Things to Do in Bohemia
It may be the Czech Republic’s newest national park, but Bohemian Switzerland National Park (Narodni Park Ceske Svycarsko) has long been a popular destination for traders and artists. The park’s curious name was inspired by two 19th-century Swiss artists who settled in the region because it reminded them of their homeland. Today the park draws hikers, bikers, climbers, and nature lovers from around the world.
The austere towers and battlements of 12th-century Gothic Loket Castle (Hrad Loket) stands on a granite headland over a bend in the River Ohře and dominates the Western Bohemian town of Loket close to the peat bogs, pine trees and birch forests of the Slavkov Forest Protected Landscape Area. Originally built as a defensive fortress to protect trade routes from Prague, the castle became the favorite royal retreat of King Charles IV of Bohemia, who came here in the mid 14th century to enjoy hunting in the surrounding forests. Later in its life, Loket was occupied by several noble Czech families and between 1822 and 1948 was used as a prison. Today tours of its imposing interior include the torture chambers in the dungeons, where some extremely graphic instruments of torture can be spotted.
In the course of the 19th century, the town of Loket became known for its porcelain factories and today the castle displays a porcelain collection of exceptional quality, including Art Deco vases and rare spa cups used when taking the waters at neighboring Karlovy Vary. Other exhibitions dotted around its maze of rooms, cellars and dungeons include archaeological finds from the area and fine, faded pastoral frescoes in the first-floor galleries. A small armory occupies sections of the Romanesque tower, where according to legend a friendly dragon has lurked for centuries.
Prague day-trippers and German border-hoppers all flock to the northwestern edge of the Czech Republic to explore one of the country’s favorite nature escapes. Called Bohemian Switzerland National Park, it is blanketed in lush green landscapes, steep navigable river gorges, and, most famously Pravcice Gate (Pravcická Brána). Noted as Europe’s largest natural rock arch, Pravcice Gate reaches 16 meters high and 3 meters wide, and stands as the park’s most proud symbol.
While on your visit to the park, check out the sweet riverside town of Hřensko before or after trekking up to see the Pravcice Gate, which can be spied from various viewpoints (several of which have a fee, so bring currency). Then — during your return on the circular route — travel by boat down the calm waters of the river-cut Edward’s Gorge.
The Czech town of Ceske Budejovice in South Bohemia may be best known for the beer that has been brewed there since the 13th century. Even if you aren't a beer lover, this charming provincial capital it is well worth a visit thanks to its vast main square, winding lanes, and role as a good base for exploring the region.
Bohemia has long been associated with the making of fine crystal and glassware, and one of its finest exponents is Moser Glassworks (Sklárne Moser), founded in 1893 and based in the famous, picturesque spa town of Karlovy Vary, 130 km (81.25 miles) west of Prague. Traditionally made according to a secret formula, Moser glass is renowned for its intense, jewel-like colors and is created by hand in the factory – which is open for tours – using eco-friendly lead-free crystal. Glassblowers hand their skills on from generation to generation and in all it takes up to ten years to become expert in hand shaping and blowing the glass while working alongside furnaces heated to 1,200°C. Elegant Moser glassware graces Royal tables and Is used in the making of the awards for the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, held each year in July. Fine examples of the craft, from sapphire-blue flower vases to delicately gilded wine goblets, are beautifully displayed in the new Moser Museum, which offers multimedia accounts of the company’s long history while celebrating more than 120 years of glass-blowing talent. A sales gallery allows visitors to purchase Moser glassware and the café terrace is a pleasant summer spot for coffee and cake amid sparkling crystal sculptures and splashing fountains.
Sitting high on a granite outcrop above the River Sázava between Brno and Prague in Bohemia, Cesky Sternberk Castle (Hrad Cesky Sternberk) is an imposing Gothic castle that has been much embellished and extended over the centuries. It was founded in the mid 13th century by the aristocratic Sternberg family, whose descendants still live there today – the 20th generation to do so. Reinforcements to the fortified walls came in 1467, when a lookout tower was added, and Baroque upgrades to the living quarters were made after the Thirty Years’ War with Sweden in the late 17th century, when the castle had become a family home rather than a defence tower. Further modernizations in the early 20th century saw Český Šternberk kitted out with electricity, heating and running water, and although the castle was ‘nationalized’ in 1949 by the Communist occupiers of Czechoslovakia, it was restored to the Sternberg family in 1992 following the Velvet Revolution. Today 15 richly appointed suites of rooms are open to visitors, full of Renaissance furniture, lavish frescoes, hunting trophies, stucco-work decoration and Sternberg family portraits as well as an exceptional collection of 545 copper engravings depicting the events of the Thirty Years’ War.
An hour north of Prague stands the Terezín Memorial, used by the Nazis in World War II as a transit point for Jews being transported to Auschwitz and other death camps in Eastern Europe. It was built a garrison town in 1780 by Emperor Franz Josef and, two centuries later, was transformed into a fortified work camp and ghetto by the Gestapo. From 1940 onwards, more than 30,000 inmates died of disease and starvation in the Magdeburg Barracks, whose gates bear the infamous slogan ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ — ‘work makes you free’.
The memorial is open for guided tours encompassing the Gestapo prison, the barracks, the Jewish cemetery overlooked by a massive Star of David, the crematorium, morgue and the Ghetto Museum, which opened in 1991 in the camp’s Baroque former school. Among the thought-provoking exhibits are paintings by children who were imprisoned in Terezín and two highly emotional documentaries with eyewitness accounts by survivors plus temporary exhibitions highlighting the tragedy of life in the ghetto and Terezín’s role as a Nazi transit center for Jews from across Europe. There is a star-shaped memorial to the children who died at the camp in the courtyard behind the school.
Offering interactive education and entertainment in Liberec, the modern science center iQLANDIA has a 3D planetarium and hundreds of original exhibits relating to science and technology. It is even home to the first—and only—humanoid robot in the Czech Republic.
The ornate Baroque town of Karlovy Vary in Western Bohemia is famous for its spas, crystal ware and Becherovka, a herbal liqueur that was first concocted in 1807 by pharmacist Jan Becher using the pure water that made the town famous. Today Becherovka is still distilled to the same secret recipe – known only to two people at any one time – using a mixture of natural ingredients including sugar, cinnamon, herbs and spices. It is one of the Czech Republic’s favorite tipples and is also exported to more than 35 countries worldwide. The Jan Becher Museum (Jan Becher Muzeum) opened in 2009 in the distillery’s original premises when production moved into larger premises. Guided tours take in the original subterranean cellars, where Becherovka was stored for two months in vast oak barrels, and showcase the history of the liqueur in a short movie before tracing each stage of its production. The museum is filled with portraits of six generations of the Becher family, two centuries’ worth of advertising posters and examples of the porcelain cups from which Becherovka was traditionally drunk.
After visiting the museum, Becherovka is available to sample straight or in a variety of cocktails in the tasting room, the Terrace Bar and the Esplanade; it can also be bought in personalized versions of its distinctively flat, green bottle to be taken home as a souvenir.
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