PRAGUE — This isn’t Disney, but visitors can experience a different type of Magic Kingdom in the Czech Republic.
Horse-drawn carriages, winding brick streets, majestic castles and swans that grace the Vltava River provide an enchanting setting for tourists in the country’s capital of Prague.
During a two-week vacation, we found the Czech Republic’s beauty and well-preserved historical sites extend beyond the capital city.
Town squares with centuries-old buildings that house businesses and living quarters are the center of communities in all corners of this Central European nation.
My first view of Prague came during a late-night ride from the airport after our flight from Chicago was delayed en route to neighboring Poland. Finding a direct flight from the United States to Prague is challenging, though many carriers fly to larger European cities with connections to the Czech Republic.
The sight of Prague Castle, illuminated on a hillside above the Vltava River, was enough to erase the memory of six hours in the Warsaw airport.
Like Disney’s Cinderella castle, some castles in the Czech Republic sport gift shops that mark a growing commercialization in the former Communist-controlled country, but at the same time, the sites provide a well-preserved glimpse of history.
Many become crowded with throngs of visitors during the summer. We encountered some of those throngs in mid-September, but our hotel, the King Charles Boutique Residence, was located away from most tourist attractions.
The hotel offered a quiet respite, close to the less touristy Vysehrad Castle and my favorite restaurant in Prague, U Kozlika, which served mouthwatering strawberry dumplings.
A trip to Prague isn’t complete without visiting the Charles Bridge, likely the city’s most well-known landmark. Vendors hawk paintings and a variety of other souvenirs from the medieval bridge over the Vltava River and the 30 statues that adorn the sides provide an attraction of their own.
Churches and synagogues are another focal point throughout the Czech Republic.
With awe-inspiring gothic arches and jewel-toned stained glass windows, St. Vitus Cathedral in the Prague Castle complex is another of the city’s most recognized landmarks, dating back to the 14th century.
Many religious buildings have an entrance fee or donation box and some prohibit photographs, so it’s important to pay attention to signs.
A friend who lives in Prague took us to the Lennon Wall, the graffiti-covered tribute to the Beatles’ John Lennon, and other out-of-the-way sites.
We also visited The Drunken Monkey, a sports-themed bar in Prague owned by Iowa native William Barron — son of Linn County Supervisor Lu Barron — and a perfect stop for Americans who grow homesick.
Iowa retains numerous connections to the Czech Republic; the most notable being the National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library and Czech Village in Cedar Rapids, the neighborhood where I spent my childhood.
I take the Czech School’s adult language classes, so it was easy to find seasoned travelers willing to offer suggestions on places to visit. Besides Prague, the most often-mentioned was Cesky Krumlov, a small city in the southern Bohemia region. No one could explain why it is so popular, other than “it’s beautiful.”
I completely agree. It has the added bonus of being the friendliest place we visited in the Czech Republic.
Owner Michal Schmidt of Penzion Svet set the tone by picking us up from the train station and carrying my luggage up the narrow staircase to the penzion — like an American bed and breakfast — with breathtaking views of the town.
Cesky Krumlov Castle has the quirky feature of live bears in its moat, but the town is best-known by locals for its water sports on the Vltava River. We were easily able to rent a canoe from Vltava Sport Service for 300 Czech crowns, about $16.
Food in Cesky Krumlov was another bonus. The medieval-style menu of barley, millet and other hearty foods at The Two Marys rivaled the smooth red lentil soup and blueberry dumplings at Laibon, neighboring restaurants with outdoor seating along the Vltava River.
Owner David Heide said Laibon is the only vegetarian restaurant in the meat-loving Czech Republic.
Most restaurants offer traditional Czech fare, such as goulash and dumplings, but the best food of our trip was at the home of a friend in Ostrava in the eastern Moravia-Silesian region near the Polish border.
Red cabbage, pork, goose and dumplings made for a filling lunch, followed by a visit to the town’s Kolache festival, featuring ethnic dancers in kroje — Czech folk costumes. The festival provided an entry point for my Kolache quest.
We’re accustomed to the open-faced, hand-sized fruit-filled confections in Iowa, but I’ve often heard from Czech natives that those aren’t the current norm.
Czechs use the term broadly, with some jumbo-sized kolaches filled with a variety of fillings, including sliced almonds and even desserts that looked more like cheesecake.
The best was a blueberry Kolache we ate at a bakery in Pilsen, the fourth-largest city in the Czech Republic, about an hour’s drive southwest of Prague.
Pilsen is best known for its Pilsner Urquell Brewery.
It was almost blasphemous to admit in the Czech Republic that I’m not a beer drinker, but I could appreciate the local breweries that every city boasted, with restaurants offering cheap brews that typically cost only $1 or so.
We happened upon a beer festival while visiting my niece, who is living in Brno, the second-largest city in the Czech Republic. Brno’s Liberty Square bustled with visitors enjoying more than 25 types of Czech beer.
Like many Czechs and expats, my niece solely uses public transportation and helped us navigate the system of trains, buses, trams and subways. We did fine without a car, traveling from one side of the country to another using the affordable and reliable systems.
Train travel offers a view of the Czech countryside, which is similar to Iowa’s terrain, with farm fields and rolling hills.
I do admit to a bit of red roof envy. The red tiles add a uniform charm and are ubiquitous on homes in both cities and the country.
The Adrspach-Teplice Rocks were another feature unlike anything we could see in Iowa.
Located in the northeastern region of the country, bordering Poland, the national nature reserve features giant sandstone formations, waterfalls and miles of hiking trails.
We stayed in Trutnov, where we practiced our limited Czech language skills and where the Hotel Krakonoš restaurant featured the best garlic soup of the trip, another Czech staple.
A misunderstanding at a rural restaurant still makes me smile.
When asking the waitress about the free Wi-Fi, as noted on a sign on the door, she nodded, said she understood, and promptly came back with a glass of white wine.
Perhaps there is no Czech translation for Wi-Fi.
You don’t have to go to the Czech Republic to experience the Bohemian way of life.
— Restaurants in Czech Village and New Bohemia in Cedar Rapids, such as Little Bohemia, 1317 Third St. SE, offer Czech cuisine as well as Czech beer.
— Festivals, sponsored by St. Ludmila Catholic Church and St. Wenceslaus Catholic Church, sell some of the area’s best kolaches or find the traditional Czech pastry at Sykora Bakery, 73 16th Ave. SW.
— Shops, including Czech Cottage, 100 16th Ave. SW, import Czech jewelry, crystal and other items. The Museum Store at the National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library, 1400 Inspiration Place SW, sells a variety of Czech imports. The museum, open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday and noon to 4 p.m. Sunday, features an Alphonse Mucha exhibition through the end of December.
— The Old Prague Christmas Market will offer holiday shopping in a heated tent and events in Czech Village. The market runs 4-8 p.m. Friday, Nov. 30, 2012 and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 1. A trolley will run between Czech Village, across the Cedar River to New Bohemia.
The Czech language is notoriously difficult to master. Most younger Czechs speak English, especially in Prague, but knowing several key phrases can help.
— Prosim (pro-seem) a versatile word meaning “please” and “you’re welcome.”
— Dekuji (d-ye-ku-yee) “Thank you.”
— Mluvite anglicky (mloo-vee-te ang-lit-skee) “Do you speak English?”
— Kolik to stoji (koe-lick toe sto-yee) “How much does it cost?”
— Zaplatim (zapla-team) indicates you’re ready to pay the bill at a restaurant. Add “prosim” to be polite.
— Nerozumim (na-roe-zoo-meem) “I don’t understand.”
— Kde je WC (gde-ye-vay-tse) “Where is the water closet?” Many restrooms are marked WC and often cost a few Czech crowns to use, especially in tourist areas.
— Dobry den (doe-bree den) a general greeting meaning “good day.”