The Czech Republic is as central Europe as you can get. It’s a crossroads of Germanic and Slavic culture mixed in a Cuisinart and blended to Czechia perfection. The country is filled with the world’s best breweries, quaint vineyards, and fairy-tale castles. It’s been very high on the “backpacker’s favorite” list since the early 1990s. So the locals are used to foreigners traipsing around their land. Prague hit peak expat life in the early aughts when just the American expat population reached 45,000. That number has gone down to a more manageable 10,000 American expats after stricter visa rules were enacted. So it’s not quite the bacchanal it was 10 to 15 years ago, but the country still has a lot to offer the casual tourist or adventurous vagabond.
Traditions run deep in the Czech Republic. As Prague gets more and more gentrified to tourist’s tastes, the countryside remains largely quaint and pastoral. The Czech are a very pork-forward people. The pečené koleno (pech-en-yeh ko-len-oh) is a triumph in porcine delight. It’s a large pork shank roasted to perfection and served with rye bread, horse radish and mustard. Another can’t miss treat either in a pub or staggering around the streets after a little too much drinking is a Smažený sýr (sma-zzz-en-ee sss-ear). Often sandwiched in a white roll and covered in tartar sauce, this chunk of breaded and deep-fried edam cheese is decadent and dirty at the same time. Basically, it’s the perfect drunk food.
As Christmas rolls around, you’ll start seeing massive tubs of live carp on nearly every corner in every city and town. Czech’s main dish at Christmas is fresh carp, usually fried and served with a potato salad. At home, families will often keep the carp alive in their bathtubs until Christmas dinner, to retain the freshest quality. It’s tradition. Go out and buy a Czech beer for a stranger and start up a conversation. Maybe you’ll be lucky enough to score an invite to a carp-filled Christmas dinner.
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Czech beer deserves to be at the top of anyone’s beer bucket list. There simply isn’t a better place in the world to drink the hoppy lager they call Pilsner. Head over to Plzeň near the German border. The Pilsner Urquell factory tour is the ideal place to drink the freshest pilsner in the world. They also do something very special from that factory. In the Czech Republic, and even in Berlin now, you can find what is called a Tankovna. This is a beer bar where the beer is shipped in tanker trucks as quickly as possible to the bar. Once there, it is transferred into huge, airtight plastic bags inside steel or copper tanks at the bar. The beer doesn’t hit air until it is first poured into your glass. It’s the freshest, most beautiful pilsner you will ever drink. Try Lokal in Prague, or wander the streets of any Czech city to discover a yet-unknown favorite.
The Czech Republic also has a very distinct wine region in Moravia. For 1,800 years, this tiny region in the southern tip of the country has been producing seriously good wines. Villages hold harvest festivals and release young wines every season. Few people think of great wine when they think of the Czechs. That will soon change.
The Czech Republic is relatively small. It’s just smaller than South Carolina. Don’t let that fool you. It’s a diverse and spectacular country to get lost in. The country is hemmed in by mountains on its German, Austrian, and Polish borders. Massive forests and national parks hold wildlife, rivers and lakes for all to enjoy. There are four official national parks and over 20 protected areas. Bohemia is more lowland forests nestled against mountains. Moravia is hilly grasslands and pine forests reaching towards Slovakia. The Czech Republic famously has four distinct seasons. You’ll find a burst of beauty and color in the autumn, deeply cold winters, thunderstorm dominated springs, and long and hot summers. Given the Czech Republic’s central location, getting almost anywhere in western, eastern, or southern Europe is fast, easy, and inexpensive.
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The Czech Republic is small enough to get almost anywhere from Prague in a few hours or less. There is a train system that links almost every city, town, and village. It’s efficient, fast, and dirt cheap. A one to two hour train journey can be as cheap as $5. For the places that aren’t served by the trains, buses fill in all the gaps. They may take a little longer, but they’ll get you anywhere in the country for pennies. Prague is famous for its Soviet era trams, still rumbling down the cobbled streets. Jump on! It’s $1.30 for a ticket to ride (half that for a kid’s fare). Riding the trams around Prague is the best and cheapest way to explore the city. Ride out to the end of the line and get some beer and pork in the Paneláks — where all the Czechs who work in the tourist shops actually live.
The Czechs are a rambunctious bunch. No one drinks more beer than they do. That’s probably because they have a lot to celebrate. They managed to throw off the yoke of Soviet rule in 1989 without firing a shot. The Velvet Revolution is a testament to the Czech’s resolve towards freedom and self-determination.
Let’s face it, the 20th century was not kind to the Czechs and their republic. They started out a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, took the brunt of Nazi aggression, and then were treated to nearly half-a-century of Stalin’s iron fist. But they persevered. It is amazing to think that only 26 years ago the Czech Republic was a largely closed off totalitarian puppet state. Going there was a bureaucratic nightmare. Now it’s one of the most visited places in Europe. How lucky we are to get to freely come and go from such an amazing corner of Europe. And we owe that to the Czechs and their resilience and humanity in the face of the evil of oppression. If you go to the Czech Republic, buy a local a beer. You owe it to them. Then have them tell you about what it was like before 1989.
Travel the Czech Republic around Easter and you’ll be welcomed to Easter festivals in almost every city, town and village. Men chase women around the town square for their elaborately decorated eggs while whipping them (seriously) with a reed called a pomlázka. This is considered a way of telling a woman that she’s attractive and will be fertile in the next year. It’s very third grade recess. Any woman they tag has to give over an egg, and the man has to give her a shot of liquor. This all culminates in a lamb feast and a lot of beer and slivovice being drunk by all. Later that afternoon, the women get their revenge. They stalk the men, now sufficiently inebriated, and dump buckets of cold water over their heads. Then more booze is drunk by all.
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Easter here in Prague isn't just about getting a basket of chocolate eggs. Streets are lined with these colorful sticks known as Pussywillow and pomlázka. pussywillow twigs are thought to bring health and youth to anyone who is whipped with them. An Easter pomlázka (from pomladit or "make younger") is a braided whip made from pussywillow twigs. It has been used for centuries by boys who go caroling on Easter Monday and symbolically whip girls on the legs. In the past, it's said there would be no Czech Easter without the pomlázka. Boys used to make their own pomlázkas in the past. Today pomlázkas can be bought in stores and street stands. Some men don't even bother and use a single twig or even a wooden spoon! 〰
More photos of the Česká republika: