minutes with a change of trains required in the town of Nymburk.



21. Pelhřimov - This small medieval town east of Tábor has a well-preserved central square and a museum dedicated to Czech attempts to break Guinness Book world records. Be sure to climb the church tower in the central square for views of the gate towers and church steeples. Trains from Prague take 2 hours and 40 minutes with a change of trains required in Tábor.



22. Mělník - This town in North Bohemia is noted for its wine production (especially white wines) as well as its castle tower which is perched high on a hill above the point where the Vltava and Labe rivers meet. Trains from Prague take 50 minutes with a change of trains required in Všetaty.



23. Holašovice - This tiny village of baroque-style folk architecture in South Bohemia has gained UNESCO heritage status due to its well-preserved buildings. Holašovice is reachable from Prague in about 3 hours; take a train to České Budějovice and then a bus from the city's central bus terminal.



24. Rožmberk nad Vltavou - This peaceful village near Český Krumlov features a large castle on a narrow ledge of rock above the Vltava river. Trains from Prague take 3 hours and 40 minutes to reach the village, with a change of trains required in České Budějovice and Rybník. Note that the village train station is 1.5 kilometres south of the village and involves a 20 minute walk to get there.



25. Cheb - This is another much-overlooked town that receives far fewer tourists than it deserves. It lies on the German border in West Bohemia and features a beautiful old town square and side streets as well as an imposing castle complex. Direct trains from Prague take 3 hours and 15 minutes, though be sure to take the trains which travel via Plzeň as those that take the northern route through Karlovy Vary take considerably longer and offer less scenic views during the journey.



26. Domažlice - A quiet town in West Bohemia featuring a long and narrow central square with a unique round church tower. Trains from Prague take 2 hours and 30 minutes (the EuroCity trains heading towards Munich).



27. Náchod - A small East Bohemian town on the Polish border with a beautiful hilltop chateau. The central square below contains an unusual church with large wooden towers. Travelling to Náchod from Prague takes 2 hours and 30 minutes with a series of quick transfers required in Pardubice, Jaroměř and Starkoč.



28. Stražnice - A small town in South Moravia known for its folk culture and annual folk festival. Many buildings and houses are decorated with colourful folk art designs, and a large outdoor museum at the edge of town displays dozens of historic wooden cottages and barns from the region. Trains from Prague take 4 hours and 45 minutes with a change of trains in Břeclav and Hodonín. Given how far the town is from Prague it's much easier to visit from Brno, Vienna or Bratislava.



29. Kadaň - This historic walled town in North Bohemia features a central square full of 18th-century buildings and a strikingly unique town hall tower that suggests the influence of North African architectural styles. Trains from Prague take 2 hours and 40 minutes with a change of trains in the rail junction Kadaň-Prunéřov.



30. Žatec - A picturesque old town in North Bohemia with a museum dedicated to the local hops industry and its important role in Czech beer production. The central square and side streets of the historic centre have been carefully renovated over the past few years and now offer a pleasant place for a stroll and sitting in the outdoor cafes. Trains from Prague's Masaryk station take around 2 hours with a change of trains required in Lužná u Rakovníka.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Wooden Churches of the Carpathian Mountains # 40 - Nehrovets, Ukraine


Nehrovets is a small village in the Zakarpattya region of western Ukraine, close to the larger village of Kolochava and 40 kilometres north of the small city of Khust. The church stands on a low hill above the central part of the village, with tall trees making it hard to see from the road. Views of the peaks and ridges of the Carpathian mountains to the north make an impressive backdrop for the church and separate wooden bell tower.


The church is dedicated to Saint Michael the Archangel and was built during the eighteenth century. It is constructed primarily of spruce wood. The floor plan of the church features three rooms and there are three distinct roof lines above, making it an example of the Boyko architectural style. The height of the tower and the steeple above it dominate the structure, yet the overall design retains well-balanced proportions. An inscription indicates that in 1918 the church was moved to the present location and received a new roof and tower at that time.


The church interior contains a modern iconostasis and icons, though several historical icons from the 18th century have also been preserved. A large two-storey bell tower stands at the top of the steps leading up from the road. The bell tower has a shape which is typical for the 'Verkhovina' highlands of this region, though it is in a much better state of preservation than most others. A modern wooden church stands beside the historical one and serves as the main place of worship for the local villagers.


Nehrovets is difficult to reach by public transport, the best option is to walk the two kilometres along the road from the neighbouring village of Kolochava which has limited bus and marshrutka connections to Khust. In the morning marshrutkas also go from Nehrovets to the nearby town of Mizhhirya. The road through the village is paved but it is not in good condition. The keeper of the church keys lives across the road from the church, though I was unable to locate them during my visit.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Photo Challenge # 16 - Name This Location

It's time for another Photo Challenge, can you name the city where you can see this leaning building? It's in the old town square in the centre of the city. Be the first to post the correct answer below!

Wooden Churches of the Carpathian Mountains # 39 - Hrabová Roztoka, Slovakia


This small Greek Catholic church lies on a hill above the village of Hrabová Roztoka in eastern Slovakia, just a few kilometres from the border with Ukraine. The church was built in the middle of the 18th century and dedicated to Saint Basil the Great. A sign on the rear wall of the church declares it to be a 'national cultural monument' of Slovakia (this type of metal sign is affixed to most of Slovakia's wooden churches), but interestingly a second sign declares it to be 'Ukrainian national architecture' written in the Ukrainian Cyrillic alphabet.


The church has a simple, rustic design which is similar to the nearby church in the village of Ruská Bystrá. It follows a three-room plan with a nave, sanctuary and 'babinec' or entrance room, while above there are two towers with onion domes topped by three-barred iron crosses. In the front tower there are three bells which date from 1796. The roof and exterior walls underwent repairs and replacement of wooden tiles in the year 2000.


The impressive iconostasis in the interior dates from 1794 and is almost as old as the church itself. A rare feature of this church among those in Slovakia is the Czar door, in place of the usual 'Tree of Jesse' doors. In the second row of the iconostasis the image of the Last Supper is in the central position, instead of the more common image of Christ. Five icons were stolen from the church in 2003; they were later recovered, but were damaged and required restoration.


Kalná Roztoka can be reached by infrequent buses from the towns of Snina and Stakčín to the north, while the neighbouring village of Ruská Bystrá has bus services connecting it to the town of Sobrance to the south. Therefore it is possible to see both Ruská Bystrá and Kalná Roztoka in a day by walking along the forest trail between them and arriving and departing from each by bus. The church key keeper lives down the hill in the centre of the village, but they weren't at home when I visited.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Wooden Churches of the Carpathian Mountains # 38 - Slavoňov, Czech Republic


This Roman Catholic wooden church sits on a small hill at the edge of the village of Slavoňov in the East Bohemia region of the Czech Republic. The church was built in 1553 on the site of a much older structure. It was originally founded by Utraquists (a moderate branch of the Hussite movement) and dedicated to Saint Martin, but the church became Roman Catholic in 1683.


The large bell tower within the church yard dates from the same era as the church, probably built in 1555. The lower half of the tower is made of brick and its height suggests it was also intended to have a defensive military function in the event of the village coming under attack. Three bells cast in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries hang in the tower.


The beams of the church are made of oak, spruce and fir logs. The joints between the logs were filled in with mortar and then the exterior of the building was covered in whitewash. The interior walls and ceiling are painted with murals of plants and flowers which date from the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries. The murals were restored twice in the twentieth century.


Getting to Slavoňov is possible by public transport since there are several buses daily from the nearby town of Nové Město nad Metují which has train and bus links to most major cities across the country. The village is just 4 kilometres east of Nové Město nad Metují so it is also possible to walk there along a forest trail. The church is open for religious services four times per week, and at other times the door into the front entrance room is left open where it is possible to get an obstructed view of the church interior.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Wooden Churches of the Carpathian Mountains # 37 - Kostryna, Ukraine


Kostryna is a small village in the north-western part of Zakarpattya region in Ukraine, close to the borders with Slovakia and Poland. The church stands at the top of a hill above the village in a clearing among the trees. New wooden steps added in 2013 lead the way up the hill from the road. The church is a fascinating example of a hybrid architectural style encompassing both Boyko and Lemko elements in its design. This is apparent in the large, dominant central tower above the nave, a feature of Boyko design, combined with the three towers descending in height from the bell tower above the entrance area, a feature of Lemko style.


The Church of the Intercession was built in 1761 and the original structure is a fine example of Boyko design. However, the addition of a taller bell tower above the entrance area in place of the original tower converted the style of the church from Boyko to Lemko, showing the dominant influence of Lemko style in this region in the early nineteenth century. This modification likely occurred around the year 1800. The largest bell in the tower was taken and melted down as part of the war effort in the Hungarian revolution of 1848, and was later replaced with a new bell in 1899.


According to some accounts the church originally stood in a nearby village and the people of Kostryna purchased it and moved it to its present location in 1703. The church has been lucky to survive until the present day; in the 1860s the villagers planned to replace the wooden church with a new stone church on the same site, but a lack of funds prevented this from happening. Enough money for a new stone church was finally collected by 1914, but the outbreak of World War One stopped construction, and following the war devaluation of the currency they had collected prevented construction of a stone church yet again.


Kostryna can be reached from Uzhgorod by elektrichka (regional train) or by marshrutka (minibus). There are several buses and trains per day travelling in each direction, so making a day trip to Kostryna from Uzhgorod by public transport is possible. The minibuses are usually very full and often uncomfortable, so the train is a more pleasant way to travel there. The beautiful mountain scenery in the region is more easily seen from the windows of the train as well.