South Bohemia: Where Town Squares Aren't

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Travel Weekly's editor in chief, Nadine Godwin, drove around South Bohemia in the Czech Republic with a friend. Her report follows:

TREBON, Czech Republic -- I first visited Prague and Ceske Budejovice under mostly dreary, overcast skies in the fall of 1988, exactly one year before the collapse of communism in the then Czechoslovakia.

Somehow it seemed appropriate that, for my first visit after the historic events of 1989, the days were bright and sunny when I returned to both cities last summer.

When I reached Prague's slick, new arrivals terminal, I was met by a Czech friend, and we drove the 87 miles, on wide and good highways, to Trebon in South Bohemia.

My proposed itinerary -- through South Bohemia with an excursion into South Moravia -- could be a model for clients wishing to drive where the towns are small and easy to get to know, relatively close together and rich with treasures that are worth stopping by for.

Indeed, customers may be astonished to see how many small towns (with populations as low as 6,000 or so) were important enough in centuries past to have warranted construction of large castles. These days, these well-preserved structures are open to tourists. Often, significant portions of old town walls are visible, too.

It is no wonder several Czech sites are Unesco protected.

Each town has at least one central square (may-be shaped like a square or, more likely, a very long trapezoid or an obtuse triangle).

The buildings that line these creatively shaped spaces sit in neat rows, sometimes with a sheltered arcade at the ground level and maybe with building fronts that stand taller than their rooftops, reminding me vaguely of images I have of towns from the 19th century U.S. West.

But these structures -- usually 300 to 400 years old -- are of stucco, not wood, and often painted in pastels, occasionally decorated with frescoes.

Some showcase another exterior design feature, called sgraffito, that is most identified with this country.

This look, of two-tone painting, is created by scratching a smooth surface that was painted in one color, getting the design by chipping down to a surface of another color.

Finally, South Bohemia itself is known as the "land of 5,000 lakes," many man-made in the 16th century to support fisheries.

My itinerary was based in Trebon, with day driving trips to points in all directions.

Cesky Krumlov and Ceske Budejovice are the other most likely places to stay while seeing the area.

An outline of my journey follows:

Day 1

  • Slavonice, about 40 miles east of Trebon; population, 2,600; little visited and most noted for the exotic examples of sgraffito on the exteriors of its houses. Some sgraffito designs are several hundred years old. The most striking ones illustrate stories from the Old Testament.
  • Telc, 16 miles east and north, in South Moravia; population, 6,050; a town on the Unesco list of cultural world treasures, halfway along the ancient Kings' Way from Vienna to Prague.
  • It is a treasure in part because of its oblong main square lined with Renaissance and Baroque houses, which produce a picture of endless arcades, painted frescoes, some sgraffito, gables -- all in muted tones of beiges, yellows, roses, with the odd green, etc.

    But this is a castle town, and the venerable Renaissance structure here is first seen across a pond that wraps around three sides of the town's old center.

    Two one-hour guided castle tours were available at about $1.40 each. As is typical for the area, the guide did not speak English.

    I took the tour that focused on the oldest parts of the complex and skipped the second option, which took in rooms decorated more elaborately in 18th and 19th century styles.

    For me, the ancient dining rooms and entry halls here made for some the best castle viewing in the Czech Republic.

  • Jindrichuv Hradec, 24 miles west of Telc and back in South Bohemia; population, 20,000; site of another great- looking castle set at the edge of another pond.
  • The town square here was less exciting than the other two, but it had the nice houses typical of most villages. From here it is 18 miles west to Trebon.

    Day 2

  • Trebon, a spa town; population, 9,800; with another castle of consequence.
  • The Trebon region is a Unesco Biosphere Natural Reserve of 280 square miles. About 500 of the region's centuries-old, man-made fishponds dot the area around this town. The largest is Rozmberk, 1,778 acres.

    Trebon has a particularly lovely little town square surrounded by the arcades and Renaissance and Baroque gables that were becoming familiar to me. A walk down side streets and alleyways is more revealing of the town's medieval origins.

    Four gates from the medieval walls survive; today, cars drive through them. Outside one such gate is the Svet Lake plus a good view of the old (now drained) moat and the buildings that abutted it.

    One house is identified as the former home of the overlord's hangman.

    Much of the castle complex -- which is surprisingly large and impressive -- dates from the 16th century. My castle tour, at about $1, did not include an English-speaking guide but did include English-language printed guides that visitors can carry with them.

    Day 3

  • Ceske Budejovice, 15 miles west of Trebon; population, 97,240; home of the original Budweiser beer and the administrative center for South Bohemia.
  • My first visit had been on a late-autumn, snowy day, and I returned to see one of Europe's largest town squares in early-morning sun. It also boasts the closest thing to a square square that I was to see on my rounds.

    This was a planned royal fortified town, founded in 1265.

  • Prachatice, 26 miles west of Ceske Budejovice; population, 12,000; a 1,000-year-old village noted for the volume of sgraffito in its tiny central square; declared a historic town reserve by the national government.
  • The town center sits on a modest hill, and the square can be approached through one of the old town's gates. The amount of sgraffito is astonishing, covering every inch of the exteriors of several public buildings. The town seen today is about 400 years old.

    An annual Golden Path festival, recalling the Middle Ages, when Prachatice was on an important salt route, features fencing, juggling, music and locals in medieval costume. It is set for June 26 and 27 this year.

  • Cesky Krumlov, 22 miles southeast of Prachatice; population, 15,000; a Unesco World Cultural Heritage site. For clients not staying here, the return to base will be about 14 miles north to Ceske Budejovice or 22 miles northeast to Trebon. (See story on Page E4 for a fuller report.)
  • Day 4, en route to Prague

  • Castle Cervena Lhota, not a town but a doll-sized, rose-colored castle plopped down in a lake, accessible by bridge. The visit involves a short diversion off the road north to Prague and was a photo opportunity for me. It is open most days in season, but not Monday.
  • Tabor, about 35 miles north of Trebon, 53 miles south of Prague; population, 45,000; a castle town noted above all as the 15th century stronghold of followers of religious reformer Jan Hus.
  • This is an optional stop en route to the Czech capital. I did not revisit but had seen its historic center a decade ago, including the Old Town Hall that is now the Museum of the Hussite Movement.

    Below the square, nine miles of underground passages allowed Hussites to hide during battles with the authorities.

  • Kutna Hora, 39 miles east of Prague; population, 21,560; a wealthy silver-mining town in the 13th to 16th centuries and now a Unesco-protected historical town reserve.
  • Key sights include the Gothic St. Barbara Cathedral, unique because of its three spires side by side. The center of town boasts buildings of many styles and eras, beginning when the town was a large city and rich.

    On my itinerary, this is the Unesco town that will benefit most from restoration. Kutna Hora's charms grew on me the longer we stayed, and if work now under way continues, this town will surely gain in appeal.

  • Prague, the capital and where the action is.
  • This is a report on the smaller, less-visited places, but I wouldn't recommend clients seek out countryside to the exclusion of capitals. If any city argues that point, this energizing city does.

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