For my annual trip to the Czech Republic, I decided to extend my stay a bit longer to visit some new (and old) places, but mainly to see all of my friends and “family” there. Along the way, I managed to see a lot of my favorite spots around the country, as well as go to some beautiful places, accentuated by the autum colors, for the first time. Plus, I was able to work on my language skills, with new words jumping out at me from listening to the language. Here’s a quick and belated recap of some of the famous and lesser-known Czech places I visited on this trip:
Velká Amerika & Other Quarries
I definitely had never heard the Czech word for a quarry, lom, but I became very well acquainted on a trip outside of Prague to hike around some of the quarries there. After taking a bus from Zličin to Mořina, we first walked out of town to the biggest quarry called, Velká Amerika (Big America). Although at first we were confused by a lot of security men, we continued to hike around and found that the site was being used for a taping of a BBC series on the Stone Age. Apparently, the quarry was also once open for swimming, however, this was definitely not an option for us. Our trek then continued to the nearby North American-named quarries of Mexiko and Malá Amerika (Small America). At the last one, we even hiked/rock climbed down to the water where the reflection was so clear and tranquil. Overall, it was a beautiful day and sitting by each of the quarries was a short, peaceful escape from the city.
Also not far from Prague is the famous castle of Karlštejn, which had been on my Czech Republic bucket list for quite some time. This picturesque castle stands above the small town and truly feels like it is in a fairytale. Originally built as a castle for the jewels of the beloved Emperor Charles IV, Karlštejn is an easy day trip from Prague to get out and see just one of the ridiculous number of castles located in the Czech Republic. I didn’t go on a tour, but there are several options in English. Instead, my friends and I opted for a traditional Czech meal along the main street before heading to catch the train back to Prague.
I always like visiting Brno, whether just running through the Vaňkovka shopping center, which reminds me of home, or actually exploring around its small, yet beautiful town center. After writing an article about cool places for young people around the country, I was very excited to try out the Bar, Který Neexistuje, or the Bar, Which Doesn’t Exist. The bar looks like it could almost be in the NYC’s Lower East Side and serves up a variety of crafty cocktails with fun names and descriptions. My friend and I ordered ones, which were in the category of unconventional and funky.
A cool coffee shop where I was taken two times with two different friends was the SKØG Urban Hub, right behind the main Svobodý Naměstí or Freedom Square. With great ginger tea and cappuccino, the big open downstairs and cozy upstairs were perfect spots for getting work done and having deep conversations about global affairs and international development.
My weekend in Olomouc was a great way to catch up with the city lives of some great friends and reconnect with a Czech friend who I actually met very randomly in NYC. Overall, the weekend was very relaxing, yet we ventured into town for a Chinese buffet with an amazing view and visits to several great coffee shops in the center. Like Brno, Olomouc is also a university town with Palacká Univerzita as the main school. As a result, it was interesting to meet a group of Israeli medical students who are getting their medical degrees in Olomouc.
My first night in Olomouc, my friend organized a birthday outing for one of her friends from South Africa who is also studying at the university at Pivnice Chomout outside of the city in Chomoutov. I loved the décor and graphics of everything from the menus to the glasses themselves, to the lace light fixtures hanging above the bar. Our group was quite a mix of Czech, Peruvian, American, South African, Chadian-Arabian, and Malian. It was interesting to learn that in South Africa, women who drink beer are seen as loose, so it was quite a novelty for the birthday girl to be drinking beer. In her one year already living in the Czech Republic, it was the first that she had tried. We got flights of beer and after a long wait, we had some of the best burgers/turkey burgers I’ve ever tasted. The night ended with us huddling/dancing with music under the stars, before catching a late bus back to the city center.
Many Czech people had no idea what I was talking about when I mentioned that I was visiting Veselý Kopec (or Happy Hill) in the Hlínsko region. This historical park is kind of like Colonial Williamsburg, in that it depicts the way the Czech people lived over time. Although not as interactive, the park has buildings from different eras and of different purposes in order to preserve and showcase Czech history. The day was bitter cold, yet it was interesting to learn more about the anthropological history of the region and walk amongst the autumn leaves. Throughout the day, I came to really love the season with its gloom and bright colors. The best part of the excursion might have been a toasty, traditional Czech meal of soup, honey wine, and fried cheese in the park’s restaurant. Afterward, we were all warmed up both inside and out.
Žd’ar nad Sázavou
Even though I had already visited this UNESCO site when living in the Czech Republic before, it was great to see this cool church surrounded by the autumn colors and with the same friend, 2 years later. The story of St. John of Nepomuk is actually pretty interesting in that the pinnacle of the church is a metallic depiction of John’s tongue and there is so much symbolism with stars in the main part of the church, which is in fact pretty small. However, the highlight for me was playing with the beautiful yellow leaves and tying them together to make kites that we could wave behind us as we skipped around 🙂
Vranov + Podhradi Nad Dyjí
While I had been several times to the Vranov Lake, I hadn’t spent much time in the actual town. Vranov is a popular summer spot for Czech people and once was a destination during the Communist era. It was eerie to be there on a gloomy autumn day, and to see several abandoned buildings that have so much potential, but seem to be past their prime. We then went to the area surrounding Podhradi Nad Dyjí where we visited an area of Czech cottages or chata. During Communist times, Czechs used these cottages as a form of vacation without the ease of leaving the country and also by going into nature areas, they felt freer to talk without the fear of officials listening. The Dyje River was running low, but the auburn trees stretched out before us. It was easy to imagine how much fun and solitude this place could provide.
Prague always feels like a magical city to me. Even though the city is small compared to NYC, there are still always new places to discover. On my first trip to Prague, I took part in the Fulbright orientation for the newest cohort and attended a reception at the Residence of the US Ambassador. I had walked by the outside a number of times, but getting to see the inside was spectacular. Also, the Ambassador was very friendly himself 🙂
After seeing the film Anthropoid over the summer and writing an article about some of its locations around Prague, it was really special to go to some of the places. The Olšany Cemetary is beautiful and could almost be considered a park, despite the hundreds of intricate headstones lining its pathways. It was also surreal to go to the Church of Ss. Cyril and Methodius and to see the exact church and crypt where the final scene of the movie takes place. Reading the history in the free exhibition also showcased how historically accurate the film was and how sad the events of World War II in fact were.
Another bucket list item that I was able to cross off was seeing Alfons Mucha’s Slav Epic at the Veletržní Palace. The huge, looming paintings were captivating. In addition, the story of each one was so interesting to learn about. Even though I had been to the Mucha Museum in Wenceslas Square before, this group of work seemed to have much more meaning in the context of the Slavic people and their history.
Walking around Prague and going to the traditional tourist spots never fail to disappoint. From a foggy morning on the Charles Bridge to reenacting my first trip to Old Town Square by going up to the top of the Astronomical Clock Tower, I still am always surprised and struck by the beauty of this city.
Starting with a big welcome to Vinobraní, it was nice and familiar to be back in Znojmo. Not too much has changed—there are a few new places since last time, but overall, everything is perfectly in its familiar place. However, of course, there were plenty of new memories to be made. One of my first weekends, I took part in my first wine harvest. Going down each row we clipped and collected as many grapes as possible before they were squelched into a pulp. It was nice to be outside and feel more connected to the wine that my friend’s family makes and that I drink whenever I visit.
Further in the fall, I also attended my first Prodloužená dance course ball. Similar to more traditional debutante style courses, Czech students in their second year of secondary school typically take a dancing course in which they learn ballroom dances. Then, they have one or two balls to perform with their partners for their parents. Give that I still barely know the difference between a rumba and a cha-cha or a foxtrot and a tango, it’s pretty impressive that Czech teenagers can do everything from a polka to a waltz with skill. Plus, in my mind, most American teenagers would groan if their parents suggested formal dancing lessons. Instead, the ball was super fun with a live band and the dance floor covered with students, parents, and friends dancing the night away.
Another new Czech experience was celebrating St. Martin’s Day on November 11th. Czech legend says that on this day St. Martin rides in on his white horse bringing the snow and frost to the country. Other than the arrival of winter weather, St. Martin’s Day is also characterized by a still not-yet-fully-fermented wine and eating goose as the main lunch meal. For St. Martin’s Day this year, I went to a wine blessing in a church, where Felix Slováček played the saxophone (I learned he was famous afterward). Then, we went to a HUGE wine tasting where St. Martin’s wines from all over the region were available for tasting. Finally, the weekend’s celebration was complete when the next day I was invited to have the traditional goose, cabbage, and dumplings meal.
Despite the small size of the Czech Republic, the country continues to captivate and surprise me. Even getting to stay inside the car during a car wash was one of the highlights of my trip and there are many more that this blog post failed to fit in. Most of all, I’m lucky to have such good friends to show me around and include me in their lives in this beautiful country. Looking forward to many new memories in 2017!