Prague is renowned for whimsical and fairytale architecture typical of the kingdom of Bohemia. But did you know that the Bohemia region extends across the western two-thirds of the Czech Republic?
This means that you can find miniature versions of Prague a few hours drive from the capital. While the French coined the term bohemian, there is a tenuous connection between the roving subculture and the geographical domain of Czech Bohemia. It seems that in the medieval era many gypsies lived in Bohemia kingdom and travelled to Paris, with commentators believing this to be the word’s origin.
3 HOURS SOUTH: THE MEDIEVAL TIME CAPSULE, CESKY KRUMLOV
You enter Cesky Krumlov under a staggeringly high bridge that connects a precariously perched medieval castle to an equally vertiginous hill. It’s a stone gateway that leads to what could be Disneyland’s take on a medieval theme park. It is perfectly preserved in pastel tones with paths kinked around historic buildings and steps crooked with cobblestones.
Constrained by steep mountains flushed green it is rare to find an entire town listed as a World Heritage site, but Cesky Krumlov is one of them. Paintwork that dates from the Renaissance era gives an illusion of three dimensions. If you’re cross-eyed from the effect, the castle is the best place to get your bearings.
To reach it, cross the Vltava River and walk up stairs that are lined by antique shops, souvenir spill-outs as well as hot wine and cinnamon pastry stalls. At the entry to the castle lies the bear pit, a still-functioning relic located at the castle foundations in lieu of a moat. The bears were used from the 16th century onward to scare off potential invaders and plunderers, but on the day I visit, they are more shy than scary.
This castle was the seat of an aristocratic Rosenberg family who ruled the area from 13th to the 17th century. What looks like marble in the castle is not, in fact. Stucco, or fake marble was more expensive back in the day and is used here. The way to tell is to test it with your hand. Real marble will always be cold.
2 HOURS WEST: SPA STROLLING, KARLOVY VARY
Karlovy Vary is the most famous spa town in the Czech Republic, as well as its largest. Candy-coloured historic terraces run alongside a river fed by the mineral springs that has made this town a detox destination for centuries. BYO cup or buy a porcelain souvenir mug to capture the waters, which drip from taps along the river.
The spring water is naturally 72 degrees Celsius, but there are different degrees in the five colonnades that hold springs at temperatures in the range of 30, 40, 50 and 60 up to 72 degrees. The colonnades date from the 19th century and were part of a Victorian spa stroll. I tasted all and can report that the hotter it is, the easier it is to drink, akin to a mineral tea or baking soda dissolved in hot water. There are numerous trace minerals and carbon dioxide in the springs. Cool temperatures have a laxative effect and hot temperatures suppress digestive juices.
Beyond the spa, Karlovy Vary is famous for its pristine Moser glass. Most wouldn’t be enthused by the prospect of a glass factory, but I was surprised to find it an intense and dramatic experience. Veterans with decades of training blow the glass and yet 80% of it is discarded due to defects. Taking perfectionism to new levels, even a tiny speck of dust means death for any glass formation. The factory room is a furnace, with flames fanning out to create the glass shapes and visitors are allowed to stand a few metres from the action.
1 HOUR EAST: BONE CHILLING CHURCH, KUTNA HORA
It’s more Addams Family than average in Kutna Hora, a town known for its bone collection. At the Sedlec Ossuary you descend from bright daylight to a darkened underground where the cold air comes with whiffs of dust and marrow. When your eyes adjust, you won’t believe them.
Human skulls and bones are fashioned into a creepy coat of arms with the skulls taking a centre position. At the bottom of the stairs, there is a bone chandelier that holds wax-riveted candles.
Every wall is filled with stacks of bones, ordered by limb type. The mass mortalities are the work of the Black Death that swept through Bohemia in the 16th century; the site being filled by a monk who stacked the remains. The current bone church arrangement was created in 1870 and the bones have all been disinfected. The remains of a staggering 40,000 people lie in the church in what has been called a “work of eternity”.
After the confronting darkness, you’ll need some light and fortunately Kutna Hora has the same charm as other Bohemian destinations. Dominated by an historic stone monolith, the Church of St Barbara is a testament to Gothic architecture and it sits beside a small slant of vineyard. I visited on the day of harvest, as community members pitched together to pick the grapes and loaded purple-laden crates into vans.