Amy Laughinghouse explores the charms of the Czech Republic, its lesser-known attractions and subterranean secrets
Agroup of perhaps a dozen men in masks or with soot-blackened faces wander the streets of a rural Czech village, cracking whips and pounding on doors. Attired in outlandish costumes of straw and rags or Crayola-coloured suits bedecked in bows, they’re a bit like the characters from the Wizard of Oz… if L Frank Baum had been bombed out of his mind on absinthe when he wrote the kiddie classic.
I’m not sure I’d open my door to these folks, but invariably, the residents of tiny Vortova do. That’s the cue for the men to break into song and dance, accompanied by a brass band. As a reward for their efforts, homeowners hand out shots of liqueur, sugar-dusted buns and platters of meat, not only to the performers, but also to their hangers-on, who seem to comprise pretty much the entire town. Every spectator receives a swathe of black stripes across their cheeks, chins and foreheads – a sign they’ve been accepted into the entertainers’ raucous ranks.
I’m here because I want to experience life in some of the Czech Republic’s smaller cities and towns on a tour which will eventually lead to the lesser-known attractions of Prague’s well-trodden streets. But it’s going to be hard to exceed the outrageous revelry of this afternoon, celebrating the centuries-old tradition of masopust.
Held just before the start of Lent, masopust translates as “good-bye meat”. In Vortova and some surrounding towns, this Shrovetide procession is considered so important that it’s featured on the Unesco list of Intangible Cultural Heritage.
I’m riveted by the mental image of straight-laced Unesco officials stripping off their striped neck-ties and letting it rip at masopust, which is essentially Mardi Gras-meets-Halloween, with a decidedly adult tone. Although all ages take part, there’s a lot of tackling lasses on top of snow banks, prodding them with sticks, and treating them to “medical” check-ups involving bawdy props which are decidedly not your standard-issue NHS kit.
Supposedly, these strange rites are all about fertility and ensuring a good harvest, while the black face paint is apparently a nod to chimney sweepers clearing away the dreary dregs of winter. By the look of things, I reckon a lot of ladies will be getting their chimneys swept tonight.
Moving on from the louche temptations of masopust, I find more tangible heritage and enticements in Brno. The Czech Republic’s second largest city after Prague has close to 400,000 residents, and an additional 86,000 students. Given its preponderance of pubs and inexpensive beer, as well as cool concept bars like Super Panda Circus, it’s little wonder that a survey of students recently rated Brno as the fourth best university city in the world, two spots behind Prague. Here, I learn the social custom of “na stojaka” – to drink standing up – basically the Czech equivalent of “a swift one down the pub”.
But Brno’s appeal goes beyond booze. It’s a Baroque beauty, where ornate buildings in sherbet shades keep company with eye-catching modern artworks displayed in city squares. From atop the tower at Spilberk Castle, I take in the whole panorama, my gaze stretching as far as distant, Lego-like Communist blocks abutting a low rise of hills across the plain.
As attractive as Brno is above ground, I’m even more intrigued by its subterranean secrets. I venture into the castle’s dank dungeons, where up to 2,000 prisoners at a time were once packed into squalid brick and stone caverns, and 10-Z, a World War II bomb shelter which was later fortified to withstand a nuclear bomb.
Last May, 10-Z opened as a museum and Cold War memorial, with something of an “escape room” rush. “You get a map,” explains Pavel Palecek, one of the museum’s founders, “and your goal is to find your way out.”
If you don’t fancy navigating your own way around this 1,500 metre labyrinth, 10-Z offers nightly tours. Personally, I’m grateful to tag along with Palecek, as he leads my friends and me past racks of old army uniforms, gas masks, a kitchen crammed with Communist rations (no doubt well past their “best by” date), and a room set up like a prison cell, with a hangman’s noose and door covered in graffiti inscribed by the damned.
You can even spend the night here in what may be the world’s safest hostel, given its bomb-proof rating. Unsurprisingly, the windowless rooms go pretty cheaply, from as low as £9. If you were expecting a pillow, my friend, I’m afraid you’re out of luck.
I can hardly imagine a creepier setting to slumber… until I tour Brno’s ossuary. Beneath St James Church, centuries-old skeletal remains fill three vaulted rooms, which are open to the public, and mysterious, off-limits passages beyond.
Leaving the bones behind, I continue to Olomouc, another renowned Baroque university city. Located about an hour northeast of Brno, it’s home to 100,000 residents and 25,000 students, who lend the place a hip, youthful vibe.
“This is our Oxford,” explains my guide, Stefan Blaho. “It’s smaller, calmer, and not so spoiled by tourism. If you go to bars and discos, you’ll find more students and locals (than tourists).”
You’ll also find plenty of cheese – and I’m not referring to bad pick-up lines in the pubs. Olomouc is famous for its soft, pungent “tvaruszky” cheese, which you can sample in virtually all its shapes and forms at the Tvaruzky Cheese Pastry Shop. There’s an annual tvaruzky cheese festival and a cheese museum about 20 minutes outside town. I even spot a cheese vending machine in the Town Hall, home to the world’s only Communist astronomical clock, depicting workers and scientists instead of angels and saints, and a tower affording unparalleled views of the city.
If you need a walk to work off your lactose overload, stroll through the University District, with its shops, bars and elaborate fountains, toward St Wenceslas Cathedral and the Archdiocesan Museum. “Czech” out the gem-encrusted bling in the museum’s treasure room and the equally ornate archbishop’s carriage. A music collection includes original scores by Beethoven and Mozart, who lived here while completing his sixth symphony.
When I finally arrive in Prague, I wonder… will I have been spoiled by the uncrowded streets of the Czech Republic’s lesser known destinations? Will there be anything new to discover?
Oh me of little faith. I am charmed as ever by Old Town Square, where a Dixieland Jazz band entertains tourists who have come to admire the fairytale spires of Tyn Church and see the mediaeval Astronomical Clock, from which statues of the Apostles emerge every hour. The saintly statues lining iconic Charles Bridge are as reassuringly sombre as ever, and the sprawling bulk of Prague Castle presides over it all from a hilltop perch above the Vltava River.
These are the sites I feel compelled to visit each time I return, but I’m keen to burrow deeper beneath this city’s skin. The Prague Unknown Tour, guided by history student Daniel Verner, fits the bill. He ushers my friends and I along Novy Svet, a cobblestone street that may not be paved with gold, but is flanked by “golden” houses. He reveals that American Beat poet Allen Ginsberg, who briefly resided at the House of the Golden Lamb in the 60s, was expelled by the secret police for “spoiling the youth” with his liberal ideas, and we hear about a gruesome murder committed by a former resident of the House of the Golden Stork. At the House of the Golden Pear, now a restaurant, Verner explains that it was once the site of a notorious pub founded in the 14th century. “If you ordered the soup, they served you in a bowl carved from the table itself – and you ate from a spoon attached by a chain,” he grins.
I’m pleased to report that service standards are considerably higher at the six establishments I visit on the Eating Prague Food Tour, which takes tourists off-the-beaten path to taste true Czech cooking. “People come to Prague for the history and the beer – hardly ever for the food,” laments guide Jan Macuch, whose passion is recreating old recipes. But he insists that Czech cuisine, a fusion of Austrian, Hungarian and Bavarian influences, “is the most underestimated in the world”.
With every delicious dish, Macuch serves up an equally savoury anecdote. He explains that a delicately-layered gingerbread pastry, Sakrajda, means “damn it, because you hear lots of swearing when someone is making this”. As we slurp sauerkraut soup in a wood-timbered restaurant in Jindrisska Tower, our guide reveals that it is usually made by men and served as a hangover cure on New Year’s Day.
At Café Louvre, one of the oldest in Prague, we feast upon svickova, a rich beef soup with bacon, dumplings and sour cream, as Macuch regales us with stories of famous former patrons like Albert Einstein. “He contemplated how quickly time flies by when you’re drinking Czech beer… and the theory of relativity was born,” Macuch says with a sly smile.
I’m far too satiated to swallow that tale, but I still go home wanting more. No matter how many times I return, I’ll never really get my fill of the Czech
TOURISM INFO: www.czechtourism.com
STAY: Barcelo Hotel Group offers beautiful properties in central locations in both Prague and Brno. In Brno, Hotel Barcelo Brno Palace features well-equipped accommodations in an elegant mid-19th century building. In Prague, Occidental Praha Wilson lies at the southeastern end of St. Wenceslas Square, with views of some of the city’s most iconic landmarks. www.barcelo.com/en-gb/
At Sheraton Prague Charles Square in Prague’s Nove Mesto (New Town), head to the rooftop terrace on sunny days for stunning vistas, or recharge your batteries with a workout in the fitness centre, a massage in the spa, a steam in the Finnish sauna, or a private 50-minute Jacuzzi session for two. www.sheratonprague.com
EAT, DRINK, DO:
Brno: Retro Consistorium, www.retroconsistorium.cz
Jakoby Restaurant, www.restauracejakoby.cz/?lang=eng
Olomouc: Tvaruzky Cheese Pastry Shop, http://www.tvaruzkovacukrarna.cz/en/index.php
Riegrovka Restaurant, http://riegrovka.eu/
Vinohradsky Parliament, www.vinohradskyparlament.cz/en/
V Zatisi, www.vzatisi.cz/?lang=en
Eating Prague Food Tour, a four-hour moveable feast, www.eatingpraguetours.com
Prague Unknown Tour, www.prahaneznama.cz/akce-a-udalosti/guided-tours-with-praha-neznama-prague-unknown/