I knew my inaugural trip to central Europe’s Czech Republic would be a good one when my KLM flight served ice cream on the plane. It was ginger, to boot; my favourite flavour.
I was headed to the Czech Republic to experience an active holiday in the Giant Mountains and Bohemian Paradise. It would include plenty of hiking and cycling and nature, guaranteed to work off the ginger ice cream in no time. But there were also discoveries made in Prague, a city that far surpassed my expectations. While the signature bread dumplings and gravy weren’t to my liking, the city oozes with energy, culture, architecture and history. Dare I say it, but I think Prague, a.k.a. Praha, rivals Paris as a romantic European city.
Once in Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic, as I walked from Prague Castle towards the Jewish Quarter along weathered, cobblestone streets, I was both amazed and charmed to see vintage Praga model cars, circa 1920s and 30s with what appeared to be tourists as passengers. I took a double take, and it was indeed a sightseeing tour in a sleek, convertible vintage car. It certainly seemed befitting of this elegant city of stone bridges arching over the Vltava River, cathedrals, castles, gold-tipped towers and Gothic church spires. I had already arranged a walking tour of the city, an absolute must-do pursuit. But if I visit again, I’m going to drive in vintage style. No hop on-hop off bus for me. It’s still necessary, though, to stroll to places where the car can’t drive, such as the landmark 14th century Charles Bridge and the intimate narrow lanes and corridors in Old Town Square, and Wenceslas Square, the site associated with the historic student march for democracy on November 17, 1989.
Another discovery I made was Prague’s penchant for puppets. Almost everywhere I turned, there were puppet stores and puppet kiosks stocked full of colourful puppets and wooden marionettes dangling from strings. From Pinocchio to Beethoven, marionettes are marvelled in Prague, so it’s no wonder this city has been designated the unofficial capital of world puppetry. There’s a National Marionette Theatre, puppet workshops, and the Puppet Museum. Puppet theatre, evidently, has been a tradition in the Czech Republic for centuries. First, it was targeted to adults as a commentary on politics and society, and it would eventually become children’s entertainment and a vehicle to maintain the Czech language. If you’re passionate about puppets, you may want to plan your trip around the annual World Festival of Puppet Art, which takes place in Prague from late May to early June.
As difficult as it was to leave Prague’s culture and colourful ambiance, I looked forward to my rural escape and change of pace. You can easily squeeze in two or three days in Prague and then head for the hills, literally, for some hiking and rock climbing in the beautiful Bohemian Paradise, and some cycling, hiking and skiing in the Giant Mountains.
Gems, Castles and Bohemian Paradise:
They say opposites attract. When you first set eyes on the Omnia Hotel, it looks like an industrial warehouse; understated in its grey slate and concrete, speckled with splashes of orange accents. But the setting is unquestionably serene. Situated in Krkonoš National Park in the spa town of Janské Láznĕ, this ultra modern low-rise luxury resort doesn’t try to compete with nature. You’re surrounded by fresh mountain air, and birch and linden trees, a mere two hour’s drive from Prague.
Only minutes on foot from the hotel foyer is a bike shop and cable railway lift to Černa horá (Black Mountain), the second highest peak (1,299 m) in the Czech Republic’s tallest mountain range known as the Giant Mountains. Black Mountain is located in the northern region of the Czech Republic, known as Bohemia, on the Czech-Polish border. When the skis are in storage, it’s all about taking on Black Mountain’s hiking and cycling trails. The cable car to the top of the mountain easily fits two passengers and two bikes, and it’s a moderately steep, 10km hike or ride to the bottom. Sněžka is the highest mountain in the Czech Republic (1.602m above sea level).
More hiking, cycling, skiing and rock climbing adventures await within a short driving distance to Bohemian Paradise in the foothills of the Giant Mountains. The oldest nature reserve in the Czech Republic, Bohemian Paradise is known for its majestic giant rock formations and castle ruins. It’s also a region known for its mining of garnet in the Bohemian Central Mountains. As garnet is my birthstone, I was thrilled to visit the Garnet Museum in the town of Turnov, in the heart of Bohemian Paradise. I stayed overnight at a castle. Hotel Chateau Hrubá Skála, is a 14th century Gothic castle overlooking the Hrubá Skála Bukovina Arboretum forest park. Situated on a rock platform, high above the treetops, the views from the castle’s courtyard are, well, fit for a King, or Queen.
I visited Liberec, a city surrounded by the Jizera Mountain range. A unique tourist attraction is the cable car to Hotel Jested, at the peak of Jested Mountain. The hotel’s hyperboloid shape looks like it belongs in the neighborhood from the 1960s futuristic space television show, The Jetsons, rather than the backdrop for a ski or hiking vacation in the Jizera Mountains. Dubbed “the hotel and restaurant above the clouds,” this television transmission tower, hotel-and-restaurant-in-one is a Czech national landmark and has won prizes for its unique sci-fi architecture. Once in the restaurant, it was the perfect ambiance to admire the view and enjoy a cup of coffee and slice of apple strudel, Jetsons style.