|OFF the BEATEN TRACK|
Ceský Krumlov is one of Bohemia's most beautiful towns, with a well-preserved historical centre that was added, in 1992, to UNESCO's World Heritage List. The city's castle is the second largest in the Czech Republic, after Prague Castle, and it dominates the town from a hill overlooking a horseshoe-shaped bend of the Vltava river. The town's traffic-free historic centre is a magic area of narrow cobbled streets lined with Renaissance and Baroque facades. Half the townspeople dress in Renaissance costume to welcome the summer solstice with a procession, street theatre, mock duels and chess matches played with human pieces.
Picturesque but totally underrated, Mikulov and its castle sit precariously on a hill in the centre of the flat wine-growing region of Palava, a UNESCO-designated biospheric reservation. One of South Moravia's highlights, Mikulov has some very impressive monuments, but it should come as no surprise that Mikulov is most popular for its excellent white wines. It's very close to the border with Austria and is a perfect stop-off to or from Vienna.The castle, perched over the west side of the town, has been painstakingly restored after being burned by the Germans in WWII. The museum includes local archaeology and natural history, paintings and weapons, but the best displays are on regional folk traditions and wine making. In the cellar is the largest wine barrel in central Europe. Mikulov used to have a strong Jewish community and still has a synagogue, though it was damaged during WWII and neglected during Communist rule. There's also a 15th-century Jewish Cemetery. The town's main square has many Renaissance and Baroque houses and churches to linger over, including the town hall, the graffitoed Canon's Houses and the Dietrichstein Family Vault. Hiking enthusiasts will enjoy the good walks in the surrounding hills, with ruined castles and superb views of the Mikulov area.
For large, tranquil forests, largely unpolluted and undamaged by acid rain, you can't go past the Sumava Mountains, stretching for about 125km along the border with Austria and Germany. Although only one small patch, the Boubin Virgin Forest, is regarded as completely untouched, the Sumava's pristine state still makes it a unique asset. The only wildlife left behind by past hunting are birds, though deer have been re-introduced. Wildflowers abound throughout the range.The oldest mountains in the Czech Republic, the Sumava - actually two rounded ranges with high plains and moors between them - are ideal for walking or trekking, and although the mountainous terrain rules out cycling on most hiking trails, the many dirt roads are good for an adventurous and challenging ride. The mighty Vltava rises in the Sumava, as do five other major rivers. Two canals scar the region and there are five major lakes, so boating is not out of the question. Conditions are perfect for skiing and ski-touring.
This charming 13th-century town in South Moravia was originally founded as a settlement around a Romanesque church. During its rule by the lords of Hradec, from 1339 until the end of their line in 1604, a castle and ponds were built, and after a huge fire in 1530 most of the town's houses were rebuilt in Renaissance style. This architectural unity probably contributed to UNESCO's decision to add the little town (population 6000) to its world heritage list.Dominating the centre of town are the Renaissance castle, the towers of St James Church and the Baroque Holy Name of Jesus Church. Among the square's charming Renaissance houses, don't miss the town's smallest house in the south-east corner, an object lesson in the use of space. Heading north out of the square is a narrow lane to the old town's Small Gate. Southwards down towards the Great Gate is the imposing Romanesque Church of the Holy Spirit from the early 13th century.
At little Zlata Koruna (Gold Crown) above the Vltava you'll find one of the country's best preserved Gothic structures - a Cistercian Monastery, founded in 1263 by Premysl Otakar II to demonstrate his power in the region. The village's main square is actually built inside the monastery. Originally called the Saintly Crown of Thorns, in later wealthier days the monastery was renamed the Gold Crown (hence the town's name). In 1420 it was damaged by the Hussites, and later restored. The Monastery Cathedral, completed at the end of the 13th century, is clearly Gothic despite its facelift.For literary types, the mostly Gothic frescoed walled complex also houses a Museum of South Bohemian Literature, but equally interesting is the oldest part of the monastery, the vaulted chapterhouse and the Gothic church.
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