A springtime canter through Bohemia
Go back in time with a guided tour of Budapest, Vienna and Prague
The Charles Bridge in Prague. Photograph: Getty
Schönbrunn Palace and gardens in Vienna. Photograph: Getty
A springtime canter through Prague, Vienna and Budapest, plus 24 hours in a Bohemian village, could have been too much of a good thing. It was nothing of the sort. With eastern and central Europe intent on sharing experiences and culture, there’s never been a better time to disprove that particular adage.
Tantalising, eye-opening and hectic, an unforgettable six days began in Prague, went south through the plumply budding Czech Republic countryside to medieval Cesky Krumlov, on through the valley of the mighty Danube to Vienna and through the countryside to Budapest.
First impressions matter: Prague is lively, lovely and impressively getting its tourism act together. Vienna is majestic in its imperial way and dauntingly handsome. Budapest, with its careless elegance and affable citizens, is where you might just leave a piece of your heart.
But medieval, remote Cesky Krumlov: that’s where your childhood imaginings and latter-day fantasies will have the time of their lives.
We began in Prague – a mellow city of sandstone buildings, cathedrals, palaces, punchy graffiti and wide bridges, punctuated by the 430km river Vltava. began with a visit to a monastic brewery.The brewery, St Norbert’s, which dates from 1400, makes its amber and dark beers in a style very different from the ubiquitous Pilsner but is no more venerable than many others in a country with more than 100 breweries of all ages.
High above the city, in an area cobbled and radiant with forsythia (Czechs call it golden rain), both brewery and its Hell/Peklo restaurant are close to Prague Castle, a good place to meet the city, a great place to end an evening.
The Charles Bridge is the place from which to take Prague’s measure. The city’s oldest, (and until 1841 only) bridge, it has been spanning the river since 1402, with fortified towers at each end and statues of saints and lesser mortals towering alongside. Stop halfway and make a turn to see the soaring spires and turrets of Prague Castle with the Lesser Town (Little Quarter) in a red-topped huddle underneath. Keep turning to see the butter-coloured grandeur of the Old Town and New Town coming into view. It’s a great perspective.
Prague is a friendly, generous place, completely at ease with the grandeur that is a legacy of some 400 years of Austrian Habsburg rule.
The 18-acre castle complex, with 1,100 years of history, takes time. Battered by wars, politics, fires and renovations, the castle itself was the seat of kings of Bohemia for centuries. Today, it’s where the president of the Czech Republic has his offices. You’ll want to see St Vitus, St Wenceslas and St Adalbert cathedrals. You’ll want to wander the fortifications, museums, art galleries and cafes, and take in a lunchtime concert at Lobkowicz Palace or an evening one at St. George’s Basilica. Or you may not. Just being there is wonder enough.
The road to Cesky Krumlov travels through a landscape of neat, functional villages, and castle turrets that appear above treetops on hillsides. Cesky Krumlov has something dreamlike about it: locked in time, cut off by the Thirty Years War, its Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque houses all preserved and lit by gas lamps. About 14,000 citizens live there, their homes laid out around a giant of a castle dating from 1240, complete with a courtyard theatre .
Meandering along a couple of bends in the Vlatava river, Cesky Krumlov has narrow, hilly streets made for walking. That’s if you don’t get stuck into a dark tavern or restaurant, waylaid by music or a browse in the Egon Schiele museum and seductive cafe next door.
There are galleries of Czech culture, photography, ceramic art and a torture museum in the cellars below the town hall – something to ponder as you sip Eggenberg beer in the square above.