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14 November 2014

Chasing Czech Culture

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Destination : Czech Republic

From what I can ascertain, not so long ago the Czech Republic was a destination to some extent considered off the beaten track. Admittedly, it was never high on my list of places to visit, that’s until I began hearing constant praise being echoed from other travellers. Seemingly, it’s now well cemented on the tourist map, specifically its dynamic capital Prague. And rightly so. There’s much to see and do culturally, the food is a treat, and the nightlife variety is unmatched. On top of all this, I discovered the city is actually a relatively inexpensive destination for a holiday or even a weekend escape when compared to other big name European cities in countries further west.

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It was good to finally be able to explore Prague, although if there’s one complaint I have, it’s the high number of tourists this city attracts during the summer months. I suppose that’s testament to its reputation as a must-see location. That aside, my visit still fared an enjoyable one, particularly because of my brush with the local culture. In case you didn’t know, a large area of this country was once known as Bohemia. And while some of you may be familiar with the term ‘bohemian’ (normally used to describe an alternative, even eccentric type of person or way of life), it’s actually inaccurate to coin Czech life in this way. Those living locally instead referring to this as the česká culture.

Prague

Prague

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If you’re aiming to experience this vibrant culture first hand then be ready to look further afield than the city’s centre. It’s in the neighbourhoods where you’ll feel truly immersed, with quirky bars, Bohemian beers in abundance, and restaurant menus written entirely in Czech. I was lucky enough to stay with locals during this visit and on my first night we headed riverside to see the nightlife. It’s certainly a popular destination for socialising in the summer months. The area on the old town side of the Vlatava river further south from Charles Bridge is full of revellers of a Saturday post-dusk, and here you’ll find bars on both land and boats. It was all very trendy, but I have to say my favourite part of the night was ending up in a smoky tropical themed cocktail bar full of great tunes and foreign conversation at 2am.

Czech culture of course continues beyond the darker hours. In the summer months, it seems a tradition for residents of Prague to frequently visit the large lake of Divoká Šárká, located on the edge of the city. I doubt many tourists know about it, but I could be wrong. Here, the idea is to settle in for the day with a beer in one hand and something barbecued in the other. Take in the view, go for a swim, and enjoy what’s left of the weekend. What a life!

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Unsurprisingly though, a real cultural highlight for me was tasting the cuisine. I say unsurprisingly because most of my family and friends are very aware that one of my favourite pastimes ever, is eating. This will no doubt become evident to other readers too. Czech food is hearty, full of flavours, and delicious to say the least. Typical dishes include goulash, soups, potato dumplings, and also meatballs. Having visited other countries in Eastern Europe previously, I’ve noticed these items appear to be menu staples of the east, however each place seems to nail its own variation. The neighbourhoods without a doubt offer the best value meals. That is, food is guaranteed to be authentic, tasty, and the overall cost is significantly lower than eateries in Prague’s centre.

My stay in Prague wasn’t just about chasing the local culture though. Obviously, I was there to sightsee too. For anyone planning a visit to Prague in summer, I advise you to cover the old town pre-9am, or prepare for an invasion of personal space. The exception to this, Prague castle, (Pražsky hrad). You should incorporate a stop here at daytime to see the changing of the guard at noon. The pomp and ceremony is definitely worth a look (they have a brass band!) and it’s free. On top of that, the castle boasts excellent views over the city. For me personally though, Pražsky hrad is best enjoyed late at night around 11pm when there’s hardly a soul within the walls. There are guards patrolling at this time so it feels safe, and the direct tram from and to the centre also runs at this hour, stopping just outside the garden entrance.

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Other parts of the city which made an impression includes the wider castle district Hradčany, and Malá Strana (Little Quarter). There are cute cafés and quiet streets in these parts and it’s a nice way to unwind as you descend from the hustle and bustle of the castle. The Jewish quarter of Josefov – or at least what’s left of it, is certainly worth a look too.

While in the Czech Republic, another place on my "to see" list was the town of Kutna Hora. Located about 2 hours east of Prague by bus, it’s famously known for its “Sedlec Ossuary”, or “bone church”. Basically it’s a church entirely fitted out with human bone decorations.

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These human remains were exhumed towards the end of the 15th century due to graveyard overcrowding on site for 2 reasons: 1. Two centuries prior to this, a local abbot had returned from a visit to the Holy Land with a handful of its soil. This was sprinkled over the cemetery in Kutna Hora giving many around Europe a desire to be buried here. 2. The 15th century Hussite wars fought in the country led to a spike in the number of graves.

According to legend, it was at the end of the 15th century when the bones were dug up. Soon after, a half blind monk arranged these in to 6 mounds, still visible today. It’s said that after completing this task, the monk’s eyesight returned! Historic records suggest decorative elements like the bone chandeliers below were already present by the 16th century although it’s unclear who these can be attributed to. In the 19th century the decorations were renewed and reinforced by a woodcarver known as František Rint, commissioned by the landowners at the time, the Schwarzenberg family.

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The Czech Republic is a certainly a destination I recommend to others. And from what I’ve seen through various images, the views are unmissable during the winter months when the city is blanketed by snow. You could also consider Prague as a potential New Year’s Eve destination due to its cracking nightlife. (It was a toss up between Berlin and Prague for me last year).

I visited: Prague and Kutna Hora.

My highlights: Soaking up the sun and taking a dip at Divoká Šárká (local lake), strolling across Staroměstské náměstí (old town square), beating the crowd to watch the changing of the guard, wandering around Pražsky hrad at night, marvelling at the macabre setting of Sedlec Ossuary and last but not least, sampling the Czech beer and cuisine with locals.

WANDAW

Shantelle Rodman

A curation of lifestyle and travel through simplicity.

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