World famous for its regenerative waters, Karlovy Vary is the oldest of the Bohemian spas, and probably the second most popular tourist city in the Czech Republic, after Prague. It's also the most beautiful of the 'big three' spas in the republic and, despite the crowds, the most accessible. Though you can't just pop in for a sulphurous bath or gas-inhalation therapy, you can sample the waters till your teeth float. There are 12 hot springs containing 40 chemical elements that are used to medically treat diseases of the digestive tract and metabolic disorders, so whether you have diarrhoea or constipation, this is the place to come.In spite of its purging qualities, Karlovy Vary still manages a definite Victorian air. The elegant colonnades and boulevards complement the many peaceful walks in the surrounding parks, and the picturesque river valley winds between wooded hills. The spa offers all the facilities of a medium-sized town without the bother; after hustling around Prague, this is a nice place to relax amidst charming scenery.
Krivoklat is a drowsy village beside the Rakovnicky potok, a tributary of the Berounka River. Half the pleasure of going to Krivoklat is getting there - by train up the wooded Berounka valley, dotted with bungalows and hemmed in by limestone bluffs. Krivoklat Castle was built in the late 13th century as a royal hunting lodge, and contains an exemplary late-Gothic chapel, impressive halls and the requisite prison and torture chambers. There's no hunting in Krivoklat anymore, as much of the upper Berounka basin, one of Bohemia's most pristine forests, is now the Krivoklat Protected Landscape Region and a UNESCO 'biosphere preservation' area.If you've got the gear and an extra day or two, consider a hearty walk along the 18km trail up the Berounka valley to Skryje. Along the way you'll pass the Nezabudice Cliffs (part of a nature reserve), the village of Nezabudice and Tyrov, a 13th-century French-style castle used for a time as a prison and abandoned in the 16th century. The summer resort of Skryje has some old thatched houses. You can also walk down the other side of the valley for a closer look at Tyrov.
It's hard to imagine today, but in its time this town about 65km southeast of Prague was Bohemia's most important after Prague. This was due to the rich veins of silver below the town itself, and the silver groschen minted here was the hard currency of central Europe at the time. Today the town is a fraction of its old self, but is still dressed up in enough magnificent architectural monuments for it to have been added to UNESCO's World Heritage List in 1996. With a pastel-hued square dotted with cafés, medieval alleys with facades from Gothic to Cubist, and a cathedral to rival St Vitus, comparisons with Prague are hard to resist. Kutna Hora is certainly as densely picturesque as Prague, and blessed with warmer people and lower prices.The historical centre is compact enough to see on foot. Those who need their dose of 'culture' will have no trouble finding their cravings fulfilled by the fascinating sights on offer. For a truly macabre sight, there is a cemetery at Sedlec with a Gothic ossuary decorated with the bones of some 40,000 people. For some beautiful religious architecture minus bones, visit the Gothic Church of Our Lady, the St James Church, the 17th-century former Jesuit College, which has Baroque sculpture in front of it, the Cathedral of St Barbara and the Ursuline Convent, which houses an exhibition of antiques. If you are interested in the town's mining history, visit the Hradek Mining Museum and the medieval mine shafts.
If it's picture-postcard views you're after, the Moravian Karst is a beautiful heavily wooded hilly area north of Brno, carved with canyons and honeycombed with some 400 caves, created by the underground Punkva River.At Punkevni, groups of 75 people are admitted to the caves every 20 minutes. You walk 1km through the deepest caves, admiring the stalactites and stalagmites, ending up at the foot of the Macocha Abyss. There you board a small boat for a 400-metre ride down the Punkva River out of the cave. Other caves to be visited in this area include Katerinska, Balcarka and Sloupsko-Sosuvske. Traces of prehistoric humans have been found in the caves.
Moravske Slovacko Region
For more folk art than you can imagine, visit Moravske Slovacko, one of central Europe's richest surviving repositories of traditional folk culture, and one of the most delightful places to stay in the republic. The region's special flavour arises not only from a mild climate (incidentally, perfect for the production of the republic's best wine!) but also from the character and temperament of the people - friendly, easy-going and full of life.The result is an extraordinary reservoir of colourful traditions in speech, dress, building and decorating styles, plus annual festivals all over the place, at which singing, dancing and music are the norm, and traditional food is washed down with ample supplies of local wine. The variety of colourful folk costumes is especially mindboggling, sometimes varying totally from one village to the next, and the houses in many villages are still painted in traditional white with a blue band around the bottom, many embellished with painted flowers and birds. The best time to see the costumes, and to hear the local music - some of it very impromptu - is at a local festival. Visit Blatnice, Straznice and Vlcnov for their festivals.One of the features of wine-growing areas is that sampling the product becomes a bit of a ritual; here it's made more interesting by the distinctive small household wine cellars, or vinne sklipky. In places such as Petrov (3km south-west of Straznice) they are partially underground; in Vlcnov they are more like huts. At Prusanky, 8km west of Hodonin, the wine cellars constitute virtually a separate village.
There is no excuse for boredom in Prague. You can pack a lot of exploring into a short visit, charging through its compact network of lanes, passages and cul-de-sacs, or spend weeks meandering along and slowly savouring its sights.Prague's prime attraction is its physical face. The city centre is a haphazard museum of 900 years' of architecture - Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, 19th-century revivals of all of them, and Art Nouveau - amazingly undisturbed by the 20th century. This historical core of the city - Hradcany (the Castle District) and Mala Strana (the Small Quarter) west of the river, Stare Mesto (the Old Town) and Vaclavske namesti (Wenceslas Square) to the east, and Charles Bridge in between - covers about 3 sq km and is pedestrian-friendly, so you needn't go at break-neck speed to discover its most famous attractions.You'll have to travel further afield to visit Nove Mesto (New Town), with its shops, cafés, museums and theatres; Vysehrad, where mythical Prague was born; and Holesovice, Smichov, Troja and Vinohrady. At least a dozen medieval chateaux and castles are only a day-trip away.Also high on Prague's attraction list is its entertainment: music from classical through to modern jazz and rock; opera and ballet; avant-garde theatre; excellent museums; and dozens of art galleries. Prague's greatest distraction, however, is that it is now one of Europe's most popular tourist destinations, and choked with summer crowds.You will find the most affordable accommodation in Nove Mesto and Smichov. The central district is full of places to eat, but you'll get much more for your crown in Nove Mesto than Stare Mesto.
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