Czech out these city idylls

It’s said that the Czechs and Irish are mirrors of the same soul – and I liked what I saw in the looking glass in both Prague and Brno

Prague evening (1)

SUNSET in the Golden City, the city of a thousand spires, Prague. Resting place of the Kings of Bohemia, birthplace of the Velvet Revolution; a maze of cobbled alleys and archways opening into squares that echo with the clatter of beer glasses and cutlery.

It’s romance on tap, if you’ll forgive the beer analogy. In fact, beer has always been drunk by the elites here. In a country with 20,000 hectares of vineyards, wine is the working man’s drink, an inverse of the popular European norm.

For now, it’s enough to stumble out of the quirky Charles Bridge Palace Hotel, a 45 minutes dash from Vaclav Havel Airport, and soak up the first impressions of this enchanting city as trams rattle past and the smell of scorched street corn wafts our way.

I like to arrive to a city early, but Prague wears the evening well, rich gold last rays shimmering upon her national river, the 430km Vltava, or ‘Bohemian Sea’; or bustling shadows amid silhouetted statues of nearby Charles Bridge, which dates back to 1357.

It’s a busy tourist city, close to being overrun in places and with an unfair reputation for stag parties and sex tourism (there are, allegedly, 200 brothels) – but Prague is a city of many, many shades, and while she likes to party, her history runs deep, and those multifarious layers, easily explored, may contain immense sadness, or profound beauty, and unlikely hope.

There will be a moment, less than a day away, when I will find myself standing in a quiet, sunny area beneath trees, suddenly and involuntarily overcome with grief at events of more than half a century ago, relics of which this great city has kept for us to see and learn from…

Right now, my main hope is that the food is up to scratch – countries that suffer decades of communist occupation are not renowned for their enlightened cuisine. Thankfully, we soon find that what the Czech Republic does for the table, it does very well

When this country was invaded on August 20, 1968, it came with a brutalist Eastern Bloc cooking manual, great bones full of gooey slow-cooked, tender pork, the size of a small pet, which tonight will set you back just 329 crowns (about €12).

But since the peaceful revolution of January 1, 1993, the Czechs have slowly been learning how to love to cook again, and while street stalls creak with heart-warming traditional fare like sausages and deep fried cheese, preeminent restaurants, of which there are many, right across the country, have given Czech home cooking a masterful makeover.

The tasty pork and artisan bread, meanwhile, is a great accompaniment to Czech beer, filtered and unfiltered Pilsners, about €1.50 a pint or a fiver for a tasting flight. Is it too early to say I’ve found my spiritual home? The Czechs, once Celts, will tell you they and the Irish are mirrors of the same soul. With a full belly and a full moon shimmering above the red tile roofs of Prague at night, it’s easy to believe.

With the one hour time difference, our 8.15am rendezvous with Bonita Rhoads of Insight Cities might seem inhumane after the Pilsner and porcine excess of the night before, but the Charles Bridge Palace is peaceful, its beds firm and roomy and the breakfast kingly, so we’re in fine fettle for the forthcoming tour.

Bonita, it turns out, is founder of Insight Cities, providing discursive and personalized city tours. She hails from a New York family of intellectual, secular Jews: ‘If you couldn’t talk about world politics at the dinner table at age ten,’ she chuckles, ‘you were nothing.’ She’s a passionate host too, it turns out, deeply in tune with history’s romance, and loathe to bombard us with dates.

Prague’s Jewish Quarter (Josefov), between the Old Town Square and the Vltava River, dates back to the 13th century when Jews were first ordered to leave their homes and live in one place. Over centuries, with Jews expelled from all over the country, more crammed into the tiny district, resulting in this well preserved complex of historical Jewish monuments.

We get a dizzying appreciation for the span of history and humanity contained within this cramped quarter as we walk through the Old Jewish Cemetery, a forest of jagged gravestones dating back to the 1400s and six tombs deep below us and all around.

There are more than 200,000 buried here, including Rabbi Loew, 16th century inventor of The Golem, a clay creature in Jewish mythology brought to life by placing a tablet with Hebrew inscriptions into its mouth. Place a pebble on the top of the oldest grave, that of Rabbi Avigdor Kara, and you may make a wish. No better place, the air here is voluptuous with magic. It almost whispers.

“If it hadn’t been for the Nazis, none of this would be here,” reveals Bonita. They destroyed Jewish cemeteries all over, using the headstones for target practice. Not Prague. Hitler ordered that the cemeteries and ancient synagogues remain untouched, complete with their treasured artifacts and scriptures. They were to be a memorial to an extinct race.

In the Pinkas Synagogue, dating from 1535, we find a memorial to the 80,000 victims of the Shoah from the Bohemian lands.

One of the earliest memorials in post-war Europe, it was closed to the public after the Soviet invasion of 1968 and only reopened 20 years later. It’s an extraordinary, unmissable experience with the power to strike one dumb.

The, on the first floor, behind glass, are the paintings and drawings of children awaiting transport by the Nazis, many of the depictions colourful and innocent, such as sea creatures; others more sinister, such as hangings, all in the pencil and paint of a child’s hand.

Below many of the drawings are the birth dates of the young artists, and the dates of their execution not long after the paintings were made, in the gas chambers of Auschwitz-Birkenau. These simple artworks were hidden in a suitcase until after the war. It’s an emotionally powerful display that easily reduces us to tears, as it does all who file past.

Below many of the drawings are the birth dates of the young artists, and the dates of their execution

 

WE REPAIR to the Four Seasons Hotel over on Veleslavínova for lunch. The walk gives us time to own our emotions, to talk to each other about the profound sadness and sense of loss we feel even after this short visit. There were over a hundred thousand Jews in this region before the Second World War. Less than 10,000 survived.

How much history can you fit into a day? How much beauty and sadness?

Lunch, when we have had some time to talk and recover, is nothing less than luxurious and our host at the Four Seasons knows Dublin and chats easily about the similarities between our cultures. Perhaps it is that the Celts settled in this region so many thousands of years ago, she agrees. Czechs and Irish just seem to ‘get’ each other.

 

Brno afternoon (1)

TRAIN number RJ371 to Brno takes a few hours and the countryside that skips by could be midland Ireland, but the city it gives way to is all Moravia. Stylish, lively and young. Brno boasts 13 universities and is at the heart of one of Europe’s greatest wine growing regions, making for a laid back, affordable street life that’s rich with conversation over nice wine.

Not long after we check in to the truly palatial Barcelo Brno Palace Hotel, I ask a young man on the street for directions to our restaurant and he obliges in perfect English. I tell him so. “Thanks,” he says. “As a Scotsman, that means a lot.” He’d been hiking across the Czech Republic and met a girl from Brno. Two years ago. He’s never looked back.

Kohout na Vine is intimate and almost empty, but it’s Monday. They match wine to each course, which I think is duck – all duck – but Kohout means rooster, so that might be the clue. Czech is not an easy language, particularly on a menu, but had I not been too proud to ask, I’m sure the waiter would have set me right – I think his English was probably better than mine.

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OUR THIRD day is spent in Trebic, pronounced “like Miami Beach,” laughs our guide, a peaceful, riverside town of terracotta roofs, boasting two UNESCO world heritage sites – a beautiful basilica, and Europe’s best preserved Jewish quarter, where we amble through cobbled streets of quaint doorways, arches and stone staircases. Eerily, the Jewish population here is now just one.

We try wines at a converted  livestock shed called In The Jewish Gate, run by friendly Petr and family, then he assigns his daughter, Jana, to escort us on the train back to Brno along with an uncorked bottle of fine Moravian red. “You’ll sit with us?” I ask. “I haven’t decided yet,” she smiles. That Czech humour, so like the Irish. I think. But she does join us and the journey flies.

It wouldn’t be a visit to Brno, on our return, without a trip to the spa at Maximus Resort, with more saunas and steam rooms than you can shake a eucalyptus branch at, as well as two well fitted bars. Every Tuesday evening should be spent naked in a towel with a glass of crisp Moravian white following a long hot steam and quick dip in the plunge pool. Please?

The evening is spent in sublime conversation at wooden benches with wine in the dark of some square, an evening which you wish you could cut out and keep. Magical.

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THE next day, our last, is spent exploring Southern Moravia, famous for wine, and for castles chock-full of generations of treasures of families like the Liechtensteins, in the case of Lednice, a breath-taking chateau on 200 square kilometres of parkland.

It’s an almost inconceivably romantic place that would put the palaces of Versailles or St Petersburg to shame. The woodwork alone must have taken generations of craftsmen their lifetimes to complete. It has survived successive occupations to become a destination for families from all over the region to spend the day picnicking and marveling at the opulence of centuries gone by.

It’s thirsty work, let me tell you – luckily we happen to have a rendezvous planned with the resident sommeliers of the Wine Salon of the Czech Republic where 100 award winning wines from all over the Czech republic are archived for tasting tours, and where an unbridled slurp through as many as you can is charged by the hour, not by the wine.

I liked Prague, but I left a little piece of my heart here in Southern Moravia. I fell in love with the tranquility of the region, its wine and food culture and the way its people are quick to real conversation.

In a late night bar in Brno, I asked the jovial barman with a walrus mustache for something local and he reached up and plucked a hidden bottle from a high shelf and poured a shot of Slivovitz, a clear plum brandy for all the world like our poitin, and he wouldn’t accept a cent.

When I offered to buy him one, he called to a woman in the kitchen and said something to which the bar erupted in fits of laughter as she roared back. He accepted the drink, and my money. What was all that about? I asked. “That was my wife,” he told me, settling onto his elbows. “I have just told her that she is driving the car home tonight.”

Prague is the city of spires, and its history and sights are, no pun intended, inspiring, but Southern Moravia is known as the land of stories, and that’s a culture that fits the Irish like a warm, well-worn glove.

I’d heard the Czechs and the Irish were mirrors of the same soul and I’d thought it a nice idea, if a stretch. But it’s true. A lovely young woman on a train told me so, so did a man with a huge mustache and a twinkle in his eye in a basement bar in Brno.

GETTING THERE
David was a guest of Czech Tourism – http://www.czechtourism.com. He travelled Dublin to Prague on Aer Lingus and returned with Ryanair – fares begin at about €120 each way, see aerlingus.com and ryanair.com for best deals. While in Prague, David stayed at the Charles Bridge Palace http://www.charlesbridgepaace.com/en – and in Brno, he stayed at the Barcelo Brno Palace http://www.barcelo.com.

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