Loket, Czech Republic

The main reason most people will go anywhere near Loket, never mind into the place itself, is on a day-trip or a weekend break to the grand thermal spas of Karlovy Vary. These people comprise students on coach trips from Prague, Asian camera-tourists who would take a picture of a lamp-post if you told them it had cultural significance (and would probably capture the lamppost for posterity anyway, just in case it did), cheapskate German retirees driving over the border for cut-price spa treatments, and oil-rich Russians trying to show off to their mates. Most of the Germans and Russians wouldn’t be interested in Loket even if you told them about it.

I’m fairly sure intrepid backtracking sorts and Asian tourists (who in spite of my mocking, love a medieval castle and are attracted to beauty of all kinds) would be interested in the sequestered hill town of Loket, a gem in Czech Republic’s small unheralded borders.

It’s odd quite what people think Prague actually is, in relation to the wider country or whether the majority visiting realise Prague old town represents only the most grand expression of Bohemian and Gothic culture in the country, not simply all of it gathered in one place. For whatever reason, it’s not like France where everyone is bustling out to the small towns at their earliest opportunity. Hardly any bugger ventures out of the capital. And yet there are dozens of Czech towns which have some astoundingly beautiful aspects, usually a harmonious blend of architecture with the natural surroundings, which people simply never visit and Loket is one of them.

It’s annoying to think of the scores of French towns I’ve been dragged through (which had a modicum of civic pride but were otherwise nothing more than pleasant) when I could have been coming here.

Take a bus from Karlovy Vary’s bus station, an amusing step away from the grandeur in the centre to a windswept dilapidated depot on the other side of the river. Google-searching public transport to Loket might make you think there’s hardly any options available, but you’d be wrong. There’s a regular bus that passes through and will drop you off into Loket after about 25 minutes. The bus is a typically elderly machine, and the concern isn’t so much whether the seatbelts work as to whether the bus is going to fall apart entirely around you. The journey takes you on a cranky, rattling chug through a pleasant winding wooded road, without too much in the way of sweeping vistas, which I think is what makes the eventual reveal so impressive.

Loket’s situation, aesthetically as much as any other, could hardly be more idyllic. Over the crest of a hill the town is suddenly displayed below, sticking out from a promontory, the hill top dramatically facing a u-bend along the meandering River Ohre. Loket’s translation ‘Elbow’ makes the most sense from this position.

The medieval castle and arched bridge over the river makes for a most magnificent sight, complimented by the beautiful baroque and bohemian painted houses dotted around it.

After the grand reveal, your clapped out bus (and driver) deposits you near the gate into town, but be sure to take a five minute walk back up the hill to enjoy the view as it develops and the angles change, similar to Cesky Krumlov but on a smaller but perhaps even starker scale.

Loket is dominated by its castle, however, the castle in no way defines the place. You can enjoy a good couple of hours exploring the streets (all of which are interesting in their own ways) wandering back up and down the alley ways and taking in the sights. As with most Czech towns, the Namesti is a good place to start, with the requisite gnarled gothic centre piece, cobbled streets and wholly charming array of traditional townhouses lining the perimeter in a shell-like shape.

The castle itself could hardly be avoided though, and you’ll find it decent value as the museum uses the space of the buildings well, giving you both an idea of its use, plenty of vantage points and exhibits. Don’t forget to look down the cellar for the castle’s pet dragon, one of the more strangely pathetic sights on my last trip.

With the hills and forests around, you will find yourself most enjoying Loket as part of a trek, and luckily there are so many trails that you can tailor this to fit your own needs and limitations. Most of them have a deal of vantage points, and the local environment has a calmness that you’ll find most relaxing. Although the place is small, there’s no reason simply to stay for a day given the natural amenities in the area allow for quite a lot of exploration.

Don’t leave Loket unless you’ve walked the perimeter of the interior and exterior and decided which spot is your favourite!

At some point thoughts inevitably turn to food and drink, and a further feather in Loket’s cap is the brewery Pivovar Svaty Florian, located in the centre of town itself and attached to a hotel. They have a cellar-style Pivnice which is servicable for a trip of this kind, and will pour you a degustation so you can try the various beers. Don’t leave before trying their delicious ‘Special’ beer, a strong concoction similar to a Bock. In addition to this you can order the traditional hearty pub grub to wash it down with.

If you want a more straightforward drinking option try the hospoda U Gardnera, a really no-nonsense locals place that won’t be heaving with tourists and will guarantee you a good beer at a good price.

One slight regret is that a beautiful Victorian chain bridge was destroyed and replaced with the new rather grey one, which although elegant at a distances becomes gradually duller and less impressive as you get closer. There also seems to be a rather unnecessary enormity about it.

Loket_retezovy

There are always regrets, though, such is life.

All things considered, Loket could be half as beautiful as it is currently and still be many times more beautiful than most places. If you aren’t able to visit the extraordinary Czech town Cesky Krumlov on your next visit to the country, but can visit Karlovy Vary, you can come to Loket. Visiting Loket will give you a starter-sized portion for what’s in store. A dramatic gem hidden away in a valley, shrouded with trees as though to cover its modesty, and with an element of romantic timelessness that will stay with you forever.

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